White Space, Burnout, and Other Mental Health Lessons I’ve Learned as a Business Owner

Emily Thompson
Emily Thompson

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In my own 12 years of entrepreneurship, I have found myself riding many waves of this journey, hitting amazing highs (like getting a book deal and opening a physical storefront) to intense lows (having a business partner leave unexpectedly, and client disasters).

About 8 years in, I was faced with a long and dark season of deep burnout that forced me into 18 months of reevaluating myself, my choices, the companies I was growing, and – most of all – my mental health.

This prompted me to truly commit to taking care of myself, which is often a hard pill to swallow when, as business owners, we’re committed to taking care of everyone else, from our clients and vendors to our teams, and – of course – the bottom line.

Here, let's discuss how to keep burnout at bay if you're an entrepreneur or small business owner.

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Why It's Common to Experience Burnout as a Business Owner

As business owners, we put ourselves in a unique position to experience burnout, a condition officially recognized by the medical field as a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress  characterized by feelings of energy depletion and mental distance from one’s job.

Our roles at the top of our organizations are stressful, and as the persons in charge, we rarely clock out from the stress. Even those of us who have a seemingly great work/life balance and work 40 hours or less a week still take home the mental load of our roles — continuing to play out scenarios, solve problems, and consider our next moves while we cook, workout, or hang out with friends.

In addition to the fact that mentally clocking out is a rarity, we’re often more invested in our careers than folks with traditional jobs. We put all of our time, money, and energy into it during those first years to "get it off the ground" and continue to invest much of ourselves into our companies, especially those who build personal brands, passion businesses, and for-good organizations.

Emily Thompson on burnout

This extra investment of self leaves us wide open to pour more of our fuel into our work than we can sustain, frequently without even realizing it’s happening until it is too late.

Combine that tightrope we walk as the leaders of our organizations with anything that happens in our personal lives, our communities, or in the world at-large, and business owners are on the edge of teetering into burnout with the slightest presence of additional stress.

Ultimately, it's imperative you consider your mental health a critical component of your business journey.

Three Lessons I've Learned to Keep Burnout at Bay

Yes, we’re primed to sink into burnout, but it is possible to balance building strong organizations with taking care of an irreplaceable resource: our own brilliant minds.

Along the way I’ve uncovered several tactics for setting up your work and life to support you in navigating this path with a responsibility to not only your business, but also to yourself, allowing both to grow and flourish.

Lesson 1: Create White Space

It’s altogether too easy for our rarest resource, our time, to get taken over by work, meetings, and the fires that inevitably pop up along the way. Add on top of that family commitments and community duties, and taking the time to recharge becomes the rarest of all.

To avoid burnout, it's vital you schedule this "white space" first, and hold it with the same importance as you do that weekly team meeting or picking your kid up from school.

White space is a term from the design and printing world, where empty areas in a design will result in a whitespace of paper on a finished printed product. This space is empty, and empty space is what you need to create for yourself.

The purpose of this time is to give your brain time to rest and play, which helps it recharge. This time should be unplanned, spontaneous, and not filled with more work. This is the time when you show up and do what interests or recharges you. Cultivate a hobby (which oftentimes business owners don’t have) or maybe even just take a nap.

I schedule 2-4 hours every week, usually on Thursday or Friday, as my "white space", and usually spend this time reading a book, tackling my stack of magazines, having lunch with a friend, or going for a hike.

It’s "me time" and it’s as much a priority as any other business responsibility on my calendar because it’s an important practice for helping me disengage my brain from my business, and cultivate aspects of myself that have little to do with the consuming nature of being a business owner.

Lesson 2: Protect Your Time and Energy with Boundaries

Creating white space in your week is just the beginning of implementing and practicing holding boundaries around what’s important. Setting boundaries is a tactic that should be used in both your work and life to protect your time and energy, leaving you with enough resources to deal with your life, your business, and yourself.

Boundaries exist to help you protect your resources: your time, money, and energy. Without them, you're scattered, spread thin, and likely not achieving what you want to achieve. With them, you're prioritizing what matters most to you, both professionally and personally.

I believe there are four necessary boundaries for every business owner: boundaries around your energy (eg. removing energy drains and saying yes/no when appropriate), between your life and work (eg. when you’re not answering emails or phone calls), around your work time (e.g. sticking to your role and creating focus work time), and boundaries around big-picture planning (e.g. making time to work on your business, not just in it).

With these boundaries, and any others that you find important with how you work and live, you become the boss of your resources, you remain proactive versus reactive, and you can more easily prioritize taking care of yourself.

Lesson 3: Adopting Habits and Routines That Support You

While boundaries are here to protect what’s important, habits and routines shape the daily actions that support you along your journey. Because, as we say, being boss is a daily practice.

As we traverse this path, we begin to pick up the actions we must take every day, week, month, and year to drive us toward success. From a morning routine to a monthly review of your business numbers, habits and routines keep you on track. They also streamline your actions, making it easier to get the results you want.

By streamlining, automating, and otherwise facilitating your journey, the habits and routines that support you become essential to keeping burnout at bay.

And having some of those habits and routines incorporate healthcare practices will keep you feeling good while hustling along. To support your mental health, try adding time in nature, healthy sleep habits, and body movement to your routine. Over time, you’ll find them easier to do and you’ll feel the benefits, too.

Emily Thompson on mental health

Why It Matters

Choosing the path of entrepreneurship isn’t just about making money doing work we love. It’s also about taking full responsibility for ourselves, which doesn’t just include our bank accounts and retirement funds, but how we feel every step of the way. It requires a holistic approach to create a positive feedback loop that cycles through supporting not just yourself, but your business, and back again.

It’s important to note that you should invest in your mental health for no other reason than it’s vital to you as a human being ... although it does have the added benefit of being good for your business.

When you can show up to your role feeling centered, balanced, and whole, you can do better work for your organization, which will help you find fulfillment and joy in doing the work.

Remember: it’s a perpetual practice. You’ll never be done taking care of your mental health, so figure out what it looks like for you now, and you’ll have the tools to help you forever.

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