Entrepreneurs are at high risk of burn-out

Neuroscientist Florence Cotel experienced a severe burnout a few years ago, to the point that her IQ had shrunk and she ended up not being able to open her eyes anymore. She fully recovered and now wants to share her story with others, to take away the stigma and shame around mental health issues and make people more conscious of the characteristics of the illness.

Florence (left) stayed with us at Tribe Theory Singapore.

Why is it an important topic for us at Tribe Theory to talk about?
‘Entrepreneurs are at high risk of burn-out because typically they are a group of people that deeply care about their work. They had an idea and they’re working very hard towards making it a reality. And caring is what makes them at high risk. It’s one of the things that aren’t so widely known about burn-out: everything starts with disappointment. And it targets people who work very hard towards an ideal, and once they realize their ideal might not come through in the way they had imagined, they become disappointed and start to lose internal drive. Which creates a disparity between the huge effort and number of hours that they spend working hard and the amount of reward they get when they see that where they really hoped for is not happening or not happening as quickly as they hoped for.

It’s ok, everybody goes through those phases, but if you have it too often in a too intense way, it decreases your motivation and your productivity.

Typically entrepreneurs are very productive people, they produce a lot of hours in their work. When they realize they’re less productive they start a vicious circle and work even harder to become as productive as before. But they don’t have the same motivation. And that’s really the disparity between the lack of motivation and kind of slowly losing the passion for what they’re doing and the insane number of hours they put in their work.’

How to recognize a burn-out?
Usually, when you meet someone who tells you “I’m going through a burnout” there is a high chance that the person isn’t. Most people who go through burnout only realize it down the track, after real bad events have happened to them.’

Florence mentions different characteristics of the illness:

  1. ‘When there was something you were absolutely passionate about, and you stop caring, that should be the first sign. You should see if you really want to go along with the project or change direction and reorganize your life.’
  2. ‘When you’re working more than you were working before and isolate yourself from others. That’s another sign you’re going in the wrong direction. Lots of entrepreneurs work on new technologies and therefore work behind computers a lot. It’s important to create space during the day to spend with other people and don’t isolate yourself from family and friends’.
  3. ‘What isn’t widely known about burn-out is the fact that you go through depersonalization, a drastic change of personality.You become cynical and you stop caring about what you’re doing and about lots of other things and you change the way you interact with others. This is a characteristic you might not notice yourself, but people around you will.’

Entrepreneurs should manage rewards for themselves
‘The first book and proper research that has been done and published on burn-out are from the late seventies. It’s just 50 years that we try to understand the syndrome. That’s not a lot of time. We just started teaching it in med school. So there are lots of people that aren’t diagnosed yet. Since May this year, the World Health Organization recognises burn-out as a medical condition and as something that’s linked to your profession and to bad management, meaning management not offering any reward or support to employees. We can’t create life without disappointment, that would be a stupid idealistic thing to think of. But it’s part of the job of a manager to actually support the people they supervise through disappointment and difficulties linked to their tasks and their position.

As entrepreneurs are their own managers they have to create their support for themselves.

You need to surround yourself with a good environment and build more resilience. For example, when someone tells you your idea isn’t the best or the process you’re creating isn’t extremely well designed, you need to find the positive in that message. To use it as a step to move forward and instead of using it as a roadblock.’

Other solutions that prevent you from getting a burn-out:

  1. ‘Creating small rewards for yourself very often is the best prevention for burn-out’
  2. ‘This is not scientific, but talking with others helps you realize that things that seemed extremely important don’t matter that much. And it helps to release the shame around burn-out to share your experience with others.’
  3. ‘Listen to your body. If your body tells you that you have low energy and you’d rather spend the afternoon resting and lying down, you better listen. Your body knows a lot more than what you are conscious of. And that is an important understanding we can get from neuroscience. There is a lot more information in your brain than what you process consciously.’
  4. ‘Accepting that you’re sick and you’re not a bad person. More research from a neuroscientific point of view will help to diagnose people and maybe even find treatments.’
  5. ‘Best thing is when you face a roadblock, instead of just seeing the problem, try to see a new type of solutions. You don’t necessarily have to abandon a goal, you can try to redesign a different timeline for it. When you get critics, it’s important to see them as opportunities, to redesign your ideas and projects.’

(Listen to the podcast to hear what you can actually do to tap into the wisdom of your body.)

The burn-out has made Florence less judgemental than she was before. ‘I see the importance of being positive much more. I celebrate the little things. Get happy and excited, that’s probably the best prevention of burnout.

In her upcoming book, Florence shares more about the dark side of burnout and the neurobiology of it. Subscribe to our newsletter if you want to be kept informed about her book.

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Sanne Breimer

Sanne Breimer

Exploring the solutions to the lack of inclusion in journalism, focusing on decolonising journalism and discussing whiteness, Eurocentrism and objectivity.