Burnout and self-employment

Written by Miglena Hofer

Miglena is a Co-Founder and Co-CEO of The Collaboratory Coworking Space, as well as one of the lawyers behind the Vienna-based non-profit Austria for beginners. She is a full-time parentpreneuer, an avid coffee drinker and a firm believer in the power of community.

March 21, 2020

Burnout and self-employment



We live in a global, ultra-connected, high-demanding, extremely stimulating environment where perfectionism and performance are expected and the competition is fierce. There are more self-employed persons then there has ever been in the service sector. This is due, among other things, to the desire of the Millennials to feel self-accomplished at work and building their work from a passion. We are witnessing also the incredible emergence of digital nomads.  But the mere fact of being aware of it doesn’t help us deal with it in our own lives. We can be aware of our environment but we can’t control it. However, we can control the choices we make and have an impact on the way we live and experience our life.

The image that comes automatically to my mind when talking about burnout is one, often shared, of a man or woman whose head collapsed on an office desk near a stack of documents. This image can give us the impression of a very sudden happening. But burnout is actually the result of a long time and the complex process going on in one’s body and mind.


Burnout doesn’t happen from one day to another. Through this article, I aim to explain that burnout is also not a fatality. There are ways to learn how to be aware and acknowledge the signals your body and mind are giving you in time. That way you can get into action and not be burned out for a longer period. The work environment has, of course, a big impact too. As a self-employed person, you are your employer. Therefore you have the position to change your work environment and your way to function in it.


Interesting is that most of the time your body and mind are giving you warnings already before exhaustion happens. Unfortunately for different internal and external reasons, many are not able to listen to those. Like on your car’s dashboard, what’s happening is that in the beginning, the warnings are green. Then they become orange, and finally, they become red…  They may even start to flash and make noise until it’s too late. As a consequence, the engine (your brain) stops to work and you are forced to stop. With no choice where you stop, when you stop, or the way you stop. It was not planned: you are burned out and will now be forced to take a real break to recover.


What is burnout?

Burnout, as defined by the WHO (2019), is a syndrome of physical and psychological exhaustion resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not have been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions: feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and reduced professional efficacy. I am not entering any theoretical considerations in this article. However, we know from the practice that even if burnout was mainly associated to work in the scientific literature. It has a complex multifactorial origin. It’s to say that most of the time when your way to function is not efficient at work anymore, it won’t function at home either, and vice-versa.

A high amount of stress can also be caused by a lack of purpose in one’s job. For example, if you have to do things that are not in line with your fundamental values. You can experience then stress and a lack of sense in your work. Therefore, it can be interesting to work on those values: identifying them and learning how you can apply them in your daily life.

What are the signs you may be in a burnout?

Keep in mind the story of the warnings on your dashboard. The signs can differ from person to person but most commonly, we may observe:

  • Behavioral symptoms: a decrease of interest and motivation in the work, behaving in a cynical way toward tasks and work, but maybe also towards people. Most will also feel a reduced professional capability: difficulty concentrating, being creative and finding solutions.

  • Emotional symptoms: difficulty managing emotions, lots of negative emotions toward tasks, work and persons (anger, dissatisfaction, frustration, …). Feeling irritable.

  • Thoughts: feeling unable to cope with changes, negative thoughts about the work and about yourself but also about other persons.

  • Physical symptoms: having multiple pain, feeling tired, exhausted, falling sick more often than usual and not having the feeling to be able to recover from the tiredness

Is it feasible to go to burnout when you are self-employed?

When you are self-employed, lots of factors can increase the risks of burnout, as well as the intensity and time of recovery. For these reasons, it is even more important to take adequate measures of precaution to preserve you from experiencing burnout. It’s hard to take a long sick leave period when you are self-employed. Therefore it is better to prevent than of happening.

What I also observe from self-employed persons who went through burnout is that they are often not willing to stop working. So they decrease a little their working hours and don’t let go totally. However, the risk of an incomplete recovery is being less able to concentrate and therefore to start to make some mistakes or create new issues. Those will cause you additional stress and keep you in a negative spiral.

Why are self-employed persons more likely to experience burnout?

  • Dependency on income

When you are running your business alone, your income relies directly on the work you do. The more you work, the more you hope to earn. If you don’t work, your income decreases and this puts a lot of pressure on your shoulders.

  • Multi-tasking

Frequently, you are most of the time extremely multi-tasking in order to get your business done. It asks you to develop a great number of skills that are maybe not one of your many strengths. Efficient time management is crucial. Therefore, it is necessary to plan some time to make an efficient and clear repartition of your time and tasks. Try defining which are the most important and urgent tasks and set priorities. Clear planning means a clear mind and will reduce already your mental charge and stress. In addition to that, it is important to plan your breaks, free time and holidays.

  • Direct contact with customers

You have to deal with the client’s dissatisfaction, complex demands or maybe also with the client’s sufferance (for example in the care sector). You might also not feel free to say “No” to your customers when they ask too much from you, do it too late or are changing their requests too often.

  • The lack of a support team

Being self-employed may also sometimes mean you feel quite alone and not supported daily by a team as you would be in a company. Therefore, it is important to build a support team in which you trust and that is not only your family (or clients). You need to have a crew of persons who are truly listening and understanding you, such as colleagues of the same field. It can also be of great help to hire a coach or to visit regularly a psychologist. They will help you avoid keeping all of those struggles to yourself. Building a strong support team is also important in order to have feedback from them when they feel you are going in the wrong direction. For example when you’re over-burdening or overlooking others.

  • Work-life balance

Nowadays technologies don’t help us to move work away for a weekend or even a couple of hours. A little message here, the last mail there, just a 2-minutes call… We all recognize those situations. We have the feeling that everything urges us, that we might forget things and that an unanswered call might lead customers to someone else’s services. When you are not connected, you feel stressed by not knowing what is happening. Our mind anyway doesn’t ever stop to think about work, so better appease it by staying connected?  This results in the inability of your mind to proper rest and the lack of an efficient way to decrease the amount of stress in your body.

Does personality play a role?

The causes of burnout are multifactorial. This means that it can be due to your work environment but also to your way of functioning in this environment. Often people experiencing burnout have the same way to function in their work at home.

Common characteristics of persons that have experienced a burnout are:

  • being perfectionist, having a lot of energy,
  • having lots of projects at the same time,
  • being very sensitive,
  • having a high-stress resistance,
  • having a difficulty to put limits,
  • burdening themselves, etc.

Some tips to preserve yourself from experiencing a burnout


Inform yourself about your rights and duties in case of sick leave with your social insurance and other competent authorities.


Build a strong support team by coming out of your home/workplace. If it applies to your job, invest for example in a desk at a co-working place. You can also seek help for tasks that are not depending on yourself (cleaning help or someone helping you a few times a week with the kids, for example).


Invest in the support of a psychologist or a coach in order to have professional accompaniment, whether you are overwhelmed or also to get to know yourself better. And thanks to them, to develop efficient strategies for yourself to cope with day-to-day stress, work, and life management or any other issue. This also a way to take time and care for yourself.


Develop your self-care skills and take the time to take breaks where you release actively tension: yoga, breathing exercises, mindfulness, playing music, coloring…


Identify and work on your false beliefs. They are also playing a huge role in the burnout process of self-employed persons. Some beliefs are circulating as “self-employed do not have the right to go on holidays otherwise they won’t make a profit”. Or “taking a break is time-wasting”. It might be “as self-employed you don’t have the right to take days off”. Or “the social insurance is not paying you any money when you are in work incapacity”. And even “you will lose all of your clients if you go on a sick-leave”, …


Develop a strong time-management strategy in order to plan at least 24h a week without work. That way you will have enough time to release all the tensions accumulated. It starts with planning little breathing moments of 2 minutes in order to decrease stress and increase self-awareness.


How do you deal with stress? Have you experienced burnout? Let us know in the comments!


About the author:

Marie-Julie is a life and work coach. She has a Master’s Degree in work psychology and an additional one in clinical psychology. She is Belgian and studied in Brussels. Psychology is really her passion. She specialized in topics such as happiness at work, team management, change management, conflict management, stress management, emotional management, burnout recovery, and professional orientation and reorientation. Since she is a nomad, she was surprised to discover how big the need for support and coaching for ex-pats was. Related to the nomad theme, she helps people to redefine life and work purpose and to put meaning in their expatriation. She believes in the power of the group and thus loves to give workshops related to different topics to help people getting to know great tools for daily life use and personal development.
You can learn more about her at mind-full-changes.com

She is one of the skilled professionals The Collaboratory works with! If you’ve missed her workshop on Stress Management, you can book a private session with her.

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