Is multitasking leaving you at risk of burnout?

By Anthony Wolny | 13th August 2019 | 12 min read

Whether you’ve recently taken the plunge and set up a new business from scratch, or you’ve been running a successful SME for several years and now have a team of several employees, it can be extremely difficult to lose the ‘sole trader’ mindset and delegate tasks accordingly.

A study conducted by the University of Manchester’s business school recently concluded that small business leaders must pay close attention to not only their own wellbeing, but also to that of their staff. Carly Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health, says: “SME leaders are really their own worst enemy. They don’t like delegating and they constantly worry about their organisation, which can ironically be damaging to their staff and even the business itself. The digital era is also making it worse – we take our smartphones everywhere, and often don’t hesitate to work whilst on holiday or during evenings and weekends. Learning to switch off is therefore critical and that means taking a proper break to recharge.”

Of course, one of the main factors that heavily contributes to burn out within SME’s is multi-tasking, with many business owners admitting that they are at breaking point because of an ‘always on’ culture. In a survey of 500 senior business leaders and decision makersacross the UK, one in five have admitted to feeling under pressure all the time, whilst 66 percent have said they don’t have time to, or can’t switch off at all. 48 percent blamed a lack of time as the key reason for their work pressure.

The same study also found that most SME owners work an average of 2,366 hours per year. This boils down to a 45.5 hour week, which means they work around 416 hours of overtime per year. What’s worse is that more than half; 56 percent; work 6 or 7 days a week.

So, what exactly are small business owners doing that takes up so many working hours? The most common answer, it would seem, is mainly admin.

A report from Sage recently found that SME owners across the world currently spend an average of 120 working days per year on administrative tasks, accounting for around five percent of the total manpower of an average SME. Add to this that HR tasks are taking up around 60 hours of management time for 23 percent of the UK’s SME businesses, and you have the perfect recipe for stress, burn out and fatigue. If business owners fail to get a handle on such cultures, it can quickly spread to the rest of the business.

Can technology help with burn out?

The introduction of a reliable, flexible HR system is one of the best ways to combat the administrative headaches that small business owners often find themselves facing when it comes to HR and administrative tasks. Having a self service system puts the power and responsibility of personal detail management back into the hands of individual employees and managers. Basic functions, such as checking annual leave entitlement, requesting holiday, managing team holidays and sicknesses can sit with employees to initiate and manage, meaning that HR only need to become involved during unusual circumstances.

Holiday requests, absences and time off for appointments can also then be routed to the correct person within your organisation, allowing line managers to check and approve all requests directly – such requests can then bypass higher management completely. Your self service system can also easily track real-time information on starters and leavers, holiday requests and sickness levels, and can flag any potential issues with the appropriate line manager. For example, if you have a rule that only two people per team can be on annual leave at once, the system will alert you if a third request occurs that clashes.

What are the benefits of cutting down admin hours? 

  • Increased resources and productivity levels
  • Lower costs through increased digitisation and adoption of software
  • Make good headway in closing the productivity gap
  • More time to spend on growing your business strategy, innovating and improving
  • Invest time and attention in other areas for employee benefit and wellbeing

Our top five ways to avoid SME business burnout: 

1. Prioritise and delegate as appropriate

There’s no getting around it; working in a small business can be a full-on, intense experience, no matter how you choose to utilise planning techniques and technological systems. However, whether you have two staff or several small teams in different business areas, learning to delegate and reassign some of your responsibilities is a great way to avoid longer-term burnout.

As a small business owner or leader, it makes good sense to have a trusted deputy or colleague at a management level with whom you can debate strategic goals, discuss business ideas and share concerns about workloads and tasks. Mapping out activities with another person can often make it easier to fully visualise tasks, and you can then break it into more manageable segments, based on the level of urgency and priority that is needed.

2. Be strict with set working hours

When setting up a small business, it’s often easy to burn the candle at both ends, and work all hours to get your venture off the ground as quickly as possible. However, this mentality is often hard to shake off once acquired, and once your company has grown to a sufficient level to sustain several employees, it is all too easy to set a bad example by continuing to spend long days in the office.

Your staff are likely to follow the precedent set by you, so try and set strict working deadlines for yourself. Don’t respond to business emails after certain times, and try to keep work phone calls and contact to a minimum whilst you are on annual leave. This should help to encourage your employees to adopt similar healthy working habits.

3. Promote a healthy work/life balance

It can be a tricky balance for businesses of all sizes, but encouraging employees to draw the line between professional and personal time really does come from the top down. You may have already done some great work by following our tips for setting working hours above, but there are also other areas where you can encourage workplace balance:

  • Encourage staff socialising, whether it be through away days, external training, social events or rewards for great teamwork. By encouraging teamwork and bonding, you can not only allow employees to feel positive and valued, but also may also reap the rewards of heightened creative and strategic thinking outside of the day-to-day working environment.
  • Keep a focus on mental and physical health – there are many low cost initiatives that you could invest in, such as running a cycle to work scheme, providing fresh fruit daily, or even offering subsidised gym or yoga classes to employees. Providing an EAP scheme can also be a great way to support employees with any personal problem that may affect them in the workplace.
  • Ensure that your employees are taking their full quota of annual leave, and try to have a relaxed attitude to sick days. For anyone who seems to be persistently sick, offer help and support rather than punishment – taking the time to understand an individual’s personal situation can often help to resolve an issue much more quickly.
  • work with employees not against them etc

4. Actively praise employees

Encouraging true engagement within your workplace will help to guard against employee burnout – after all happy, content employees are likely to be far more productive and motivated. One of the best ways to ensure this is to regularly feedback on positive scenarios, providing recognition and praise where appropriate. By providing regular, positive feedback, you will not only encourage employees to continue to strive for excellence, but also confirm that their role and workload matters to the wider company as a whole. Feeling valued at work has been shown to be a key component of warding off stress in busy and fast-paced roles.

5. Establish clear channels of communication

Stress and burnout can happen in any working environment, but if you ensure that you cultivate and encourage clear channels of communication in all situations, you can resolve challenging issues much more easily. When communicating with staff at all levels, be clear and concise – allow them to know exactly what you expect from them within the working environment, and what they in turn can expect from you. Listen closely to all feedback, whether good or bad, and try and keep an ‘open door’ policy for all management figures – this allows employees to feel comfortable coming to you with not just problems, but also ideas and feedback on your wider company goals and strategy.