Entrepreneurs battle burnout from working longer hours, taking fewer vacations, survey suggests

Many of us romanticize the idea of employing ourselves, but a new survey suggests small-business owners are working harder, taking fewer vacations and enjoying less downtime since leaving traditional employment to start their own ventures.

New survey conducted for CIBC suggests being your own boss takes a toll

A recent study conducted on behalf of CIBC found that two-thirds of business owners work longer hours than they did when they were employed by others, and 61 per cent said their stress levels are much higher. (Syda Productions/Shutterstock)

Many of us romanticize the idea of employing ourselves, but a new survey suggests small-business owners are working harder, taking fewer vacations and enjoying less downtime since leaving traditional employment to start their own ventures. 

Conducted by market research firm Maru/Blue on behalf of CIBC, the survey found that two-thirds of business owners who responded work longer hours since starting their own businesses, and 61 per cent say their stress levels are much higher compared to when they were conventionally employed.

The online survey of 1,005 small-business owners was conducted between Aug. 8 and Aug. 18. The results are considered accurate within 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

Nearly four in 10 respondents said they have taken little or no vacation time in 2019, and 60 per cent said they struggle to get time off from work when needed.

Additionally, 54 per cent said they have given up most hobbies and extracurricular activities since starting their businesses.

Andrew Turnbull, senior vice-president for CIBC Business Banking, which oversaw the survey, said he found "the lack of free time was extremely notable.

"In today's day and age especially, entrepreneurs are stretched," he said. That's in part because businesses scale faster today, exporting products and services much earlier in than they once did. For this and other reasons, he said, owners are experiencing "a number of pain points that take away from work-life balance."

Entrepreneur Kael Campbell, who founded Red Seal Recruiting Solutions in 2005, pictured here with his son in B.C.'s Pacific Rim National Park in March, says becoming a father has prompted him to draw much clearer boundaries around his work and personal time. (Submitted by Kael Campbell)

For years Kael Campbell struggled to keep his work hours in check. The founder of Red Seal Recruiting Solutions, a Victoria company that finds certified trades workers for the companies that need staff, ​​​​​​would routinely be at the office until 8 p.m. and took calls at all hours.

Although he's an athletic guy who enjoys outdoor pursuits such as mountain biking, the lack of regular exercise meant Campbell found himself struggling to recover from injuries he got from his weekend warrior lifestyle. Boozy work dinners with clients also took their toll, he said.

Becoming a dad to his son, now 2½, has helped Campbell draw clear boundaries around work and home life and refine his priorities. "I've got my family as No. 1, then my health, then the business is more of a distant third."

Mental health is a huge issue for entrepreneurs.- Kael Campbell, president, Red Seal Recruiting Solutions

Today his staff can see that the hour around his son's bedtime is blocked off on Campbell's calendar, as are his little guy's swimming lessons every Tuesday at 3 p.m. And Campbell installed a swim spa at home so he can get his own exercise "any time of the day or night," managing it around family commitments.

"I signed up for the Victoria half-Ironman next year and it's going to be a huge physical feat for me, but I'm putting it in my calendar because I know how important it is for my son to see me achieve something. I'm making those decisions based on values. Do I go out and have drinks with customers after work, or am I going to commit to doing something physical?"

Campbell said putting a good team in place allowed him to take a family vacation this past summer in Desolation Sound, B.C., a place that has minimal cell coverage. (Submitted by Kael Campbell)

Finding the founder community

Campbell said another part of managing the pressures of being the boss is finding a community of other founders who can relate to stressors such as cash flow crunches that shouldn't be shared with staff or maybe even family.

For the past four years he's belonged to the Vancouver Island chapter of the Entrepreneurs' Organization, a non-profit that brings owners together to share resources and support. "Mental health is a huge issue for entrepreneurs. I've definitely heard entrepreneurs say, 'I can't do that anymore,' and being able to voice that among a group who understands is super important."

Amanda Munday, pictured here with son Everett, then 2, said she has struggled at times to maintain her own health since she founded her business, The Workaround, one year ago. Still she rejects the idea that entrepreneurs need to keep up a constant hustle in order to make it in business. (Caitlin Bar/Submitted by Amanda Munday)

Amanda Munday has had two separate bouts of pneumonia in the year since she founded her business, The Workaround, a co-working space geared to parents that offers on-demand child care.

"I had multiple medical professionals say, 'You are headed for burnout.' I ignored that advice and then I got sick," she said. 

Despite her own struggles with keeping her hours in check while also ensuring the needs of her two children are met, Munday said she rejects the culture of hustle that has developed among founders.

"The thing I feel a strong emotional reaction to when we talk about burnout is this trope that people say you need to feel like you're dying or you need to work constantly in order to really be doing it as an entrepreneur. I feel like that's a really tired approach," said Munday.

"I worry that studies like this could reinforce that you have to work these long hours in order to justify your role as an entrepreneur."

Although Munday said she was warned by other entrepreneurs that she couldn't afford to step away from her business for a vacation in its first year, she took two weeks at an off-the-grid cottage with her family this summer.

"I'm in the business of creating easier work for working parents, so if I don't stop and model what taking a break looks like, then it doesn't hold up the business model."

At CIBC, Turnbull said entrepreneurs are "the lifeblood of our economy" and that they need not just proper summer vacations, but support from policymakers to make life more manageable, pointing to an International Monetary Fund statement calling on Canada to reduce regulatory hurdles that founders face.

"We need to continue to work on making Canada an extremely competitive place to innovate and be able to export our services and products both across our own provincial borders as well as internationally.

"That's a key area of public policy that we can address."