Beyond Burnout

Beyond Burnout

When stress hits overdrive, how can women entrepreneurs recover – before it’s too late?

By Christina Boufis

After Jessica Herrin, co-founder of, appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, she was besieged by women wanting advice on how to become entrepreneurs. Though she didn’t confess it at the time, she wanted to tell them, “Don’t do it.” “Because life was madness,” Herrin explains. “I literally worked every weekend and every night, and it’s not something that’s sustainable.”

At first, when she and her business partner, Jenny Lefcourt, were building the Web portal for brides-to-be, Herrin didn’t mind the long hours. “I thought I was the luckiest person in the world,” she says. Nor did she mind the ultimate irony: that running an e-business helping couples create their dream weddings left her no time to plan her own. But after four years of managing her L.A.– based business, Herrin found that it felt more and more like work. “When you have a passion for something, you never work a day,” she says. “But in the end, I started to feel like I’d rather do something else than show up.”

Herrin had reached burnout. “Burnout is a psychological syndrome of three components,” says Christina Maslach, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley, whose research first identified the syndrome in the 1970s. “Exhaustion, cynicism and a lack of professional effectiveness on the job. And it seems to be a response to chronic stressors.”

For women entrepreneurs, who make up the fastest-growing segment of U.S. small businesses, the effects of burnout can be devastating emotionally, physically and financially. In the best of times, two-thirds of new businesses survive the first two years, but only 44 percent are still in business after four years, reports the U.S. Small Business Administration. As if those statistics weren’t daunting enough, we’re now in the worst economy since the Great Depression, with many business owners working around the clock just to stay afloat. How can women owners avoid burnout that may lead to a premature end for their companies? And what are the signs that they’re heading down a dangerous path?

The Three R’s

According to Patricia Greene, Ph.D., professor of entrepreneurship at Babson College, women entrepreneurs reach burnout through a combination of what she calls the “Three R’s”: when the “rush, responsibility and role-model” pieces of business ownership become too wearying. “[Burnout] is different for men entrepreneurs in at least two of the three R’s,” Greene says. “All the data shows that women are still managing or caring for dependents – whether kids or parents – which men entrepreneurs so often don’t have to do. And a lot of women entrepreneurs become role models, where there is the likelihood of increased expectations,” she adds. “When you add all that together, it’s no wonder that women entrepreneurs burn out.”

Iris Salsman, who ran a successful public relations business in St. Louis for 19 years, recognized she was emotionally and mentally spent when her energy plunged and creativity evaporated. She even started experiencing physical symptoms. “I couldn’t take as deep a breath as I used to,” she says. “And all of a sudden I’d get these burning chest pains.” Her doctor told her she had stress-induced asthma; a cardiologist warned she was at risk of a heart attack.

Salsman had worked 60 hours a week and usually had arrived first at the office, but all that changed once burnout hit. She would procrastinate when it was time to go to the office, and once there, she felt unenthused. “I’d go through e-mail and do the kind of mindless tasks that were really avoidance things,” Salsman says, “instead of dealing with research to come up with new marketing ideas for clients.” Adding to Salsman’s burnout were staff issues that she says weren’t that important, but that her employees wanted her to solve. “People would be lined up at my door like an airport runway,” she says, “and this would go on all day long.”

Salsman’s burnout wasn’t caused by her career, she realized, just her business model and her work environment. “I love what I do,” she says, “but I didn’t love how I was doing it anymore.” So she radically changed her work. She dissolved her business partnership and opened up a new public relations firm working from home. “It’s amazing,” she says. “My physical symptoms disappeared. My creativity came back. My sense of humor re-emerged.” Salsman now works 40 hours a week, which gives her more time for her clients and herself. “I’m more productive when I wake up in the morning,” she says. “If I want to go have lunch with a friend, I do. I don’t have to worry about being a role model.”

Recharging Your Batteries

Herrin, on the other hand, didn’t change her business model. She left in 2001, shortly after she appeared on Oprah, to take time off, travel with her husband, relocate to Austin, Texas, and work as an employee for Dell. “I needed a pause,” she says.”I was so burnt out that I just wasn’t ready to dive back in and do something entrepreneurial again.” Four years later, when Herrin was ready to launch another company, Stella & Dot, a jewelry business, she made sure to structure things differently so that Life/Work balance was the cornerstone. “We tried to invent a model so that [women] don’t have that same kind of burnout,” she says.

Other women entrepreneurs take preventive measures even before they reach overdrive. Dina Kaplan, COO and co-founder of, says it would be easy to succumb to the frenzy of life in New York City. “As an entrepreneur, you need to get out of the mode of just reacting, reacting, reacting, which is stressful,” she says. “It’s also not good for your business in the long term.” Her solution? Refusing to check e-mail first thing in the morning, turning off her BlackBerry and taking a break when she needs to, “preferably somewhere sunny.” Recently Kaplan added meditation every morning, which helps set a calm tone for the day.

Today Herrin has two young children, and while she still works very much full time, she’s off every Friday and cooks dinner every night. “That’s all I ever wanted,” she says, “which is to somehow be an entrepreneur and still have a normal life.”

Take it Easy!

Burning the candle at both ends? Here are seven proven ways to keep a fresh outlook on your business, according to the experts.

1. Develop a “stop-doing” list rather than a to-do list, says Mary Cantando, entrepreneurial consultant and author of The Woman’s Advantage (Kaplan Business, 2006).

2. Reach out and talk with other women entrepreneurs. Share frustrations while using and building your network at the same time.

3. Take time for self-care, such as exercise, meditation, or relaxation with family and friends.

4. Say “No.” “We can tolerate a lot and say ‘yes’ over and over,” says Sylvia LaFair, president of Creative Energy Options, “but at some point, the physical body can’t take one more yes. It needs a no.”

5. Figure out your hourly worth and delegate tasks – at home or at work – that you don’t enjoy or that aren’t worth your time. Otherwise, Cantando says, you’re giving your male competitors a major advantage.

6. Take a weekend break or a mini-vacation more often. Make it a business imperative.

7. Be proactive rather than reactive.

This article originally appeared in the Q3 2009 issue of PINK Magazine.

Share this Article