How small business owners can help reduce the chances of burnout

Colin Timmis, general country manager at Xero South Africa has burnout-busting tips for leaders.

While the physical effects of the pandemic on South African businesses are well documented, less is known about the harmful impact it has had on people’s mental state. When I recently spoke to clinical and consulting psychologist Marc Rogatschnig, he warned against a looming ‘burnout pandemic’ due to months of uncertainty, anxiety, and stress caused by Covid-19.

This may explain why, according to our latest State of Small Business report, an overwhelming majority (94 percent) of businesses have mental health and wellbeing as a top priority for their employees in 2022, while 96 percent of small business owners also told us that stress has harmed their mental state in the past year.

So, in preparation for the year ahead, we thought it appropriate to delve deeper into the burnout phenomenon referenced by Marc and look at steps small business owners can take to ensure their wellbeing amid the continued effects of the pandemic.

According to The World Health Organization, burnout is “a syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” Symptoms may include lethargy, mental aloofness, pessimistic and cynical feelings related to work, and reduced professional capability.

Entrepreneurs and small business owners tend to be driven and passionate – often pushing themselves and those around them to perform their level best. Unfortunately, while admirable to an extent, these traits often result in stress and work overload.

Combined with prolonged stress factors, such as those caused by the pandemic, the risk of burnout increases drastically. It’s essential to be aware of the signs because if left unaddressed, it may have adverse effects on your mental health and the ability of your business to function adequately.

Some reprieve, but the threats are still real
According to Marc, we haven’t surpassed the burnout pandemic yet; we’re still in it. “Burnout is an insidious condition that can last anything from weeks to years. So, while there’s a more upbeat atmosphere and some reprieve from the constant change and setbacks, I’m still worried that people have ignored the deeper systemic changes they need to make in their lives,” he told me.

Marc believes 2022 will be the “battle for the soul of the workplace”, which will add further stress to organisational systems. People have started exploring their overall sense of purpose and direction, fanned by the rise of hybrid and remote work.

He explains that, unlike developed economies where it’s easier for people to change roles, “we’re in an economy where the fear of leaving and not finding a job is extremely high. This means more people are likely stuck and stagnant in their daily work than elsewhere. The question, ‘what do I really want?’ will keep gnawing at people.” These factors are highly distracting and still pose a real threat to emotional wellbeing.

Fortunately though, our State of Small Business report does indicate that an increasing number of businesses see mental health as a priority. Asked how they support mental wellbeing in the workplace, three quarters (74 percent) responded that they’d created an open culture for employees to talk about it. Long may this continue.

Tips to protect your mental health
There are a few steps we can all take to help protect our mental health amid the consequences of the pandemic. Marc suggests the following as a starting point:

  1. Focus on your emotional wellbeing: This long period of uncertainty, instability, insecurity, and anxiety needs to be understood as a profoundly emotional challenge. Unlike mental challenges, we can’t simply think our way out of this with more plans and strategies. We need to create space and focus on how to replenish emotional reservoirs.

  2. Get in touch with your whole life: To replenish these reservoirs, we need to take stock of every aspect of our life, then identify which elements are filling our emotional pots, which aren’t, and what parts of our daily lives were neglected. Emotional replenishment comes from each individual’s daily choices, requiring deliberate attention and support.

  3. Reset and reboot: This is something each of us needs to do, which small and medium-sized businesses can do very easily. The process of emotional renewal is best done with others and in the company of real human support and engagement. However, the pivot point for this will be how the future of work will look in each organisation, and each individual’s reaction to what is forced, encouraged or co-created.

Be a coach to your employees
Although you cannot fundamentally change the emotional wellbeing of your people, you should aim to be a coach and supportive. You should be as fascinated with human behaviour as with commerce, and thus be encouraged to understand just how to support individuals and groups in a dynamic and ongoing manner.

So, in the coming year, be sure to invest the time in taking care of yourself and your employees – your business will reap the benefits in abundance as a result.