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How to Manage Stress, Burnout and Founder Fatigue

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This is an exclusive extract from She Made It by Angelica Malin.

Let's talk about stress. What is stress? Does running a business need to be stressful?

We all have our personal experience of stress; it might manifest physically, such as anxiety, hyper-activity or difficulty sleeping, or it might be felt mentally, such as racing thoughts, inability to concentrate or even depression.

The worrying thing about stress is how prevalent low-level, constant pressure is in the digital age – whether it’s another email that needs answering, something else you should be doing or feeling the need to constantly check social media. It can be incredibly hard to get off the hamster wheel of constantly being ‘on’.

Founder fatigue: why does it happen?

Running a business comes with many more challenges than a conventional 9–5 office job might.

If you’re a ‘solopreneur’, you might be single-handedly in charge of finances, making sure cash is always coming in and invoices are paid on time. Whilst you may be able to alleviate some of the pressure by hiring an accountant in time, the founder always feels financial stress more keenly. After all, your business is your baby, and whatever happens to it affects you personally too.

Beyond the weight of the admin involved in running a business, there’s also pressure on people management. Company culture and leadership are some of the most important things about growing and sustaining your business. Founder fatigue can be felt from the sheer pressure of dealing with people – looking after their wellbeing, career progression and job satisfaction – on top of everything.

I’m saying these things not to put you off running your own business, but just to make you aware that it’s totally normal to feel pressure as a founder. In fact, it’s a sign that you’re passionate and you care about the project.

There are practical things you can do to alleviate founder pressure, but many of these involve delegation and hiring, which I know isn’t always possible at the start when budgets are tight. If you’re doing mostly everything yourself right now, know that as your business and income grow, you’ll be able to lift some of that pressure by having others to take over responsibility.

Managing stress as a founder

There’s so much I’ve learned about how to reduce your stress levels in the early stages of running your own business! Here are a few practical steps you can take to feel more control:

Don't just learn on the job

Stress for first-time founders is often rooted in feeling unprepared. So, put yourself in the driving seat and take control of your work by committing to further education.

Courses, training and seminars are a great way to support your entrepreneurial journey. In my first year of business, I took short courses at City Lit in London – they are inexpensive and accessible after work, offering everything from bookkeeping to business plans. Find local or online courses on the topics that you feel most overwhelmed by and make learning a lifelong process.

Create a proper structure

Structure is incredibly important; it gives you a sense of stability, ownership and control. It sets the tone for your day and sets you up for productivity and success.

It’s very easy when you’re newly self-employed to go into free-fall with your structure – working all hours, without a dedicated workspace and burning out.

When I first launched my business, I would work until 2am and wake up feeling incredibly groggy, and then guilt myself for having a slow morning and find myself working late into the evening to make up time – and the cycle would continue.

Be strict with yourself on your structure – treat working for yourself as you would in any other company. Start early morning, give yourself an hour for lunch, an afternoon break, and shut your laptop as early as possible and allow yourself the whole night off.

Learn to disconnect

Burnout, a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress, is often caused by feeling like you never have any time off. And I don’t just mean taking time off, but actually fully switching off your mind.

This is easier said than done. Especially in start-up culture, I feel like we’re always on. You have to be strict with yourself if you’re going to truly disconnect. If you allow work to fill your every moment, you’ll never feel fully off.

I think it’s because, in many ways, with start-ups we’ve come to glamourize being busy – more and more founders are burning out because they place work above everything else in their lives. This top-heavy culture means that there’s little space for downtime, and even when you are truly relaxed, work consumes your thoughts. It’s actually not healthy and learning to mentally switch off will help you – we need to break the long-hour culture as a badge of honour!

Take up hobbies

Hobbies are a great way to de-stress – especially anything that takes you away from your screen for long periods. Getting out into nature as much as possible, connecting with your creative side and generally creating space in your life for things that make you feel calm and connected are super important. Don’t let the business be the only thing in your life; it’s a sure-fire way to head towards burnout.

Support yourself

I don’t think I would have survived the first year of business without the amazing people around me. Every entrepreneur needs to find their ‘tribe’ – people that can support, encourage and inspire you. There’s going to be a lot of storms to weather and that is a lot easier to do with a tribe around you.

Being a founder can be a lonely journey. Here are some ways you can alleviate loneliness and create a support system around you and your business:

  • Hire people as soon as you can afford to. Work out what the most crucial hire would be for your business and bring on someone that can support your vision.
  • Get a co-founder if it suits your business plan. The co-founder relationship is not for everyone, but a business partner may be a great way to join forces and support each other.
  • Create a network that supports you - whether that's friends, family or colleagues. Hold space in your life for people that believe in and encourage you, don't let negativity infiltrate your work too much. 
  • Take on a business mentor. A professional mentor or coach can be a great way to talk through your journey and feel held throughout. 
  • Join an online community to find like-minded individuals. Beyond social media networks, there are plenty of great platforms designed specifically for female entreprenerurs.

Imposter syndrome seems to be rife with female founders. If it’s your first company or you’re launching something brand new, you might be experiencing a lot of self-doubt, which contributes to a feeling of stress. Stepping away from self-doubt and silencing your inner critic will benefit you in the long run: the real, tangible stresses of a business are enough; you don’t need to pile additional stress on yourself with negative self-talk.