Courtesy of Leah Phifer
- Leah Phifer is an employee-engagement consultant who helps organizations retain their staff.
- She left her job in the government in May to focus exclusively on her small business.
- She knew it was time to quit once she recognized burnout and was able to cover her needs.
Like many first-time entrepreneurs, I started my employee-engagement consultancy, WhyWork, as a side hustle. I had a solid nine-month plan to transition it into my primary employment, including income benchmarks and a transition to part-time work in my job as a human-resources specialist for the United States Department of Agriculture. This plan was based on financial advice I derived from a variety of reputable sources, including the Forbes Expert Panel and Harvard Business Review.
But most entrepreneurs never do anything halfway, and I was no exception. About three months into my plan, I was working 15 to 20 hours a week on my business while also juggling a 40-hour workweek. Then two of my immediate family members suffered health issues that required an additional 10 to 15 hours a week of caregiving.
Having experienced burnout one other time in my life after running for Congress in one of the nation’s largest districts, I knew I had to get it under control before it brought down my mental health, putting both my young business and full-time job at risk.
I decided to focus on my consulting practice, but I didn’t know if I was ready to go all-in. So I came up with a plan.
If you’re undertaking a similar assessment, here are a few ways to get clear on when to make the leap into full-time entrepreneurship and avoid burning out in the process.
1. Name the problem
Acknowledging burnout is the first step to overcoming it. To understand if what you’re feeling is burnout, start by identifying the cause.
According to the World Health Organization, there are three components to burnout. The first is cynicism, which occurs when you can’t see the impact of your work, so you feel it’s insignificant or meaningless. The second is inefficacy, when you feel like a failure at work because you lack the resources or autonomy to do your job well. The third component is discussed the most frequently — exhaustion. Exhaustion occurs when working long-term in high-pressure situations or logging more hours each day than is feasible for your energy levels. Suffering from one or more of these components at any given time constitutes burnout.
When I sat down to assess why my energy levels were so depleted, I realized I was suffering from exhaustion brought on by time poverty — the feeling of having too many things to do and not enough time to do them. Research shows that once people make enough to meet their basic needs, additional money doesn’t make them any happier, but additional time does. This boost in happiness then contributes to higher productivity and creativity at work (two attributes I knew would benefit my small business). I used this knowledge to change my goals from a foundation of “wants” and “shoulds” to ones based on meeting my basic needs.
2. Acknowledge it will only get worse if left unaddressed
Once you’re clear on where your feelings of depletion, stress, or negativity come from, the next step requires coming to terms with the action needed. You can’t just power through burnout — you must take action to avoid derailing your personal or professional life.
When I paused to understand how I was feeling, I realized I was suffering from exhaustion by working more hours than my body could reasonably handle. The only thing to do was eliminate some areas of work — even if it meant making sacrifices. If your feelings of depletion at work stem from cynicism or inefficacy, one step you can take is asking your boss or coworkers for what you need to make a meaningful impact at your job.
3. Make a plan to cover what you need
Most people can’t eliminate major obligations in their life at the first sign of burnout. My first sign came when, after a long day at work, I broke down crying while waiting to pick up a prescription for my grandma. I called my fiancé from the pharmacy parking lot and told him I couldn’t survive another five months at this pace. I was nervous, as we’d spent so much time putting together the financial plan to take my business full-time.
He was immediately supportive. When I got home, we laid out our finances and designed a plan that allowed us to meet our financial needs instead of goals. My original goal-based plan was to earn approximately $8,000 a month in consulting revenue, bringing me to the equivalent of my government salary before I resigned. Upon reassessment, we realized I didn’t need to completely replace my income — I only needed to cover my bills, which cost approximately $3,500 a month.
I left the USDA this May when my business made $3,700. The new plan allowed me to leave my job sooner by focusing on what I needed.
4. Enlist support
Once you’ve made a decision, accountability is key. Even in the midst of the Great Resignation, it’s hard to walk away from a job you’ve been doing for years, especially if you have friends there.
Find a friend or family member to hold you accountable, someone to ensure you’re executing the plan. In addition to my partner, I also told my mom about the new plan. She was not only supportive but relieved after watching my stress levels mount for months. When I found myself hesitant to tell my boss, my partner and mom reminded me why I needed to do this and what was at stake.
5. Be open to change
The realization of how burnout could affect my business ultimately aided the final point of my plan and introduced me to some of the best advice for entrepreneurship — be prepared to pivot. Focusing on my business full-time allowed me to better assess the market, illuminating needs my original business plan didn’t address.
When I launched WhyWork, I focused exclusively on interviewing employees to uncover their unique motivators and goals, then capturing that in an individual engagement plan for their leadership. That remains the heart of my consulting practice, but I now offer individual burnout coaching, workshops, and wellbeing assessments as well. One of my most popular offerings now is a hands-on workshop where participants build models with Legos to work through complex challenges. Truly listening to what your target clientele needs will allow your business to grow.