Confessions of an Entrepreneur: Business Owner Burnout
June 24, 2020 | By Mark Zweig
Something that is often covered by the business media and frequently discussed around the conference table is employee burnout.
Businesses know it is very costly to them because of the resulting turnover and lost productivity. But what about business owner burnout?
It’s real, too, and it’s a big problem.
As someone who teaches entrepreneurship and small enterprise management at the Sam M. Walton College of Business, one of the assignments my students do every year is a consulting project where they work with an actual small business to help the owner or owners increase revenues, increase profits, reduce risk and increase the value of the business. I have learned a great deal about more than a thousand small businesses through these student projects.
I have also worked as a management consultant to the architecture and engineering industry for most of my working career. The company I founded in 1988 — Zweig Group — became the largest management consulting and business research firm serving the A/E industry.
There, I worked closely with the owners of literally a couple thousand or more privately-held companies over the years and our firm worked with thousands more.
What I have learned through all of this is burnout amongst business owners is probably much more common than most people think. You can see the signs of burnout when the owners lose interest in their companies. They feel powerless. They are depressed. They may develop relationship problems with their spouses and business partners. They are demotivated. They disengage from the business, and in the most severe cases, from life.
Sometimes, they shut the doors and never come back.
How can successful people who own and run their own businesses — living the “American Dream” by most any standard — people who are theoretically are in control of their own destinies — burn out? There are many contributors. Here are some of the drivers that I have observed over the years:
- They are workaholics.
- Their self-image is completely tied to the business.
- They are control freaks who can’t delegate.
- They have failed at management/leadership transition.
- They got into the wrong business in the first place.
- Life changing events forced them to reevaluate all of their priorities.
- Their business and work were hurting their personal relationships.
- The demands of the business no longer meet the needs of their lifestyle.
- They are tired of dealing with employees, suppliers and customers.
- They come to the realization that making more money and acquiring more stuff is no longer gratifying.
- They may want to devote their lives to something different or more meaningful.
Workaholics may get a lot done — for a while. The problem is their entire life revolves around their job. And when something bad happens at work, their whole world is shattered.
Their history has been one of accomplishment after accomplishment, and success after success, and any failure or setback can be devastating. That can lead to instant burnout.
In the A/E business in particular, but others as well, often the firms bear the name or names of their owners. Their ego is directly hitched to the success of the enterprise. Even if the name of the business is not that of the owner(s), they are known in their communities as the business owners and their identities are linked.
Any bad news, bad press, failure or public setback has the potential to be tremendously demotivational.
This will almost always lead to burnout because everything goes through the owner. Owners can never get away from businesses because they don’t trust anyone else to do anything properly. They usually end up with a crew of paralyzed “yes” people — or worse— no one working for them.
And when you are trapped by your own business you feel powerless to do anything but react. This can lead to burnout.
See my comments above. The inability to trust and delegate is the major contributor here. Also, some small business owners never hire anyone with this potential because they won’t invest money in good people. And when they do have someone who could possibly do the job, they won’t get out of the way enough to let them do it. This leads to burnout.
A lot of small business owners — if honest with themselves — will tell you this. They may have inherited their business. Or perhaps they got pushed into it somehow reluctantly by a parent or spouse. Or maybe they got into it because they thought it would be lucrative.
The reasons are irrelevant. What is relevant, however, is their lack of real passion and interest in the business. And that leads to burnout when you are only doing it because you think you have to. Or just for the money.
Oftentimes, business owners who suffer the death of a family member or get divorced or go through a painful recession that requires a lot of tough calls decide they want to live the rest of their days differently. That may not include spending their time and attention on a business like the one they own.
And that creates a lot of potential for burnout.
I’ve done this several times in my life. I won’t say that alone was the cause of two failed marriages in my case, but it was certainly a contributor. As entrepreneurs, we often overcommit at the expense of our families. Not to mention being glued to a computer or phone when we are at home in the evenings or on weekends.
It all leads to unhappiness and that leads to burnout.
I always caution my students when they tell me that they want to own a bar or restaurant that the work hours required to keep that business going may not be an issue when they are young and have no other commitments but could be a real problem for them later when they have a spouse and family.
This doesn’t just apply to bars and restaurants. I was in a consulting business where I had to travel pretty much every week and missed a lot at home. Many people don’t really think about what success in that business means when they start or buy a business. It can all lead to burnout.
I was talking with a business owner friend of mine the other day — he’s very successful and has been for a long, long time. I think he is typical. But instead of worrying about how he can meet his seven-figure payroll in the midst of the virus-induced meltdown of his business, he’s preoccupied with two good people in one of his ventures who don’t get along.
Not to mention non-performing suppliers or subcontractors who created big problems, along with difficult clients or customers who cannot be pleased or who abuse the businesses’ employees and demotivate them. These people problems are so common and unquestionably can lead to burnout.
We all only need houses that are so large, and none of us can drive more than one car at a time. We can only go out to eat seven nights a week and go on vacation so often. Sometimes business owners begin to feel trapped by all their stuff because it costs so much and takes so much of their limited time to maintain. This happens to business owners more often than many realize.
Material success is only one part of life. Buying stuff can be boring and unfulfilling.
After we achieve a certain amount of material success (and that varies by person), we may decide that self-actualization (remember “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs?”) is our motivator. It could be a desire to go on a mission or to start or lead a non-profit or the desire to teach others that takes over.
But if the business owner is stuck with their business or businesses, they cannot pursue these other interests. That leads to burnout.
I have always said that both the best thing and worst thing about owning your own business is you have no boss. You should have a lot of freedom because of that. But it often doesn’t work out that way. The business can become a trap you can’t get out of.
And when that happens, there’s no one you can turn in your notice to!