As stress “comes with the trade”, are entrepreneurs bound to burn out? Recent research offers a better way to understand the risks and causes of entrepreneurial burnout. 

As a relatively recent phenomenon in public debate, “burnout” has long been falsely reduced to a millennial term signifying simply stress or a trending topic in company coffee kitchen conversations. 

However, realisation is increasingly seeping in that burnout syndrome is a serious public health concern.

Last year, the WHO included burnout for the first time as an official medical syndrome related to stress at workplace. The definition pointed, among others, to “feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion”, and feeling of “negativity or cynicism about one’s job”. 

How does this (really) affect entrepreneurs in the startup world? We have a look beyond self-help blogs and media frenzy on the insights that scientific research can offer. 

1. Bad mental health has affected one in two Entrepreneurs.

Burnout syndrome is not exactly something to that founders and entrepreneurs are eager to go public with. In research, exact numbers on the frequency among entrepreneurs are hard to find. However, research has suggested that mental health and well-being in general are a huge concern among entrepreneurs. 

Entrepreneurs are much more likely to suffer from depression, ADHD and other mental health diseases, suggesting that entrepreneurial mental well-being is a huge concern. Image courtesy: Toa Heftiba on Unsplash.

A 2018 study by researchers from the US found that one in two entrepreneurs (49%) of their sample had a personal mental health history, and a further 23% were affected indirectly through their families. 

One in two entrepreneurs (49%) of their sample had a personal mental health history

Research by Michael Freedman et al., published in Small Business Economics.

Entrepreneurs seem to be particularly at risk to suffer from depression and ADHD. In the cited study, the risk to suffer from these conditions were both almost a third higher than for the average US-Americans. 

While research has focussed on the US, there is little reason to expect this problem to be limited to the transatlantic neighbors. For example, anecdotal studies such as research from Philipps University of Marburg in Germany suggests that entrepreneurs are far more likely to suffer from depression, sleeping disorders and anxiety. 

2. Entrepreneurs face more stress due to “extreme” working conditions.

As burnout is manifesting itself by a feeling of extreme exhaustion, it is commonly linked to workplace-related stress. 

But does starting and running your own company creates more stress than other types of work? Science seems to indeed suggest so.

In a large-scale review of research on entrepreneurial mental well-being, the authors found that working conditions of entrepreneurs are in many ways more “extreme” than those of salaried employees. 

Entrepreneurs generally face more uncertainty, more complexity and more responsibility in their work. Working hours are longer, and time pressure is more intense. 

Entrepreneurial stress: Working hours are longer, and time pressure is more intense. Image courtesy: Unsplash.

Yet is that enough to explain entrepreneurial burnout? In fact, research suggests that the way stress affects entrepreneurs is much more complex. 

3. Yet Entrepreneurs are in many ways more stress-resistant.

Running your own company is not only a struggle with tight deadlines and uncertainty on the future. It is also a source of satisfaction, passion and pride. 

There is a general consensus in research on entrepreneurial mental well-being that entrepreneurship helps to deal better with high levels of stress. According to the research review from Aston University, “the autonomy, independence, and ownership central to entrepreneurship may cushion the self-employed against realizing the full negative impact of high stress, uncertainty, and pressure”.

Entrepreneurs are in many ways cushioned against the negative effect of stress, research finds. Image courtesy: Austin Distel on Unsplash.

Even long working hours cannot be generally condemned as a medical concern. Research on working hours produces mixed results. Especially for starting entrepreneurs, long working hours are sometimes found to be positively, not negatively linked to well being. 

The reason may be that many hours spent in the office can be a sign that the business is simply being very successful – in turn a source of positive emotions. This type of stress is called “challenge stressor” in science, meaning a type of stress in the present that is perceived to be linked to opportunities in the future. 

4. Entrepreneurial passion without obsession reduces the risk of burnout. 

What produces burnout, then? A study published in Harvard Business Review tried to answer exactly this question. 

The short answer:  Rather than just measuring the stress that entrepreneurs are exposed to, measuring how they think and feel of their job can predict burn out.

Obsessive passion is one such example. In the research sample, those entrepreneurs that stated not being able to live without their work and feeling the urge to dedicate their life 24/7 to it, were more likely to feel burned out. That this can create a dangerous emotional dependence on the job seems intuitive. But is it possible to drive forward a startup against all struggles that founders face without having this extreme passion for the job? 

In fact, researchers found that there is a more beneficial startup passion: Entrepreneurs that reported putting their work into full attention, but that equally felt no guilt when engaging in other aspects of their lives. Moreover, they saw their venture as a source of opportunity for memorable experiences, rather than being driven by status or money pressure. Entrepreneurs that could engage in this type of “harmonious passion” had significantly reduced risk of burning out, the authors found. 

Second, a key predictor was the answer to the question of whether there would be more than one ideal career for the individual. Entrepreneurs that feel it is unlikely they will find another job that would match their current venture were reported at a much higher risk of burning out. In turn, those with a flexible mindset seemed much better able to deal with the demands of the startup world. 

Of course, changing the mindset of entrepreneurs is not necessarily easy. In many cases, it may turn out as hard or even harder than sources of stress such as working hours. Yet it points to other triggers that are important to consider.

Many entrepreneurs look for better strategies to deal with the demands of their work life. Science suggests that a flexible attitude towards one’s career and non-obsessive passion matter in reducing the risk of burnout. Image courtesy: Photo by Johnson Wang on Unsplash.

Evidence points to a general vulnerability of entrepreneurs to suffer from bad mental health. Burnout syndrome is not a medical condition in itself, but can be linked to mental health problems. Against this background, the prevention of burnout needs to move up the agenda of entrepreneurs.

Scientific research offers hope by suggesting that burnout syndrome is not a “necessary evil” in the startup scene. But it also shows that stress simply works different in the world of entrepreneurs – and that solutions need to better understand and cater to this uniqueness.