You are not your business.

Minimal front view portrait of exhausted business owner calculating finances and doing inventory

Okay, I admit the title sounds obvious. But let’s pick it apart for a moment.

Do you know where you end and where your business begins? How much of your identity is connected to your work?

Many people, especially people in the United States, feel uncomfortable examining these questions. We’re a nation of workaholics. We know that we work too hard and too much—we might be painfully aware of the compromises and sacrifices we’ve made for our jobs—but changing our relationship with work is a struggle.

Maybe it’s a consequence of how we were raised, of the messages we internalized as children: try harder, pull your weight, don’t be lazy. Maybe it’s due to habits we’ve developed as a society of entrepreneurs and self-starters, early birds and worm-getters.

Whatever its source, the feeling remains the same: the work must get done. The endless, all-consuming work. The work we spend all day and night thinking about. The important work.

How important is that work, truly?

Is it more important than our loved ones—more important than our physical and mental well-being?

Why do business owners struggle to disconnect?

Again, these are uncomfortable questions, particularly for business owners. We’re talking about a chronically overworked population—people who work twice as much as employees, often in excess of 60, 80, or 100 hours per week.

Because business owners don’t need to report to anyone other than their clients and customers, there’s no preexisting boundary between working and not working. It can feel like you need to be “on” all times. And in today’s #RiseAndGrind culture, it often seems there’s someone else—someone more flexible, more knowledgeable, and more hardworking—vying for the same buyers.

On top of that, there are the realities of running a business. At any given time, a business owner might be balancing a dozen different priorities and major decisions. They might be preparing for an investor meeting while launching a new service offering while also negotiating a lease, dealing with an employee dispute, chasing down a missing payment, and talking to a demanding caller, all while worrying about how they’ll pay the bills next month. They’re the Chief Everything Officer—a superhero who needs to lead, manage, and execute all at once, often in the face of significant uncertainty.

Is it any wonder why so many business owners struggle with burnout and mental health issues?

The responsibility takes a toll.

Business owners who struggle with mental health issues often conflate their own self-worth with the financial worth of their organizations.

Remember what I said about not being your business? This is what I’m talking about.

That said, disconnecting from your business is anything but easy. The link between financial uncertainty and increased levels of stress is undeniable. The lifestyles and working conditions that business owners face increase the risk of mental health disorders such as chronic anxiety and depression. What’s worse, some can’t afford to pay for their own health insurance coverage. And sadly, all of these issues disproportionately affect women and people of color.

What's a business owner to do?

It starts with reframing your thinking.

Instead of trying to master everything and eliminate uncertainty by working harder, understand that those unpleasant emotions—anxiety, fear, sadness, stress—are signals that reflect how you feel rather than who you are.

You’re not stressed because you need to do more; you’re exhausted because you’re doing too much.

The feeling is a reminder to take care of yourself.

And all of us—especially the business owners among us—have a responsibility to take care of ourselves. It comes before our responsibility to anyone else. Of course, we all want to help each and every person we serve. But we can’t do that when we’ve run ourselves ragged. We need to attend to our own needs in order to bring our best, most capable selves to the work of serving others.

Here are a few steps to take now:

Know the warning signs of a mental health crisis.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) recognizes the following as common signs of mental health and stress disorders:

  • Excessive worrying
  • Confused thinking
  • Problems concentrating
  • Avoiding friends and social activities
  • Extreme mood changes
  • Changes in sleeping habits (feeling tired, low energy)
  • Changes in eating habits (increased hunger, loss of appetite)

If you’ve been experiencing any of these behaviors, it’s possible that they’re linked to the pressures of running a business.

We’ve written previously about the intersection between business ownership and mental health, as well as the importance of self-care for entrepreneurs. In these posts, you’ll find valuable mental health tools and resources for business owners across every industry.

Priortize yourself.

Sources of stress don’t simply vanish as we learn more effective habits of dealing with them. We can’t change the demands of our customers and clients. We can only change our reactions and relationship with our businesses.

Many business owners don’t get the luxury of paid time off that employees receive. For a moment, forget about that client who needs their product right this very second and doesn’t care about how busy you are. When was the last time you were able to take a full day off?

How about a vacation?

24/7 service isn’t a reasonable expectation for any small business owner—and “me time” isn’t something you have to (or should) put off indefinitely.

As long as we work smarter, not harder, it’s possible to carve out time for ourselves and our passions and hobbies on a regular basis. Here are a few easy ways to do it:

  1. Do your best to follow a standard daily routine, aiming for consistent start and end times to your workday.
  2. Plan out projects weeks ahead of time and gift yourself with the occasional day off when you can afford to do so.
  3. Take time out of your schedule to account for regular meals and physical activity.
  4. Respect your limits. Don’t push yourself too hard or feel obligated to take on new responsibilities if you feel as though you can’t fully commit to them.

Saying “no” to a client or customer is never an easy thing to do. But learning to set boundaries and recognizing the limitations of your abilities is a strength, not a weakness. Even Olympic athletes take a week off during training.

Consider if you're your own worst critic.

A former colleague of mine recently rebranded herself as a “career influencer.” She regularly posts TikToks and blog articles on topics such as landing your dream job, nailing your next interview, and marketing yourself effectively.

She’s providing a great resource for her followers, but whenever I come across her posts on social media, I don’t think, “Wow, this was really helpful.” Instead, I think, “Wow, she is way more secure in her career path than I am.”

I’ve come to recognize this response as another form of pride.

Unfortunately, this is a common feeling among people in my network. When presented with tools and resources designed to help us succeed, we instead double down on feelings of shame and insecurity.

I like the way professional business educator Rani Langer-Croager explains it

“Constantly comparing yourself to others is a distraction from your plan. You take time and energy away from executing on your plan. It can also put you in a reactive mode and influence your business decisions, causing you to follow the other businesses rather than pursuing your own goals.”

Remember that everyone needs to ask for help.

If you’re able to provide every service to every client executed perfectly every time: congratulations, you have superpowers.  

For the rest of us, however, working on our own can leave us feeling isolated and we don’t always recognize when we need a little support. Or maybe we have too much pride to even consider asking for help in the first place.

The truth is your business suffers when you don’t have the right people filling the right roles. And—unless you have those aforementioned superpowers—it’s impossible to take on every role within your business. 

Remember: it’s not only okay to ask for help; it’s essential for your success.

Whether you’re looking to increase your number of billable hours, boost your bottom line, or even just devote more time on growing your business rather than responding to customers, the right team can make it happen.

For free tools to grow your business and reclaim your time, make sure to check out Ruby’s small business resource hub.