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Boss burnout: Spot warning signs in yourself

As a small business owner or manager, it’s important to keep an eye on your stress levels. Learn to spot warning signs and pick up tips to improve your wellbeing. Your health and happiness — and your business — will benefit.

The stress of uncertain times

Operating in uncertain times is stressful — even if you relish change and new ways of doing things. For example, no matter how COVID-19 affected your business, good and bad, it posed a mental wellbeing challenge.

For many, there was the added financial stress of reduced or uncertain earnings. And some business people faced cutting jobs or closing altogether. This takes an emotional toll, and takes away social connections forged at work.

“We’ve had to change the way we do things. COVID-19 has challenged our sense of how the world works, how our careers go, how our relationships go,” says Lisa Ducat, workplace wellbeing specialist at Mental Health Foundation.

“It’s been a full-on impact on the three areas that keep us well: feeling good, functioning well, feeling connected to others.”

Business impact

When it comes to wellbeing checks, you might be focused on your staff and loved ones outside work. But it’s equally important to check on yourself.

It’s common for small business owners to wear many hats, to juggle multiple tasks and responsibilities, to work long hours. Even if you’re used to doing this and doing it well, it’s harder in uncertain times. Even before the pandemic hit, 80% of business owners reported feeling isolated in a survey by Business Mentors New Zealand. All this adds to stress.

“Business owners are used to seeking business-orientated support from an accountant or IT expert. You get support to keep business going,” says Ducat. “Remember you are the business. Your health and wellbeing are your business’s biggest resource.”

On a scale from minor impact to major, most people will be somewhere in the middle, says Ducat. Most will benefit from “psychological first aid” to ease stress before it escalates to burnout. This might mean adding exercise or fresh air to your day, problem-solving with others, or connecting with people you care about. If you are suffering from extreme stress, seek professional help.

Ducat recommends making space to reflect. And she warns against “toxic positivity” — feeling forced to only talk about the positive and resisting negative or difficult experiences.

“Our feelings are our feelings. They give you important information,” says Ducat. “Ignoring feelings you don’t like may hinder problem solving. Toxic positivity will also stop others from feeling safe talking to you about what they are struggling with.”

Instead, consider the pros and cons of what you’re going through. “This might be saying to yourself ‘yes it’s difficult AND I’m upset AND I got through it’,” says Ducat.

“It’s a balancing act. Knowing it’s awful. Knowing we have limited control. Recognising you managed to shift your business operations and lifestyle at short notice. Thinking about new possibilities now life isn’t going how you thought it would.”

Signs of stress

Warning signs may include:

  • changes to sleeping patterns
  • hard to make decisions
  • feeling impatient or grumpy
  • losing confidence
  • losing interest in loved ones or in your work, favourite pastimes, or in people you care about
  • indigestion or stomach pain.

Are you experiencing any of those warning signs now? Or have you noticed warning signs recently? If yes — or if you think it’s possible — it’s time to take steps to ease stress and prevent burnout.

The Mental Health Foundation defines burnout as exhaustion (emotional and physical) + cynicism + reduced sense of accomplishment (low morale, self-esteem, lower coping ability).

How do you measure success?

Financial performance is a key measure business owners use to determine their success. For some business owners, success isn’t only financial. They include other measures when considering how well they are doing.

These include how much free time they may have to do the things they enjoy, how their business positively impacts their community or how environmentally-friendly their business is.

More to it than money

Meet an owner-operator who speaks about how the pressure to succeed financially brought him to the point of burn-out. Find out how a re-evaluation of what it means to succeed has had a positive impact – not only on his mental health, but his employees and family.

[Audio: Soft instrumental piano music plays.]

[Visual: The camera opens on a tight shot of a business owner sitting at an angle in the centre of the frame. The business owner is shown from the shoulders up. He is looking to the left side of frame. Behind him is a plain dim pink wall. He is wearing a pale blue shirt.]

Business owner: My idea of success has really changed. 

[Visial: The camera pulls out wider to show the business owner sitting centre frame in a medium shot]

[Visual: The camera cuts back to a tighter shot. The business owner is positioned left of frame from the shoulders up and sits on a slight angle]

Business owner: I’ve been running a business now for about fifteen years and like a lot of owner operators, I started the business because, you know, I liked being on the tools. There’s a lot of pressure to 

[Visual: The camera moves to a tight shot of the business owners hands resting on his lapHe gestures as he speaks. He is wearing a brown and silver watch and beige trousers]

[Visual: The camera pulls back to the wide shot. The business owner is now placed in the centre of the frame on a slight angle and shown from the waist up.] 

Business owner: succeed financially. Everywhere that you look as a business owner, there are stories of people succeeding. 

[The camera cuts back to a mid shot. The business owner is sitting centre frame in a medium shot]

Business owner: People will constantly ask me - Have I got much on? Am I busy? And I think for about ten years, I really lived that idea of being busy. You know, I would stay up. I felt like coffee was a cure, and the stress and the adrenalin would really get me through.

[Soft instrumental music continues. The camera moves to a tight shot of the business owner’s hands resting on his lap again. He gestures when he speaks]

Business owner: And when I did get stressed pride got in the way. 

[Visual: The business owner sighs.]

[Visual: The camera pulls back to the wide shot. The business owner is sitting in the centre of the frame at a slight angle.]

Business owner: I was probably too proud to really tell anybody how I was feeling. And I remember the moment really well. 

[Visual: The camera moves to a medium close up. The business owner is now positioned on the left side of the frame]

Business owner: One morning I woke up and I thought to myself, I can’t do this anymore.

[Visual: The business owner shakes his head.]

Business owner: I’m going to go crazy. 

[Visual: The business owner lowers his head down.]

[Visual: The business owner lifts his head.]

Business owner: I talked to my partner and she was really understanding. She got it.

[Audio: Soft instrumental music continues.]

[Visual: The camera cuts back to the wide shot and the business owner is sitting in the centre of the frame from the waist up. He gestures with his hands as he speaks.]

Business owner: That began a change in mindset for me.

[Visual: The camera moves back to a medium close up. The business owner is centre frame from the shoulders up and is sitting on a slight angle]

Business owner: After some time, I went to work and I got everybody together and I told them about what I had been going through. 

[Visual: The camera pulls back to the wide shot. The business owner is sitting centre frame waist up and on a slight angle]

Business owner: And it actually ended up changing the way that we think about stress at work and how we communicate with each other. 

[Visual: The camera moves to a mid shot. The business owner is sitting centre frame from the arms up and is on a slight angle]

Business owner: It’s really opened up new conversations at work and you know, we’re more of a whānau now.

[Audio: Soft instrumental continues.]

[Visual: The business owner smiles and nods.]

[Visual: The camera moves back to the medium close up. The business owner is sitting centre frame from the shoulders up and is on a slight angle.]

Business owner: My idea of success has fundamentally changed. The idea that I can leave work a little bit early and go for a walk, or a ride or a surf, or go and pick up the kids. 

[Visual: The camera pulls back to the wide shot. The business owner is sitting centre frame from the waist up and is on a slight angle. The business owner smiles and nods]

Business owner: You know, I got my life back. 

[Visual: The frame transitions into a white screen and reveals the words centred and in pink - Helping businesses succeed with the logo sitting directly underneath in blue.]

[Audio: The music fades.]

Think about how work patterns might contribute to your stress, or employees’ stress. Flexible working might help.

Think about how work patterns might contribute to your stress, or employees’ stress. Flexible working might help.

How to help yourself


Learn the signs of stress. Think about when you notice stress in yourself — what are your personal warning signs?

What helps ease your stress? If you’re not sure where to start, try these suggestions:

  • Give yourself permission to not be at your best.
  • Be kind to yourself, as well as to others.
  • Involve others in problem solving. Talk to your team, other business owners, a mentor.
  • Look after your physical health, get sleep, and eat well. Your mind can’t work well if you aren't looking  after yourself physically. Feel like you don’t have a spare minute for even a walk around the block? Try a walking meeting.
  • Take notice of small things each day that make you feel good. Try to make time to do more of these things.

“Don’t think of one huge problem. Break it down. If you can solve one of these problems, that will help reduce your stress,” says Ducat. Recognise the small goals you achieve, rather than focusing on the next one you haven’t started.

Owner-operators: Tips to beat isolation

Working solo: Tips to stay mentally well

Coping under pressure

  • Don’t try to do everything yourself.
  • Avoid toxic positivity. It’s unrealistic and unhelpful to pretend everything is fine.
  • Don’t tell yourself or others to just relax. It won’t work — and might even make you feel more tense.
  • Beware trying to “fix” yourself or others. It’s OK to sometimes feel frustrated or angry. Use these feelings as a wellbeing barometer. If they start to build up, it’s a sign to ease pressure on yourself.

“Just step back and go ‘I am angry’ or ‘I am upset’,” says Ducat. “And then think about how you can positively deal with those feelings.”

Get into the right headspace for success

Being in good mental and physical shape gives your business the best chance of success. Get into shape with expert advice on eating, sleep, and exercise, as well as learning how your outlook can impact your business, with the Brave in business e-learning series.

To join the e-learning series, head to the Spark Business Lab website. 

Brave in business: Headspace

Call or text for free support.

Call or text for free support.

If you feel a bit overwhelmed, anxious or just want to talk, free services are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week:

  • call or text 1737 for support from a trained counsellor
  • Lifeline 0800 543 354 or text 4357
  • Samaritans 0800 726 666

Helplines(external link) — Mental Health Foundation

Other resources that can help

The Mental Health Foundation’s website has a range of tips and worksheets to reduce stress. Some help you spot the signs of stress, others help you identify what you need to stay well.

Minimising and managing workplace stress(external link) — Mental Health Foundation

Ways to wellbeing(external link) — Mental Health Foundation

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