Feeling Super Fried? Contractors at High Risk for Burnout

Small-business burnout is common, and the contracting business is especially vulnerable

June 22, 2017
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Not too excited about the work you’re doing? Daunted at the thought of all the jobs you have backlogged? Feeling a little … crisp around the edges?
Those are all symptoms of burnout. You may think that people who work for bad managers are the most common candidates for burnout, but those who work for themselves are much more likely to go down in flames.
Contracting is a notorious business for burnout. “People say that having your own construction business makes you lucky because you get to do whatever you want whenever you want, and just leave the work to your employees,” writes business development specialist Greg Hamlyn in an article on LinkedIn: Contractor Burnout: What is it and how to overcome it. “As much as contractors want that freedom, most of the time, they experience the total opposite.”

Reach for the Fire Extinguisher

Indeed. Selling jobs, managing the jobs you sell, maybe even lending a hand in the construction, then marketing to get more jobs between time spent doing the books—all that can be managed by one person ... for a while. But it can also spin out of control when, for instance, you take on more work than you can handle because you’re afraid to say no. Or when, by insisting on doing everything, you end up putting in way more hours than you can or should, and this goes on for months, then years.
What happens is that your mind never gets to rest. Stress mounts, with all its attendant symptoms. “Burnout is a state of chronic stress that can cause detachment, lack of motivation, exhaustion (both physical and mental) and even anger and lashing out,” notes Robert Peters in a LinkedIn article titled Eight (8) Signs You're Experiencing Contractor Burnout. And, he says, “it’s more common among the self-employed, including contractors."

Overthink Everything

What brings it on? Stimulation overload, essentially. You’ll know it when you feel it, though that may not be the best time to realize that you’re fried.
The folks at CorkCRM, a software company for painting contractors, say the signs are not subtle. “Perhaps the biggest causal factor is doing too much, too fast, too frequently,” says a blog on the company’s website. “When you’re running a business, it’s easy to put a little too much on your plate. You want quick and guaranteed success, so you might end up trying to do everything at once, often without a set plan for how to accomplish your tasks.”
An article at the Clearsky Contractor Accounting blog lists three tell-tale signs of burnout: 1) a feeling of futility, 2) a lack of “me time,” and 3) an absence of structure. “If you often don’t know where to start, this suggests you are taking on too much.”
Symptoms are both physical and mental. Physical symptoms include fatigue, insomnia and sometimes exhaustion leading to illness such as colds. From a mental standpoint, you find that it’s suddenly no longer possible to get excited. That soon extends from work into other areas of life. Anxiety ratchets up, because you can’t stop thinking about—and dreading—all you have to do. “It is understood that you as the business owner are expected to worry about everything,” notes website Trades/Coaching. “But when you are burnt your anxiety takes over everything in your life. You’ll overthink everything, until it’s all chaos in your head which might lead you to other signs such as getting frustrated and angry over the smallest things.”

Manage Time to Avoid the Burn

Burnout is a constant risk for many contractors, but that doesn’t mean it’s either inevitable or, when it happens, permanent. Those with experience advise that structure—planning how you’ll use your time—is key to eliminating overwork with its attendant depression and fatigue. If you know what you have to do and when you need to do it, you’ll be less inclined to obsess about how, when, and if it’s getting done. Speaker and consultant Jon D. Jones advises being realistic about goals and sticking to a schedule. Plan the day hour by hour, plan your week around larger goals, and stick to the plans. You’ll immediately feel more in control.
Here are some additional stratagems for countering burnout:

  • Refresh and recharge. It’s tough for a business owner, or anyone self-employed, to take time off. Because you’re the one in charge, you don’t prioritize it, so you’re always filling in. “Simply put, it is easier to take time off when that is built into your job description and you will get that paycheck deposited while you are gone,” observes Steve Strauss (Ask An Expert: Small Business Burnout). Those with successful, long-term contracting businesses always schedule time off, whether that’s a few days or a week or two. You’ll come back feeling different and ready to manage whatever challenges are there.
  • Manage your energy. Business owners who’ve been in the game awhile know how to say no. Many also swear by exercise as a burnout buster. Accoroding to Kelly Blackwin writing on Active.com, exercise is an immediate mood lifter and “has been shown in countless studies to effectively treat stress, depression, anxiety, and even the common cold.” (7 Ways Exercise Relieves Stress) Experiment with simply taking a 15-minute walk in the middle of your day. If that walk can put you in a better, more energized mental space, imagine what a regular workout will do.
  • Talk about it. One key burnout symptom is a sense that you’re in it alone. That feeling of isolation can be devastating and compounds all the other effects of burnout. So find someone to listen on a regular basis and schedule those conversations. Carol Ross at the Huffington Post calls that person an “accountability partner.” (How to Bounce Back From Burnout) “I had a friend who, upon realizing I was in burnout from a casual email, replied with “CALL ME!” she writes. “This friend became my accountability partner on a weekly call.” Monique Valcour at the Harvard Business Review (Beating Burnout) suggests that “the best antidote to burnout, particularly when it’s driven by cynicism and inefficacy, is seeking out rich interpersonal interactions and continual personal and professional development. Find coaches and mentors who can help you identify and activate positive relationships and learning opportunities.”
  •  Learn to delegate. The often suggested advice to delegate responsibility to others is typically ignored by those who could best profit from it. Why? Because their rationalization is already in place—they know why they have to do everything. But you have to have people you can delegate to. Written job descriptions and regular training and cross-training free you from having to step in and solve every problem. If, for instance, your foremen or production managers are trained in dispute resolution, then you’re not the one who has to get involved when rotting framing on that roof makes for a big change order that the customer doesn’t feel he should have to pay for. It takes time to put systems and processes like that in place, but that’s the difference between the owner who can comfortably take a few weeks off or be in the office just 20 hours a week, versus the one running down the hall with his hair on fire.

For contractors, the threat of burnout is always present, but solutions are readily available. “The best way to beat burnout as a contractor is to avoid it in the first place,” advises a website that prepares California contractors for their state licensing exam (5 Ways to Beat Burnout in Your Contracting Business). “Keep that in mind and set your work habits accordingly.”

About the Author

About the Author

Philadelphia-based writer Jim Cory is a senior contributing editor to Professional Remodeler who specializes in covering the remodeling and home improvement industry. Reach him at coryjim@earthlink.net.

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