The first warning sign was that I avoided walking through my home office in the morning. A tight, clenching in my stomach every time I thought about turning on my computer was another. Feeling a heavy, smothering blanket of dread descend each morning after my family left was the third.
How did this happen? I’ve been self-employed for 14 years. I was working remotely before most of the world even thought that was possible. But still, there it was.
Burnout is a bad companion. Like the person you get smushed up against on the overcrowded bus who reeks of onions and B.O. Or the friend in grade school that suddenly stopped your game of tag on the playground, announcing with a pointed finger that you had cooties when the cool kids came around.
There’s been a lot of talk in the media in the past year about the Great Resignation — the exodus of millions of workers who no longer cared enough about their salary or compensation packages to stay in unfulfilling careers.
But what about us solopreneurs — the accountants, writers, videographers, app designers, and website builders — who don’t have the luxury of giving up our jobs, even when we’re burned out? Especially when we’re burned out. When being creative pays your bills burnout is especially scary.
So what do you do when you fantasize about resigning but can’t? How do you recuperate? And how can you be sure what you’re dealing with is burnout at all, and not depression or situational anxiety brought on by months of living in the midst of a pandemic?
Are You Burned Out? Here are 5 Ways to Tell
The “Employee Burnout Report” (March 2021) by Indeed found that 52 percent of respondents felt burned out. Additionally, 67 percent of those surveyed felt that burnout had increased during the pandemic.
Dictionary.com defines burnout as “physical or mental collapse caused by overwork or stress”. But, you may argue, I’m not at the collapsing stage. Does that still mean you’re burned out?
5 Key Signs You're Burned Out (Or On Your Way There)
1. Overwhelm When I first started to notice that I felt overwhelmed nearly every workday, a little alarm bell went off in my head. I’d been here before. Overwhelm might look different to you than it did to me.
We are all different people with different experiences. Here are some common symptoms though: feeling helpless, like life is swirling you into its vortex; the sensation that no matter what you do you can never get ahead; fatigue, frustration, and possibly anger at yourself for feeling all of these things.
2. Withdrawal -- Not wanting to participate in activities you usually enjoy could be a sign you’re in burnout. For me, it usually shows up in not wanting to be around people — any people. I cancel friend dates or murmur that I’m “just too busy right now” to schedule coffee or a walk.
Other symptoms might include watching extended amounts of television, playing video games, or reading for hours and hours on end. You might find you suddenly can’t bear to go to the gym. Scheduling a date for a movie or dinner out seems like too much of an effort so you don’t.
3. Over or Under Emotional -- Being overly emotional isn’t new to me. I’m a cry-er by nature. I tend to think of it as a good way to release built-up pressure. But if you’re crying every day at your computer or find that you feel numb inside when it’s time to work it could be burnout.
4. Goalless -- Some of us like making goals and working toward them more than others. Chances are that as a solopreneur you enjoy setting some type of goals. Whether you’ve been a consistent goal-maker or not if the idea of creating goals in your work makes you feel itchy, or worse, further numbs you, you may be in the throes of burnout.
And if the idea of working in your business for the next three to five years makes you want to run screaming from the house, sound the alarm.
5. Getting sick -- Frequent illnesses are often a sign of a weakened immune system. An article by WebMD says: “Stress is everywhere. And while a little stress is OK — some stress is actually beneficial — too much stress can wear you down and make you sick, both mentally and physically.”
If you’re frequently coming down with colds, flu, or just feeling like you’re constantly “not right” physically, it could be a sign of burnout.
Please note: I’m not a therapist or medical professional. All of these signs of burnout are simply things I’ve experienced myself or know by talking to others who’ve gone through it.
Burnout: Circling, Cycling, or Caught?
Looking at the symptoms above, you’re pretty sure you are in burnout. The question is, where do you fall? Are you circling burnout (pre-burnout), cycling into burnout (nearly there), or caught in burnout (arrived)?
Several years ago, a new Krispy Kreme went into a town my husband and I liked to visit. We were ecstatic — we’d never been to one but had heard all kinds of wonderful things about the light-as-air sugary delights.
Unfortunately, when we arrived, the line for the drive-thru went around the building, down the driveway, and back up to the road. There was no way we were waiting that long for a donut. Who cared if it tasted, as comedian Tim Hawkins once said, “Like eating a little baby angel”.
When you’re circling burnout you’re like us looking at that line. You can still choose — even though it might be hard — to get out of line. You can assess the danger (or disappointment) and make a plan.
When you’re cycling into burnout though, it’s like you’ve entered the two-mile-long line and are boxed in. You can’t reverse because there’s a car really close to your bumper. You can’t go to the right because of the cement poles guiding the way to the drive-thru.
Still, it’s not entirely hopeless. You could get out and ask the driver behind you to back up a little and the one behind her and the one further back. You might be able to negotiate a similar deal with the cars in front of you, especially if you offer $20 to each driver for another dozen donuts. It would be challenging but doable.
Caught in burnout though? That’s a different story. This article, “10 Tips to Cure Burnout and Enjoy Life Again” offers some great ideas.
For solopreneurs who don’t have the “luxury” of a Great Resignation but are on the cusp of burnout, the following may help.
One of the things I realized as I was entering the cycling stage of burnout was that fun was seriously lacking in my life. Everything I did had a purpose, a desired outcome. Even when I wasn’t working, I focused on getting things finished around the house, improving my relationships, or volunteering at my church.
None of these are bad things. But they all took mental energy and attention. They all took part of ME.
What else could I do in my free time, just for fun? One thing that came immediately to mind was playing games on my tablet. I like this jewel game where the noise of the jewels clicking together before they “pop!” and disappear is incredibly satisfying. I like playing solitaire on there too, and yes, even some word games.
What do you like to do just for fun and without purpose? TV is okay, but not the best outlet because it’s passive. Anything else you can think of? Video games, reading “fluffy” stuff, taking bubble baths, going on a beer crawl with a friend, a game of racquetball, and learning about the intricacies of Victorian death rituals all fit the bill.
Cut yourself as much slack as you can in other areas as well. If you cook 90 percent of your meals from scratch, could you buy some packaged meals? If you have the money, hire a housekeeper to come once a week or twice a month. Exhausted by the side hustle on top of your regular business? Let it go for a while.
Lower your expectations.
Let yourself relax.
Hopefully one or more of these tips will help keep you from spinning into burnout. But as a veteran survivor of burnout, I can tell you that it might not. Remember though: If you’re strong enough to build your own business from the ground up, you’re strong enough to handle this, too.
Joy specializes in writing simple, clear content for busy business owners and nonprofit execs. Learn more about her services or get in touch to discuss your project and free up time today. What you do with it is up to you!