Thanks to the work of pioneering journalists and the courage of entrepreneurs willing to speak out about their struggles, the fact that entrepreneurship can be rough on mental health is increasingly well known. What's less clear is what allows some founders to shrug off the inevitable stresses of the job, while others burn out or sink into depression.

Genetic predispositions, healthy coping strategies (or lack thereof), community support, and various other factors clearly play a part in answering this complex question. But according to fascinating new research featured recently on HBR.org, so does attitude. Specific beliefs, a new study finds, make it much more likely an entrepreneur will burn out.

For the study, a team of business school professors rounded up 326 entrepreneurs and asked them about their beliefs, passion, sense of job fit, and job, as well as their level of burnout. The first startling finding was just how common burnout is among entrepreneurs -- a full quarter surveyed reported being moderately burned out. But perhaps the most surprising finding was that two specific attitudes greatly increase the risk of burnout.

The wrong kind of passion

Passion, you'd assume, is rocket fuel for entrepreneurs, powering them through the low points and giving them the energy and belief to avoid burnout. But the researchers found that the picture isn't so simple. Passion may be essential for entrepreneurs, but if you want to avoid burnout, it has to be the right kind of passion.

Healthy passion, which the team dubbed "harmonious passion," is passion for the work itself. Unhealthy, obsessive passion is passion for the rewards that work brings -- things like money, status, and fame. Having the former is great. Having the latter puts you in danger of burning out.

"We found that the entrepreneurs who reported high scores of obsessive passion were more likely to say they experienced burnout than those who reported high scores of harmonious passion," the researchers state. "The obsessively passionate entrepreneurs reported feeling that work was more emotionally draining and that working all day required a great deal of effort. They indicated feeling frustrated by their work and even that it was breaking them down." 

The opposite was true of those harmoniously passionate. They reported feeling totally absorbed in their work, but they were also more likely to take breaks and allow themselves flexibility. That made them more well-rounded and resilient, and less likely to burn out.

A belief in destiny

If passion comes in good and bad forms, so does determination, the researchers also discovered. Sometimes people keep going despite long odds of success because they believe their hard work and persistence can change those odds. The researchers described them as having a "flexible mindset." For these folks, the essential ingredient in success isn't timing or destiny, but a willingness to learn, grow, and keep on keeping on.

Other entrepreneurs, however, take a more fatalistic outlook (the researchers called this a "fixed mindset"). A given venture, in their view, is either meant to be or it's not, and if you happen on an idea that's "meant to be," then you'd better work like hell to make it happen because that chance is unlikely to come around again. People like this "thought that a career step is either right or wrong," heaping pressure on themselves, note the researchers.

Unsurprisingly, this attitude strongly increases your chances of burning out. The post offers the pseudonymous "Peter" as a cautionary tale: "He became consumed by his career, as he believed that being in his ideal job was something that was unlikely to happen again. This immersed Peter in his current lifestyle as an entrepreneur, and he became obsessed with his businesses, ultimately leading to burnout."

Thankfully, you control your attitude

The bad news from this research is that burnout is so prevalent. But there's good news here too. While you can't control your DNA, childhood, or a million other aspects of the world surrounding your business, you can control your attitude. And this study offers a starting place on what to watch out for.

If you find yourself obsessing about the fruits of your work instead of the work itself, you might want to pause and reevaluate. If you start stressing about "blowing your one shot" at startup success, also beware. Fall prey to either of these toxic beliefs and you've greatly increased your chances of burning out.

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Published on: Apr 11, 2018