Burnout is a growing issue, but what happens when you own your business and feel like you can’t take a break?

Earlier this year the World Health Organisation announced that, as of January 2022, ‘burnout’ will be recognised as a medical condition. Their description defines burnout as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” I’m sure many of us can relate to the effect workplace stress can have on employees.

But what about those at the top? For business owners, entrepreneurs and even freelancers, this stress is often concentrated. Taking time off to rest is recommended to help avoid burnout, but this is easier said than done when you own a business.

According to recent research from insurance firm Simply Business, almost one in 10 UK owners of small and medium-sized businesses (SMEs) have not been on holiday for five years.

The survey revealed that for around 62% of business owners, it’s financial worries that stops them booking a break in. 61% said they have to deal with emails even when on holiday, and one in 10 say they worry their employees wouldn’t carry out their work effectively while they’re away.

As these results show, worries about money and work not being done by employees are key contributors to business owners not wanting to take time off. But is this the whole story? Speaking to Elle Narbrook, yoga teacher and photographer, it seems our fear of resting goes deeper.

“As a society and culture, we have internalised capitalism to the point where we feel guilty for resting.

“We determine our worth based on our productivity, and we neglect our health. Add into this mix the daily struggles that many entrepreneurs, solopreneurs, and creatives face with their mental health, it’s no wonder we’re feeling so burned out.”

There are clearly layers to this. To find out more about the stresses involved in being a business owner and to get advice on how to make space for rest, I reached out to entrepreneurs and freelancers.

Cecily Mills, founder and CEO of Coconuts Organic confirms that being a business owner is, indeed, ‘totally relentless’ and difficult to break away from.

“In the start-up years there is just so much to do and often only one person to do them all (you!). It gets to the point where even though you’d love to take a break, the business cannot afford to be ‘ignored’ for a week, and if you tried you’d just feel anxious and unrelaxed anyway.”

Cecily says she has found ways of managing her stress, including being extremely strict with her time, dedicating three-hour periods in the day to work on projects to maximise productivity and being intentional with her time on social media.

“Being so strict with my time has helped me to be able to switch off at the end of the day - freeing me up to enjoy the early evenings with my children –  before I start work once again when they are in bed.

“To avoid feeling overwhelmed I meditate every morning (just 10 minutes) and spend 20 minutes going through my goals and visions. This gives me context to everything I’m doing and propels me forward, even when things seem tough in the day-to-day.”

Time management, finding small moments of calm and practicing a little self-care into your everyday routine can go a long way. When it comes to taking more substantial breaks without worrying however, the advice I got sat in the following camps: advanced planning and automation, having a passive income and outsourcing.

Plan ahead and automate where possible

If you know taking time away from your business has a knock-on effect on your income, planning ahead is essential. For Michelle Shulman, founder of La Belle Cake Company, taking time off is imperative for her mental health and it’s a combination of advanced planning and automating business activity that helps her do that.

“I have bipolar so burnout is a big topic for me. I always promote self-care to my clients and make sure they are taking time out for them. I’m having a spa day tomorrow and a day in London on Wednesday and I’m able to do this with advance planning.

“I plan my month and weeks out in advance. Every Sunday I take time to prepare my week. I know what needs to be done, by when and I automate stuff so the cogs are still churning while I'm away. I know that I’m out of the office tomorrow and Wednesday so what I would usually do is already done. Social media has been scheduled, blog posts have been written so I can just relax. That way I’m still staying visible to my audience.”

Whether you have a day off coming up or a two-week holiday, carving out some time to plan ahead is key. Ask yourself: what can be automated while you’re away? What work can you do ahead of your break to ensure things stay ticking over while you’re off?

If you have a mental health condition, keep in mind the effect too much stress can have on you. If you start to feel overwhelmed, see if you can book in some time off and start your planning so you can take the time you need to feel better.

Consider a passive income

The idea of passive income is that it requires little input from you to make money. Yes, there is often initial work involved to get this stream set-up, but the hope is that once it is, it can earn you money without you being present.

NLP master coach Rebecca Lockwood tells me more.

“You can generate passive income by recommending products and services you already use to people and set it up so that they pay you a commission. You can create and sell an online digital course in anything, the latest one I heard was about how to cut your dog's hair using scissors! Writing books and creating audio programs are great ways to generate passive income.

“If you are caught out of the blue and need to take time out before being able to implement anything like this, it’s important to trust and know that you have your back covered. A mindset shift is certainly in order to be able to relax and recover without worrying further about where your money is coming from.

“Use this as a call to action to get yourself in order for when you are back at work with passive income products and services that will support you if you ever need to take time out again.”

It’s worth noting here that passive income can require promotion from yourself to earn you money, especially if you’re selling a course or digital product. If you’re finding it difficult to promote yourself or make your ideas a reality, a career coach could give you the support and accountability you need.

Automating social media posts to promote your offering can be helpful here too, or even hiring a virtual assistant - which takes us nicely onto the last piece of advice from business owners...

Outsource

If you can afford to outsource, this is a great way to lighten your load. If you can’t hire other team members yet, Nikki Hesford, founder of The Small Business Academy suggests utilising freelancers.

“Build yourself a swot team of freelancers who can pick up work when you have a bottleneck. Knowing you have someone to fall back on and help with capacity will ease your mind when you feel you have too much work to complete and feel overwhelmed.”

Freelance writer and Happiful contributor, Fiona Thomas agrees, “Outsource admin to another freelancer if you can afford it, or return the favour to them when they’re off.”

Another point Fiona made was that, sometimes, it helps to do a little work on holiday, if you think it will help ease any worries you have. “I think when you’re starting out, just accept that you might feel better doing a bit of work when you holiday. Even if it’s just checking emails.”

Fellow writer and digital editor of Grazia, Rebecca Reid, agrees, “100% agree with this. I'm saner if I'm watching out for any total disasters while I'm away.”

If you find completely switching off from work impossible or that it simply makes you more anxious, try allocating a short space of time for checking emails. Set an alarm on your phone to stop you going over your allotted time and try to keep some perspective. Your health and wellbeing will always be more important than what’s happening at work while you’re away.  

And finally, if you’re already feeling burnt out…

Hopefully the tips here will help you feel more able to take time off, but if you’re already feeling stressed and on the edge of panicking, money coach Catherine Morgan suggests the following three steps.

1. Brain dump everything out

2. Write a P next to anything that’s priority. Write a W next to anything that can wait. Write an O next to anything that can be outsourced (or given to someone else to do)

3. Tackle something that can be done quickly and prioritise the other P’s left. Everything else can wait!


Feeling overwhelmed with stress is a sign that something needs to give. It may be that you just need a break, or it could be a sign for you to re-think your business model to relieve some pressure.

Remember, when stress builds up, your mental health can suffer, leading to conditions like anxiety and depression. While you may feel you’re simply hustling for the sake of the business, you have to ask yourself what the cost of this is going to be.

Don’t be afraid to reach out for professional support either. Talking things through with a counsellor can help you understand and manage your stress response, while hiring a coach can help you reconnect to your ‘why’ and set some work/life balance goals.

Finally, if you’re still finding the idea of taking time off difficult, consider this: if you *are* your business, your business will only thrive if you do. Taking breaks will help you refuel and come back to work refreshed. Watch as your creativity flourishes and your productivity sky-rockets.