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Entrepreneurs are known for working long hours fueled by bottomless coffee and feature roadmaps. Workaholic stereotypes are so potent, they conjure images of a bleary-eyed founder with six turtlenecks and few friends, responding to Slack messages at 2:00 a.m. They sacrifice personal lives and mental health for the sake of their companies.
That may not be quite accurate.
It turns out that intense work habits can also mean motivation, satisfaction and greater overall happiness. According to a recent study devoted to burnout in entrepreneurs, entrepreneurs might have some protection against burnout, even with so much work to do.
Findings seem to defy hustle culture tropes. Despite working longer hours, entrepreneurs studied were no more likely to experience burnout than salaried employees. In fact, on average, their risk of burnout was lower due to the “positive psychological effects of entrepreneurial work.” Study authors called this “psychological utility,” a greater sense of meaning, personal autonomy and job satisfaction that amounts to higher mental returns on investment. Entrepreneurs, on average, were happier.
Researchers at the University of Amsterdam tracked 348 entrepreneurs and 1,002 employees for a period of up to six months. Data was collected before the Covid-19 pandemic, a limit stated by study authors. Still, as the first major study to link entrepreneurs and burnout, the findings are worth exploring.
As a psychologist who works closely with entrepreneurs, I think a lot about how to help this highly intense group of people stay psychologically healthy. Here are three insights for entrepreneurs from this new study.
1. Having a team heightens your chances of burnout
Solopreneurs, or single-person businesses, had the lowest risk of burnout among those studied. Risk increased for entrepreneurs who expanded and hired employees, suggesting that marshaling more resources and forming a team should be careful considerations for those concerned about mental exhaustion.
This is a good reminder to question the default setting: Growth is always good. For business owners worried about burnout, consider staying small, perhaps contracting experts instead of building a team. Since running things solo can get lonely, founder meetups and entrepreneur groups offer alternative sources of community, even informal advice. Seek comradery among peers.
2. Workaholism and hustle culture alone don’t cause burnout
“There seems to be a paradox of ‘positive workaholism,'” the study’s lead author, Martin Obschonka, said in a university press release. High levels of engagement shielded entrepreneurs from burnout.
As a personality type, entrepreneurs often consider freedom, ingenuity and adventure to be core values. With this mindset, risk is not a threat, but a means of empowerment — this is why some people choose startups over stable employment and often work in extreme bursts. Late nights are justified as part of a personal mission, rather than working for someone else’s agenda.
Additionally, entrepreneurs really do love their companies. In another small study of functional MRI scans from both fathers and founders, researchers found “strong similarities in the neural responses associated with parenting and entrepreneurial bonding.” In the same way new parents can function with extreme exhaustion (they love their kid), entrepreneurs might handle hard things because they love the business.
If you’re beginning to feel frayed around the edges, go back to basics. Ask yourself: Why did I start this venture? Why did I forfeit job security and a role easily explained to family at the dinner table? Form your answers, and write down your core values. Do this when you’re in a positive mental state, ideally before you start to feel drained. Refer to your list when motivation wanes. Remind yourself of the filters you use to make big life decisions.
Other studies on burnout have shown that aligning our actions with our values gives us more psychological stamina.
3. Meaning extends beyond work (and you still need rest)
While it’s helpful to understand that workaholism is nuanced, we can’t discount the need for meaning outside of work or the need for rest. If you’re on the verge of burnout, which is essentially a brain injury, no amount of meaning is going to repair your cells.
I’ve said before that burnout is the result of trampling over the same neural pathways repeatedly. Performing other activities that engage different aspects of the brain helps build resilience. A hobby or volunteer position that has nothing to do with your day job can be like an inoculation against burnout. Take up painting. Go dancing.
Importantly, diversify your interests. It’s empowering to know that a meaningful job helps our well-being. It can also be dangerous. If your values, identity and sense of self-worth are all satisfied at work, what happens during an exit? A sale or an acquisition becomes an existential crisis. Losing your business can feel like losing everything. The anxiety and depression that often accompany these changes will only heighten your risk of burnout.
Remember to invest in yourself as a person. You are more than your job, career or company.