Are You Risking Small Business Burnout?

You’re working hard.  You’re working smart.  You’re the consummate entrepreneur taking calculated risks.  The problem is you’re not seeing results.  Sure, you’re not starving, and your rent is paid, but you know that you could work half as hard for someone else and make twice as much money.  You’re exhausted, and you’re wondering if you shouldn’t throw in the towel and do something different.  Are you just tired, or is it something more serious like burnout?

What is Burnout?

Though definitions vary, most people agree that burnout is characterized by exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy.  If you’re saying “check” to each of these in your head, you may be there.  However, small business owners are naturally exhausted, because they’re always trying to grow and make the business stronger.  They’re naturally cynical of politicians who claim they’re good for small business and vendors who say they’ve got a handle on their delivery problem.

More importantly, it’s hard to look at the end-of-year numbers and wonder if you’re doing the right thing.  Sure, the numbers can look good – very good – but sometimes the numbers don’t look good.  You start trying to do the math on what your hourly rate is, since most small business owners don’t clock out at 5 PM.  You can absolutely look at the financials at the end of the year and wonder if you’re effective at growing the business and making something you can leave for your family or sell, so you have a retirement.  In short, it’s hard to feel effective.

Feelings of Inefficacy

If you own a small business, you are necessarily an optimist.  According to The Bureau of Labor Statistics, 20% of businesses fail in their first year, 30% in their second year, 50% fail after five years, and 70% in ten years.  Those are the kind of terrible odds you get from a bookie and not from Las Vegas.  Yet, year after year, organizations start and struggle to survive, because they believe they can be the one to make it to big money, freedom, respect, and whatever else they want.

What happens in our heads when we are just barely scraping by?  What happens when one day we wake up, and even though the business is in business, we’re not successful?  What happens when we feel like we’re never going to make it?  It’s that moment when we don’t feel effective that we lose hope, and far too many businesses give up.


In the end analysis, burnout is a belief that we’re not effective – and we may never be effective.  Recovering from burnout is about viewing our efficacy differently.  Instead of lamenting about the fact that we’re not raking in the money, perhaps it’s time to hold a party, because we survived our first, second, fifth, or tenth year of business.  Instead of being disappointed that we didn’t double our sales numbers, maybe we can be grateful that we’re still in business when two of our competitors have had to close their doors.

Too often, we move the goal post on ourselves.  It’s not enough to survive, we’ve got to branch out, expand, hire employees, and win new contracts.  It’s not enough to make what we’d make working for someone else; we’ve got to make double that.

Even if we have to say we’re not being effective today, we can’t say that we’ll never be effective.  Think about Walmart and Chick-Fil-A, both of which grew out of small businesses and took decades to hit their growth curve.

Four Things to Do Today

Another view of burnout makes it easier to take specific actions to escape its grip.  The Bathtub Model of personal agency views your ability to get things done (personal agency) as a bathtub that is filled by results, support, self-care and is drained by the demands that are placed on you.  Burnout is when you feel like your personal agency bathtub is empty.

Based on this model, here are four things you can do to reduce the probability of burnout or recover once you’re there:

  1. Recognize the results you are getting.  Too often as small business owners, we fail to recognize what we are getting accomplished.
  2. Seek out support.  Being a small business owner can feel like you’re alone on an island with no one to support you.  However, other small business owners are facing the same challenges.  Ask for support from your peers to talk through your challenges and brainstorm solutions.
  3. Do self-care.  If there’s one thing business owners are bad at, it’s self-care.  Don’t ignore hydrating, eating right, exercising, and getting good sleep.  If you can’t take care of yourself, you can’t take care of others.
  4. Manage your demands.  Not everything has to be done today or done by us personally.  Prioritize the things that must happen and relentlessly work on delegating the things that you don’t have to do.

If you work at it, you can recognize that you are making progress, and you can stay out of burnout.

The Role of Stress in Burnout

More than one author has drawn a straight line between stress and burnout, but the journey from stress to burnout isn’t a straight line.  It’s a winding road that includes stressors, appraisal, and the fundamentals of burnout.

Understanding Stress

Before we can explain the effects of stress on burnout, we need to more fully comprehend what stress actually is.  Most people know that the long-term impacts of stress are bad, and we should avoid long-term stress.  But few people understand how stress is formed or how our brain makes decisions about stress.

The first component to understand is that there are stressors in our environment, and we sometimes self-generate stressors.  These are things that, in a direct or very indirect way, impact our ability to survive.  Whether it’s the lion observed in the grass, concerns about how to pay the mortgage, or fretting about which school our child will get into, these stressors are very broadly aligned with our ability to survive and keep our genes alive.

A stressor does not necessarily result in stress.  Other than the initial startle response when we hear a loud noise or see something that appears threatening, there’s a longer process that happens when we appraise the stressor and decide whether the stressor matters.  We may be startled to see the lion but recognize it’s not a threat, because it’s in a cage, or we’re in a car.  This appraisal process is key to preventing – or causing – a stressor to become stress.  If we appraise the situation as high risk, and we don’t think we have the resources or protections we need, then the stressor becomes a stress.

Physiologically, stress is like a payday loan.  It’s very costly and high interest, but sometimes it’s what you must do to survive.  Stress more or less shuts down all long-term investments in digestion, immune response, and so forth.  This allows for focused energy to confront the stressor but costs more in terms of illness, digestive problems, and sheer energy to get things going again.

Understanding the Relationship to Burnout

Burnout is exhaustion, cynicism, and feelings of inefficacy.  Burnout comes when we feel like we’re not getting the kinds of results we expect, and we therefore feel ineffective.  Burnout comes from many aspects of our lives, including work, family, and social situations.

So, while stress doesn’t directly cause burnout, the constant need to sideline important long-term investments and the additional cost of restarting them causes friction against our ability to accomplish our goals.  This is the driver that increases the probability of burnout.

Our expectations of our efficacy stay the same, but our actual long-term performance decreases.  That gap causes burnout, as we believe we’re less effective than we should be.

Resolving Burnout

If you’re facing burnout that is caused, at least in part, by stress, then there are a few ways you can make it better.  The first is to evaluate the stressors in your world and determine what you would need to do to appraise them as not a threat and therefore not triggering stress in the first place.

Second, you can adjust your expectations to be more aligned with the reality of the stressors that you’re facing.  It’s unrealistic to expect that you’ll be able to perform at your best if you’re constantly fighting off stressors.

Escaping Burnout When You Don’t Have Control

When you’re in burnout, you feel stuck.  Burnout is defined by exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy.  In our bathtub model of burnout, we say that your personal agency “bathtub” is filled by results, support, and self-care.  It’s drained by the demands you place on yourself and the demands of others.  While it’s sometimes hard to ask for support, most folks feel positively powerless to address the demands placed upon them.  The demands feel external and outside of our control.

External Demands

While we believe that our demands are external, when we examine them closer, we find that, for most of us, the demands we have are largely internal, with only a small component of external influence.  Take, for instance, the “need” to do a thorough cleaning of the house before friends come over.  If your friends are coming over to see how well that you clean your house, perhaps you need new friends.  However, most of us learned this habit from our parents (more likely, our mom), who cleaned the house like mad before their friends came over.  We caught the expectation that you must have a pristine house for friends – but is that an external demand or an internal one?

What about the need to answer the phone when it rings?  If you were brought up in a certain generation, you believe that you must answer a ringing phone.  However, if you were brought up in a different generation, you’ll might ignore the ringing phone and text them back at some time later.  Despite the urge, it’s not necessary to answer a ringing phone.

These demands seem like they’re external and acted upon us, but we have control of how we choose to respond to the external stimulus.

Choosing Responses

Invariably, there is someone that explains how they don’t have control of the situation.  Their child needs picked up from school and taken to soccer practice.  Ignoring for the moment that your child doesn’t have to go to soccer practice, who is to say you must be the one who picks them up or drops them off?

Sure, you have obligations and expectations to not neglect your child.  However, that isn’t to say you can’t organize a handful of soccer moms and run a carpool.  The truth is the child will probably like it better – and so will the other parents.  When people explain that they don’t have control, they’re really saying they don’t have control of the external events.  That’s true to some extent, but that doesn’t mean you must accept the standard answers.

Whatever the situation, you’ve got an expectation of how you should – or must – respond.  However, there are often other alternatives that meet the true requirements – but that don’t require the same amount of effort from you.


The truth is that control is an illusion.  No one ever really has control of someone or something else.  There may be strong influence, but there’s no such thing as controlling something or someone else.  While this is initially difficult to accept, it makes it easier to understand that you don’t need control of the situation to be able to influence it in ways that are consistent with your desires – and your need to do self-care for yourself.

The key to burnout is breaking free of the perception of inefficacy.  The more you realize you have influence on your world, the less burnout will be able to maintain its grip on you.  If you can realize that you’re making an impact on your world – and on the world of those you care about – the quicker you’ll get out of burnout.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Post-Traumatic Growth

Nurses and other emergency responders see some of the worst that humanity has to offer.  Whether the trauma is caused by a natural event or human cruelty, the impact cannot be overstated.  When you experience a trauma first- or second-hand through working with those who are injured, and you see awful things, your mind and body experience it as stress, which can either trap someone in a cycle of stress or create an opportunity for growth.

What is Stress?

Stress at the right time and in the right amount is a very helpful thing.  It helped our ancestors focus their available resources into the immediate moment to escape lions on the plains of Africa.  It’s our body’s way of shutting down long-term investments to address immediate and pressing needs.  Stress is what happens when our brain perceives a threat to our survival.

The problem is that our brains overuse the stress response.  Instead of being limited to predators, we use it when we worry about our job, our mortgage, our kids, or a thousand other things that aren’t an immediate threat, but we perceive as threatening.  Our minds make no distinction between what is imagined or envisioned and what is real when it comes to the activation of the stress.  We’ll get our heart racing during an action movie or a good book even though we’re personally in no danger.

Seeing the Worst

Seeing the worst humanity has to offer is stressful to us.  It’s stressful, because it punches through the defenses of our ego and makes us realize how vulnerable we are.  If this can happen to someone else, it can happen to us – or someone we love.  Losing someone we love is a stressful event because we must reorient ourselves to whether we can survive without that person.  Either way, seeing someone else be harmed can be perceived as a threat to our survival.

What is sometimes called secondary PTSD or secondary traumatic stress (STS) is an expression of our stress at perceiving someone else’s continued suffering.  It creates a stress on us through our ability to imagine ourselves in their circumstances.

Most people are only familiar with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and the challenges it creates.  However, there’s another possible outcome from stress, which we’ve all experienced to some degree, called post-traumatic growth.

Post-Traumatic Growth

We’ve all experienced forms of post-traumatic growth.  When we exercise, our muscles respond to the trauma by rebuilding themselves stronger.  Martin Seligman in Flourish explains that 90% of West Point cadets he surveyed were aware of PTSD, which he describes as relatively uncommon, while only 10% were aware of post-traumatic growth, which is more common (Seligman, 2011).

Most growth processes require some sort of trauma to kick them off.  The trick is that there must be a capacity to grow from the trauma, which requires that the trauma be the right kind, in the right amount, and at the right time.  Too little, and we take no action; too much, and we can’t recover; too frequent, and we don’t have time to rebuild before the next trauma.  Nassim Taleb wrote Antifragile to explain post-traumatic growth.  It’s all about how to grow from trauma instead of break (Taleb, 2014).

Post-Traumatic Stress

When people are subjected to the wrong kind of trauma, at the wrong amount, or at the wrong time, it creates a lasting sometimes even permanent impression.  It shapes the way people respond to the normal, everyday “slings and arrows” that we all face.  Those with PTSD respond more intensely to threats – in effect, they’re constantly being bombarded by their brain telling them they’re vulnerable.  It seems that patients with PTSD have a hippocampus that is overly sensitive (Sapolsky, 2004). The solution to clinical PTSD is to work on downregulating that sensitivity.

Learned Control

In the 1960s Martin Seligman and his colleagues including Steven Maier published on a concept they described as learned helplessness (Seligman, Maier, & Geer, 1968).  The dogs were conditioned with mild shocks and no way to escape.  When they were later put in a position they could escape, they wouldn’t even try.  Decades later, Steven Maier and his colleagues utilized fMRI to discover that it wasn’t learned helplessness at all (Maier & Seligman, 2016).  Helplessness is the default condition.  Instead, we learned a degree of control, and this downregulated the sense of panic when confronted with a stressor.

Albert Bandura was famous for his desensitization training which he used to effectively cure patients with phobias.  The patients were placed in safe conditions and were moved psychologically closer and closer to their fears – while maintaining the perception of safety and discovering their self-efficacy (Bandura, 1977).

Stress and the Stressor

Most of us view stress as the outcome of the environment.  We experience stressors in the environment, and we assess those stressors in terms of their capacity to harm us and our capacity to overcome or compensate for them.  It’s only when we perceive that the stressor will exceed or stretch our capacity to cope that they’ll convert into stress (Lazarus, 1994).

As we seek to better manage our stress, we need to apprehend our assessment of the stressors and evaluate their capacity to truly harm us and our resources for compensating.  The more we can focus our assessment on our own capacity and the support we receive from others, the less stress we’ll feel and the more likely it will be that we’ll experience growth rather than developing a disorder.


Bandura, A. (1977). Social Learning Theory. New York: Prentice-Hall.

Lazarus, R. (1994). Emotion and Adaptation. New York : Oxford University Press.

Maier, S., & Seligman, M. (2016). Learned Helpless at Fifty: Insights from Neuroscience. Psychological Review, 123(4), 349-367.

Sapolsky, R. (2004). Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. New York: Henry Holt and Company.

Seligman, M. (2011). Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being. New York: Free Press A Division of Simon & Schuster.

Seligman, S. F., Maier, S. F., & Geer, J. (1968). The Alleviation of Learned Helplessness in Dogs. Journal of Abnormal Psychology(73), 256-262.

Taleb, N. N. (2014). Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder. New York: The Random House Publishing Group.

Getting Help Instead of Burned Out

No one wants to end up in burnout, but it seems like everyone does at some point in their lives.  While there are some factors, we have limited control of, the one that seems like we have the least influence on is actually one we can influence the most.

Burnout is defined by, of course, exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy.  Our bathtub model for burnout explains that our lack of personal agency, our belief that we can impact change, defines burnout.  We fill our bathtub with results, support, and self-care, and it’s drained by the demands we place on ourselves and others place on us.

At a glance, it would seem like self-care would be easiest to control, but many of us find that our beliefs about self-care are deeply rooted and therefore difficult to change.  Strangely, avoiding burnout can be as simple as asking for help.

You’re Not Weak

The first objection to asking for help is the perception that, if you ask for help, you’re weak.  We’ve got the notion that the American West was won by lone cowboys, who crossed the plains with only their rifle, six-shooter, and trusty steed.  However, nothing could be further from the truth.  We conquered the American West with wagon trains and families that bonded together to help each other out and protect themselves from the rugged terrain.

We became the dominant organism on the planet not because of our individual skills but rather because we had the ability to band together and help each other.  Humans literally need each other to survive.  We’ve always needed each other to survive.  Asking for help is acknowledging who we are as a species.

Being Told No

The second most prevalent concern is, “What if they tell me no?”  It’s a real concern, but, at the same time, you’ll never know if you don’t ask.  With no action, you’ll get no help.  By asking someone, they can say “yes.”  If they do say “yes,” you may wonder if you have to say “yes” whenever they ask – but it doesn’t work that way.  If you can help them, great.  If you can’t help, you can say “no” – just like they can.

Don’t Even Ask

Sometimes folks don’t even want to ask for help.  “They should just know I need help” doesn’t work.  We’re all distracted, overwhelmed, and consumed by other things.  It’s not fair to expect that someone else will be constantly monitoring you to see if you need something.  Many misunderstandings have started with “You should have known,” only to be crushed by the weight of “But how could I have?”

More Help

The reality of most people’s worlds is that they have more than enough people who are willing to help them if they’re willing to ask directly and specifically for what they need.  Where we get into trouble is making vague requests the other person can’t interpret or asking a large group of people, in which everyone feels like someone else will respond.  If you want to get out of burnout, it’s time to get past the concern about being weak and make specific requests to get what you need to succeed.

Overcoming Burnout on Take the Lead Radio

We, Rob and Terri, recorded a podcast with Dr. Diane Hamilton on Take the Lead Radio. In it, we share how people get burned out and offer advice and tips to avoid it. We also talk about our book, Extinguish Burnout, and talk about how to identify what might be silently burning you out and what to do about them.

You can listen to the full podcast here: