The role of privilege in fighting entrepreneurial burnout

We need to change the way we talk about burnout to include, invite, welcome, and accept diverse perspectives in the conversation.

 It seems like everyone is talking about burnout everywhere you look. From Goop to Forbes, everyone is putting out a piece on what burnout looks like.

In January, a viral Buzzfeed article linked burnout to a cultural expectation that you should always be working. That article seemed to open up a wider conversation in America about burnout — who it affects the most and how to avoid it.

The World Health Organization even made a change to its definition of burnout, now calling it an occupational phenomenon caused by “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”

But notably missing from most of these conversations is the role privilege plays in preventing burnout.

I believe it’s important for Doyenne to chime in on this topic as it’s something all entrepreneurs have to deal with, but it affects entrepreneurs who are women and people of color differently. I also want to say, that as a cisgender hetrosexual white woman, I acknowledge that my experiences in this world are very different than any other individual who identifies as female. I cannot ever know or feel what and how their experiences are truly like. But, I can tell you about the themes and narratives I hear from the women we work with, from reading pieces and listening to podcasts by women of color and LGBTQ+ entrepreneurs, and by looking at the published data and trends.

Burnout is a serious health concern, but if you’re a white person in at least the middle class, you can probably successfully manage your workplace stress by making a few key changes to your own behaviors and routines, or changing jobs.

As women in a patriarchal society, we experience overt or subtle microaggressions every day that we have to overcome, but white women still have more privilege than any other individual who identifies as female.

If you’re a woman of color in Wisconsin, or anywhere in the U.S., your options for dealing with workplace stress are likely fewer, and on top of that, you are far more likely to experience environmental and interpersonal causes of stress. Those are the stressors that go beyond the job itself — the other duties and responsibilities that are put on you because you’re “living while non-white in America.” For example, even when a company’s leaders start making an effort around diversity and inclusion, they often start by asking people of color things like “help me understand it from your point of view” or “how can we make sure we’re being diverse and inclusive?” They believe they’re doing the right thing, but in reality they’re asking the person of color to fix the problem, placing another burden on their shoulders.

Burnout plays an interesting role in the life of the entrepreneur. For many entrepreneurs, burnout at a corporate job is the catalyst that drives them to go all-in with their business idea, according to the 2018 State of Women-Owned Business Report commissioned by American Express. For women of color, this is a major driver of their decision to become entrepreneurs.

It’s a survival tactic that’s not linked to the overall economy, but to their own negative experiences in the workplace. These burnt out corporate employees decide to become their own boss in order to take control of their lives and/or escape a bad situation. But research shows that entrepreneurs are actually at an even higher risk for burnout than corporate employees, meaning many people are trading one kind of stress for another when they make the jump.  

A Harvard Business Review study from 2018 says “some evidence suggests that entrepreneurs are more at risk of burnout because they tend to be extremely passionate about work and more socially isolated, have limited safety nets, and operate in high uncertainty.”

Many aspects of entrepreneurship can easily lead to burnout. Some of them, the entrepreneur has control over, but depending on your identity, there may be a lot of causes of burnout that are totally out of your control. Sexism, racism, able-ism — all of the isms — add to the burden that you carry each day, requiring you to do more emotional labor just to make it through each day, leading to faster burnout.

In an interview with the Cap Times in May 2019, Doyenne member Sagashus Levingston, author and founder of Infamous Mothers, said her identity as a Black single mother adds to her experience of burnout.

“Burnout is probably the most exasperating for those who are the most judged,” she told the Cap Times. “Those people are the most stressed — the ones who are caught up at the intersections of racism, classism and sexism.”

At Doyenne, we have mentored women entrepreneurs of color who have experienced many forms of subtle and overt racism. For example, one entrepreneur was unable to cash her check from the Evergreen Fund grant because the bank thought it was fraudulent, because the entrepreneur did not fit the profile of a business owner in the bank’s eyes. The stress of everyday racism in America has well-documented health risks for women of color, and Black women in particular, and those stresses also impact their ability to succeed as entrepreneurs.

In the 70s, the research on burnout focused on how employees who are forced to regulate their emotions — which was termed emotional labor — experience burnout. The research focused on people with customer-facing jobs, like flight attendants and waiters, who are expected to maintain a positive attitude even when dealing with rude, mean, or unreasonable customers. But if you’re a woman in the U.S., you still face much of the same pressure to maintain a good attitude no matter what your job is. Even if you are an entrepreneur running a multi-million dollar business, in the face of rude or harassing customers, investors, or mentors, you’re expected to smile and take it.

That expectation means that women entrepreneurs are often not able to indulge as freely as other entrepreneurs in the first remedy for burnout — simply admitting you feel burnt out.

Anne Helen Peterson, author of the viral Buzzfeed article on burnout, concluded her piece on a hopeful note. She wrote, “But as I finish this piece, I feel something I haven’t felt in a long time: catharsis. I feel great. I feel something — which is not something I’ve really felt upon the completion of a task in some time.”

For Peterson, there was some relief just in finally admitting to herself — and to millions of strangers — that she suffered from burnout.

For women of color, that catharsis is often unavailable, as Chantal Kamya, head of internal communications at Andela, explains in a post on her Medium account: “I’ve had several ideas for blog posts, ones where I want to share areas where I’ve grown, learned or developed, but I constantly measure what I share against a very present reality that vulnerability about my own growth could reinforce negative implicit biases that are real for women of color.”

If you look for tips on avoiding burnout, most of the advice focuses on behavior changes that you can make to set boundaries around your working hours, to limit your access to your email when you’re supposed to be relaxing, and to exercise more and eat healthier. It’s all about what you can do, as if you’re the problem. And sure, no matter what your identity is, following these tips will likely improve your stress level and can help you fight off burnout to some extent.

But what about the stress of being followed by security as you shop for an outfit to wear to make a good impression at your next investor meeting? Or getting tailed on the highway by a cop on your way to that meeting, even though you’re observing all of the traffic laws? Poet Tiana Clark, who wrote a response to the Buzzfeed article titled This Is What Black Burnout Feels Like, wrote that “being burned out has been the steady state of black people in this country for hundreds of years.” In an interview with WBUR, she put it succinctly:

“Not only are we fighting the endless emails and Slack notifications, but we’re also trying to prove our humanity inside and outside of the workplace,” she writes.

A week relaxing on the beach is not enough to address the stress of everyday racism on top of the stress of being an entrepreneur. And, of course, taking that kind of vacation requires a significant level of financial freedom and privilege, which many women entrepreneurs of color do not have.

So as ecosystem builders, what can we do to help our entrepreneurs of color battle burnout?

We need to change the way we talk about burnout to make sure we include, invite, welcome, and accept diverse perspectives in the conversation, and to consider the environmental and interpersonal causes of burnout. This will mean getting uncomfortable at times. It means recognizing that remedies to burnout that are available for white entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley are not equally available to entrepreneurs of color in Wisconsin.

Looking back at Sagashus Levingston’s experience, it’s worth pointing out that unlike someone whose primary cause of burnout is a stressful job, the causes of Sagashus’s burnout are not things she can fix. She can’t just “overcome” burnout by finding a better job, or a job that better fits her passion. She’s already found a job that matches her passion — telling the stories of Black mothers. But her battle with burnout continues because of the unavoidable experiences of racism, classism, and sexism she encounters because of who she is and where she lives.

As coaches and mentors of entrepreneurs, we need to go out of our way to educate ourselves and get training about the impact of racial trauma on entrepreneurs, and make sure that we do not add more trauma. We must understand the additional risks and barriers an entrepreneur may face because of their identity.

And the need is urgent, because the fastest growing demographic of entrepreneurs is Black women. So not only do we need to work hard to remove the environmental factors that contribute to burnout, but we also need to be prepared to provide the kind of support that these entrepreneurs need, and recognize that avoiding burnout is not always just about better self-care.