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July 15th, 2019

How to deal with burnout as a small business owner


Burnout is a mental state that has grown in awareness over recent years. Mayo Clinic describes it as “a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity.” While burnout can occur in many areas of a person’s life, it’s often thought of as a work-related issue.

Gallup recently surveyed 7,500 full-time employees on the subject. They found that 23 percent of employees reported feeling burned out at work very often or always. An additional 44 percent reported feeling burned out sometimes. This has real effects on people’s work output and overall happiness. Workers with burnout feel lower satisfaction, more stress, and less desire to complete tasks.

Burnout and small businesses

Although burnout is common in the corporate world, it also impacts small businesses. Larger businesses can more easily cover for an employee when they take a break to recover. That can be challenging for a small business. It’s even more difficult when the person suffering from burnout is the owner of that small business.

We spoke with a small business owner that has experienced burnout. He’s recovered several times over the last two decades and returned to work reinspired.

Ben Sobaje, owner of Nerd by Night

Ben Sobaje owns Nerd by Night, an IT contracting and network engineering company of six in Santa Cruz, California. Their clients range from homeowners to mid-sized companies across the San Francisco Bay Area. As an IT contracting business, there are often urgent situations that clients need to be addressed quickly. As the owner, Ben often finds himself in the middle of these client crises.

Ben’s experienced the feeling of burnout many times since setting up his business in 2005. But instead of recovering, he says he often just keeps working through burnout. Early on it was just him, so there was no other option. Now that his company has grown – and he’s become more self-aware – he’s better able to handle burnout.

Getting to the breaking point

At a job earlier this year, Ben had spent several days and nights working on a challenging client project. It was a big job, and he was nearly finished with the work. Arriving on the last morning at the client’s office to finish, he found an employee of the client had gotten involved overnight and made changes to his work. After surveying the situation, Ben realized the changes would add several hours to the project. He was upset and frustrated. 

After giving himself some space – by taking a break in his car – he finished the work and completed the job. But something was wrong. He felt resentment towards a great client. They hadn’t done anything wrong, it was the rogue employee, but he harbored the resentment.

It wasn’t just this client though. He felt his heart rate increase whenever he received a client phone call or email. Work wasn’t bringing him the joy it used to. Doing his work was becoming more difficult, and it was easy to feel overwhelmed. Ben knew it was time to make some changes. The signs and symptoms of burnout were back.

Taking a break

Since he’d dealt with burnout in the past, he made it a priority to hire employees he could trust in his absence. With the recent incident, it was time to deputize one of his employees and take a break. That employee would be responsible for decision-making while Ben was on break.

With the plan in place, Ben deleted his email app from his phone. He set up a voicemail message that told clients to call the main office. Taking these steps were scary. This was the first time he’d been unreachable to clients since starting his business.

The first weekend of his break was productive – he spent it in his woodshop building tables and milling wood. Woodworking is one of his passions outside of work, so he loved getting back in touch with his hobby.

He also stopped drinking and focused on improving his health. Years of constant work took a hard toll on his health. He knew getting into shape was an essential part of his recovery.

His break lasted two months and finished with a relaxing trip to Mexico with his wife. During the trip, he came to the realization he was ready to get back to work. His desire was back, and the burnout was over.

Getting back to work

Back at work, Ben’s chosen to prioritize his mental health needs – and those of his employees – over business needs. Talking openly about stress and anxiety has been helpful for his team. This has had another positive side effect – increased trust. With more trust and team spirit, they all are working better together.

But Ben knows breaks will continue to be an important part of avoiding burnout in the future. His hope is true breaks over the weekend will be sufficient, but he’s prepared for longer ones as well. Disconnecting is the key, no matter how long it takes.

How you can take a break

Ben has advice for others experiencing small business owner burnout and want to take a break. “The key is saving and living beneath your means. This is the foundation of it all.”

He encourages more weekend breaks with no work interruptions. You don’t have to do a 2-month break. “Take a real vacation and disconnect. Build a support system to enable you to be able to do this.”

Do you feel burnout in your life? Hopefully, Ben’s story helps you understand it’s common, and there are ways to cope. The changes can be small or large, but the key is doing something.

Have an interesting story about a small business in your life? We’d love to hear from you and feature it in a future article.

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