Beating stress & burnout as an entrepreneur
Stress, anxiety, depression and burnout, are all mental health issues that have been on the rise year on year across the UK. Burnout is now officially recognised by the World Health Organization, but the acknowledgement hasn’t done anything to reverse the trend of the “occupational phenomenon” afflicting a growing percentage of workers.
Disclaimer – if you are struggling with any mental health issues, including burnout, please speak to your doctor. Information contained in this post is not a substitute for professional advice.
What causes burnout?
Burnout causes physical changes in the brain, particularly in areas of the “limbic system”, which include the amygdala and the cingulate gyrus. Depression and burnout can seem quite similar; however, burnout is specifically related to an occupation or way of life.
Most people realise that humans have essential physical needs that include air, water, sunlight and food. However, many of us don’t realise that we have imperative psychological needs as well – we need to feel like we belong, we need to feel that our life has meaning, and we need to feel valued.
Burnout is rightly associated with stress, which over prolonged periods can have a direct impact on the hormones that our body produces. Burnout was originally a term coined to describe a spaceship that has run out of fuel. People, too, can run out of fuel. Cortisol levels, for example, can plummet after a prolonged period of elevation, meaning that we lose drive and motivation. Coupled with a toxic work environment, that perhaps makes us feel like we don’t belong or don’t have any control, and we have a recipe for burnout.
What can be done to prevent or treat burnout?
The first thing you should do is see a doctor, therapist or psychiatrist.
If you are self-employed, you may need to evaluate your work/life balance and consider outsourcing some of the daily tasks you have to carry out. If you are employed, consider speaking to your boss or HR department and discussing your role and issues.
Most of us need to work – and that’s arguably a good thing; it gives us purpose and motivation. But when work becomes overwhelming or has no reward, it is easy to get burnout. A doctor can advise you about the best medications to take and may also point you towards other strategies and interventions, which may include exercise and meditation.
Socialising & vagus nerve stimulation
Being around people that make us feel safe and valued is a highly effective way to boost our mood. A feeling of safety and belonging, it is thought – can stimulate the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is an exceptionally long nerve that travels from the brain down to the colon. The vagus nerve receives sensory information from the neck, chest and abdomen and baroreceptors, which detect changes in blood pressure. When you are relaxed, the vagus nerve will tend to receive a greater level of stimulation compared to when you are stressed or anxious.
Stimulation of the vagus nerve helps us to relax, and it has a potent anti-inflammatory effect which can help with the typical aches, pains and headaches which occur with burnout. It can also improve gut health and digestion – something that is often impacted by burnout.
With remote working, lockdown and social distancing still in place in many parts of the world, thanks to COVID-19, many people have become to feel anxious, depressed, stress and burnout because they are not able to socially engage with people they love, trust and enjoy being around.
Eye contact and facial expressions are essential when it comes to stimulating the vagus nerve. If you cannot meet people in person, video calling would be a close second when it comes to maximising the physiological and psychological benefits of socialising.
There are some more direct ways to stimulate the vagus nerve too. Some of them aren’t particularly fun! For example, having a cold shower is a great way to stimulate the vagus nerve, as is splashing cold water on your face. Massaging your neck or ear can also directly stimulate your vagus nerve. For more ways to increase vagus tone – please see this YouTube video.
“Green exercise” is a bit of a buzzphrase in the world of mental health at the moment. It means exercising outdoors, ideally in a rural setting, surrounded by natural landscapes with trees, grass, wildlife and water. People who exercise outdoors tend to exercise for longer periods and at higher intensities.
In regards to stress and burnout, green exercise produces a significant increase in mood and self-esteem, compared with the same type, intensity and duration of exercise carried out indoors. Exercising near water demonstrated the most significant benefit in terms of mood.
A quick walk or a single Tabata Interval (4 minutes high-intensity exercise) could be enough to boost your mood and keep you feeling energised for the day.
Diet & inflammation
Many scientists and psychologists tout inflammation as “the common pathway of stress-related diseases”. Reducing chronic inflammation can quickly make people with stress-related illnesses feel almost instantly better.
Optimising your diet is the quickest way to reduce inflammation. Be sure to discuss any dietary changes with your doctor first.
Foods that cause inflammation and should be reduced or eliminated from your diet (after discussing with your doctor) include refined carbohydrates, sugar and deep-fried foods (especially fried in vegetable oils). In some individuals, wheat and dairy may cause some level of inflammation – but you must discuss this with a doctor or dietitian.
Foods that fight inflammation include fatty fish, turmeric, leafy green vegetables and nuts.
So far, we have focussed mainly on how we can optimise our social life and physical bodies to help banish burnout. However, the way we work is often the cause of the problems in the first place.
If you are a self-employed entrepreneur or a “solopreneur” and have developed your business yourself, it can be hard to pass over any control. However, outsourcing can be a highly effective and efficient way to reduce your workload and improve your end-product.
For example, you could hire a virtual assistant to schedule your social media posts and a phone answering service to handle your phone calls. For a relatively small monthly fee, a high-quality phone answering service can improve your customer service, make sure that you never miss a business call and dramatically reduce interruptions. By reducing interruptions, you can focus on the work at hand or the core work of the business much more effectively. The impact of unwanted disruptions can be quite dramatic in terms of our stress levels and productivity.
A great way to evaluate what tasks and jobs could be outsourced is to keep a work diary for two weeks. After two weeks, look at where you spend your time and estimate the value to the business and the cost to outsource it. Also consider, how much you enjoy doing each task. If you don’t enjoy creating graphics for your website and social media accounts, for example, consider outsourcing these tasks to a freelance graphic designer.