There are times that business slows down for entrepreneurs, when and they have extra time to do worthwhile things. But the opposite problem is often the case. You run around and end up burning out, like what Elon Musk described in his emotional interview. And a new study shows how dangerous that can be, not just to the person but the business.

Researchers at Ball State University and the University of South Australia published a paper called "Are Work Stressors and Emotional Exhaustion Driving Exit Intentions Among Business Owners?" Otherwise known to entrepreneurs as "burnout makes you want to run away from it all and kill off the company."

If you've been an entrepreneur before, you absolutely know the feeling. First-time startup owners find out soon enough. Here's the abstract summary:

"Entrepreneurial exit and exit intentions are emerging areas of research, yet psychological antecedents of such intentions are understudied. We build on organizational behavior and human resource management theories to explain the role of work stressors (role ambiguity and work-family conflict) as antecedents of business owners' emotional exhaustion and subsequent exit intentions. We tested the model in two studies from the United States and Australia. The results were consistent in both studies such that role ambiguity and work-family conflict predicted emotional exhaustion, and emotional exhaustion was associated with exit intentions. Post hoc analysis also revealed that women experience a stronger detrimental effect of work-family conflict, influencing emotional exhaustion, and subsequently exit intentions."

In other words, the very work and conditions required in being an entrepreneur puts a lot of stress on. The sources of stress include:

  • long hours
  • handling multiple roles that can conflict
  • role ambiguity, which makes it difficult to succeed because it's unclear what that means
  • unpredictability of the business
  • conflict between work and family/personal considerations
  • financial strain

The stress, at an extreme, can cause emotional and physical exhaustion that leave you sick and performing badly. As the study found, the various stress components can make it more likely an entrepreneur wants to bail out of the business, which means you've gone through all that for nothing.

The study also suggests female entrepreneurs feel the conflicts more strongly and face increased internal pressure to leave the business. Even if the entrepreneur doesn't, chances are decisions will be worse and success harder to achieve.

That's the bad news. The good news is the study suggests some ways of addressing the problem.

Get support networks.

When the problem is emotional, you can't depend on some algorithmic solution. You're going to need people who can hear you out, make suggestions, provide space to vent, pass on their own experiences, and show they care.

Specifically, you need two types of support networks. One is family and friends. Ensure that you schedule time with the people you care about and who care about you. This is critical and something you must insist on as much as food and sleep. If you feel too much pull of the business, try telling yourself that it's for the business as well, because if you can't go on, neither will it. You might consider checking research on how people reduce the conflict between work and family.

Also develop a support network of other entrepreneurs. Reach out to people and groups locally and online. You'll find others who have been where you are and can offer useful suggestions. Then, as you learn to overcome some of the issues, you can pass on what you know. Any time you mentor or teach, you get the added benefit of better learning what you already know because you must understand it clearly enough to explain.

Make processes more formal in the business.

A major source of the stress is the ambiguity of being an entrepreneur. You have to be the chief cook and bottle washer, making sure everything gets done, whether getting products shipped out the door, handling customer complaints, or being sure the books are in order.

When you have to push your brain and body to deal with each of these things, it's a major strain. What can help is increasing the formal nature of how things are done. "This includes developing procedures for routine processes and establishing guidelines or structures to facilitate business decision making," as the report states.

With these, you get some of the advantage of a supervisor or manager who provides a framework in which you know what your job is and how to do it. It just so happens the supervisor in this case is the collection of processes and guidelines that you set down for yourself and the company.

The materials also don't have to be overly limiting. "Budgets, goals, and employee job descriptions may often feel exceptionally formal for owners of small or new organizations; however, when crafted to be responsive, flexible, and adaptable, such formalization can actually facilitate more entrepreneurial behavior within the firm," as the researchers point out.

Learn to delegate.

You can't do it all and shouldn't have to. That means developing employees when your business gets large enough to have them, to a point where they can handle many of the routine activities, freeing you to manage other aspects. Training is never a waste of time.

All the formal materials and procedures you developed will be critical here. They help employees know how to do things the way you want. A personal observation: for real flexibility, also be open to listening to suggested improvements. Other people may have better ideas than you in given areas. You aren't less of an entrepreneur to acknowledge and implement them but, rather, a better one.

Published on: Jul 18, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.