Beating burnout: how social entrepreneurs can avoid going beyond their limits

The extreme pressure of running a social venture can hit hard: a sobering one in four business leaders surveyed by the School for Social Entrepreneurs said they've had to take time off as a result. But what are the triggers – and how can entrepreneurs avoid pushing themselves too far? Ian Baker, head of student wellbeing at SSE, digs into recent research and shares some tried-and-tested coping strategies.

Many social entrepreneurs struggled with wellbeing before any of us had heard of Covid-19. Inevitably, the crisis amplified issues.

Many social entrepreneurs support people to improve their mental health and wellbeing, but that doesn’t mean they look after their own.

Their limits for tolerating long hours and exhausting schedules tends to be high, because they are driven by purpose. But a sense of purpose can over-ride self-care, and that’s when they begin to hit their limits.

As head of student wellbeing at the School for Social Entrepreneurs (SSE), my role is to support social entrepreneurs to prioritise their wellbeing.

We recently conducted in-depth interviews with 27 of our students and SSE fellows to get a better picture of where social entrepreneurs are at with their wellbeing. Here’s what we learnt.


One in four have seriously struggled

One in four social entrepreneurs we spoke with have experienced serious physical or mental ill health as a result of the extreme pressure of running their organisations. They were forced to take time out of their organisations – they had no choice.

And these experiences were all prior to the Covid pandemic.

24% of small business owners reported their mental health was worsening in relation to the pandemic

Other research on entrepreneurs supports our findings. A 2019 report by Weare3sixty found that founders are 5.5 times lonelier than the UK average. Depression anxiety and depression are three times higher.

More than half of founders reported feeling depressed, anxious, sleep deprived, burnt out, irritable and unable to focus.

Specifically in relation to the Covid pandemic, 24% of small business owners reported their mental health was worsening, according to the ACCA & CFN SME Tracker (published March 2021). One in 13 reported having intrusive negative thoughts or suicidal feelings.


What pushes social entrepreneurs to and beyond their limits?

Many social entrepreneurs are well adapted to responding to change – such as going into lockdown. Some thrive on the creativity and focus this unleashes. One social entrepreneur told us:

“When the crisis first hit, part of it is like an adrenaline factor which keeps you going. […] Normally the world is full of a million problems that you need to prioritise. […] But now all of a sudden there’s one or two problems and there’s one way: which is forward. While that’s hard work, it’s also quite nice because it really simplifies the world and makes it easier.”

Some thrive on the creativity and focus that change unleashes... but it can also be a trigger that takes social entrepreneurs towards their limits

But our research also found that crisis and change can be key triggers that take social entrepreneurs towards their limits.

  • Relationships were the most common trigger, especially work relationships: staff difficulties and conflict, delegating, board meetings and relationships, and funder and partnership relationships.
  • Personal relationships were also a trigger: the impact of caring responsibilities, bereavements, children needing additional support, and relationship difficulties and endings.

Other triggers that pushed social entrepreneurs to and beyond their limits were:

  • managing multiple stressors at once, and peak periods of stress
  • financial stress, both personal and organisational
  • the discrimination some face in their work
  • the weight of responsibility they feel as founders and decision makers
  • their own personal psychologies, for example ambition and drive


What is the impact on social entrepreneurs of pushing beyond their limits?

Not surprisingly, just over half the people we spoke with told us the biggest impact of pushing beyond limits was on their mental and emotional health.

People reported: difficulty managing emotions like anger, difficulty concentrating, feeling overwhelmed, experiencing depression, anxiety and panic, as well as existing or new mental health conditions being triggered.

Besides impacting social entrepreneurs’ mental health, going beyond their limits also impacted on their physical health, work-life balance and relationships (personal and professional).

We’re driven by something else. It’s not monetary so it’s almost harder to switch off

Of course, most people have experienced some of these impacts from the Covid pandemic and successive lockdowns over the past year.

But our research suggests that social entrepreneurs may be more likely to push beyond their limits and experience these impacts, even in normal times.

As one interviewee told us: “It’s difficult because with social entrepreneurs, we’re driven by something else. It’s not monetary so it’s almost harder to switch off, because you know the difference that you can make.”



What can social entrepreneurs do to avoid going beyond their limits?

So far this is all sounding gloomy. Is it possible to start and grow social ventures without going beyond limits and burning out?

Social entrepreneurs will often be pushing up against their mental, emotional and physical limits. Their drive to solve social and environmental problems is so strong, and needs usually outweigh resources.

But the people we spoke to revealed some helpful strategies:

1. Healthy self-management

This includes things like gaining perspective and focusing on the longer-term mission, as well as taking time for personal development (therapy, coaching, supervision, studying) and self-reflection (journaling, meditation). It means having better boundaries too: limiting work hours, saying no, prioritising work-life balance.

People spoke of drawing from previous experiences, holding their nerve and doing what they’re best at to avoid imposter syndrome. Prioritising self-care was key here.

For example, one social entrepreneur adds “CEO wellbeing” to their task-list, ensuring they make time the time they need for themselves.

2. Slowing, stopping and relaxing

Although counterintuitive, stopping is key when people are under extreme pressure to meet deadlines or deliver on things.

“The strategy I actually use is to stop! I just have to take time out. […] If you’re moving towards burnout you have to rest.”

Once people have been through burnout, they realise the importance of stopping (altogether or at a reasonable time each day), taking time off or slowing down. And they prioritise doing it.

Even small steps help: making sure they have lunch, building in big breaks to recover or giving themselves a mental health day if they need one.

“It’s nearly always possible to say: well, we could do this next week.”

You don’t have to say, ‘I’m failing’. You could say: ‘Hey, how’s anyone else solved this problem?’

3. Connecting with people and feeling supported

Social entrepreneurs can find support though sector networks and working with supportive, like-minded people. They should also draw on support from, and spend time with, family and friends.

This might seem obvious, but it’s the prioritisation of this time that gets dropped when people are under pressure.

“Asking for help doesn’t just mean your closest colleague at work. It could be asking your friends on Facebook, or putting out a question on LinkedIn. There are so many ways of asking for help. You don’t have to say, ‘I’m failing’. You could say: ‘Hey, how’s anyone else solved this problem?’ ”


Further learning and resources


Wellbeing is a leadership task

At times, hearing about how social entrepreneurs have pushed beyond their limits has been shocking.

Some people we spoke with thought burning out was an inevitable part of the journey. But it doesn’t have to be.

It comes back to that hackneyed analogy of putting on your own oxygen mask or life jacket before helping others. Maintaining mental, emotional and physical wellbeing is a leadership task.

Wellbeing makes social entrepreneurs more effective, maintains good relationships and ultimately helps create greater impact.

“I will not burn out again in that way, I can guarantee it. Because it’s just not worth it, even if you’re passionate about something, it’s just not worth it.

“We care so deeply, but you can’t pour from an empty cup.”

  • Ian Baker is head of student wellbeing at the School for Social Entrepreneurs. He is also a psychotherapist.

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