Working as a freelancer is tough. Working as your own boss makes it even tougher.
Yes, the life we lead as WordPress professionals lends itself to some awesome opportunities: flexible travel, self-directed schedules, and you get to work for the best boss ever (i.e. yourself).
But there’s a fine line between killing it and killing yourself.
Mayo Clinic defines burnout as:
“A special type of job stress — a state of physical, emotional or mental exhaustion combined with doubts about your competence and the value of your work.”
It’s hard running your own business. You want to do a good job. You want to take on more work. You want a better quality of client. And you know you have to push your limits in order to do all this.
But if you don’t pay close attention to what’s happening to your mind and body while all this is going on, you can risk burning yourself out as well as inflicting serious damage to your business and relationships in the process.
So, let’s get right to it. Let’s tackle what burnout is, how to spot the signs, and what you need to do about it to keep your WordPress business safe.
What Is Burnout?
Around 46% of HR leaders claim that burnout was the main reason that drove 20% to 50% of their employees to quit. Isn’t this what you’re trying to avoid as a WordPress freelancer?
You went into business for yourself so you wouldn’t have to stress about bad bosses, inefficient workplaces, or crappy pay and too many hours. But you’re not just a freelancer; you’re a business owner. And this is where the issues start to arise.
According to psychotherapist Jade Barclay, there is a difference in how burnout manifests itself in employees and entrepreneurs.
“You stop having that human-to-human connection with others. It’s just another number. Just get it done. There’s also the loss of personal meaning in the work. That can show up in ambition and things like that.”
“There were a whole raft of cognitive symptoms that would show up, so just not being able to focus and things like that, brain fog, that kind of thing. A lot of people actually had body symptoms. It was common to have people say, ‘My body just completely shut down. I couldn’t work anymore.’”
Web developer Jeremy Kratz wrote a great blog post on his own experience with burnout. He mentions how scope creep, overtime, and poor planning eventually contributed to shorter tempers, a drop in morale, poor quality output, and general feelings of apathy.
If you’re unsure of what burnout looks like in web development, make sure to read his post because it’s spot-on.
24 Signs of Job Burnout to Look Out For
As someone who’s been through this before, I can attest to the type of damage this can do to your business, professional reputation, personal relationships, and confidence. That is not something you can afford when trying to build a reputable WordPress business.
So, if you feel like you might be putting too much in and not getting enough out, and that you’re quickly heading towards some type of crash and burn, check out the following 24 tell-tale signs of job burnout.
Physical Signs of Burnout
- Frequent illnesses (two-thirds of adults report a stress-related chronic illness)
- Regular or persistent headaches
- Unexplainable body aches and pains
- Sleepless nights
- Sleep-“full” nights, but you still feel the need to hit snooze repeatedly in the morning
- Issues with hunger or lack thereof due to nausea, stomach ache, or general loss of appetite
- Poor eating habits (39% of adults lean towards unhealthy eating habits in times of high stress
- Lack of exercise and reluctance to make time for it
- Self-imposed isolation from everyone
- Lack of interest to do anything or go anywhere once work is done for the day or week
Mental Signs of Burnout
- Procrastination to the point where you either miss deadlines or have to work late repeatedly to complete all your work
- Lack of motivation to get started in the morning, on new projects, to find new clients, etc.
- Dreading Mondays
- Feeling as though you’re not making progress even though everything else indicates you are
- Inability to manage simple tasks without becoming frustrated, overwhelmed, or distracted
- Loss of interest in what you do
- Lack of drive to support or grow your business
- Becoming less willing to go above and beyond for your clients, even the most loyal ones
- Feeling resentful and like you’re in this alone (even if you’re not)
- Inability to focus resulting in too many silly mistakes that clients repeatedly notice
- Feeling uncontrollably angry about minor matters
- Panic attacks
- Depression (over 10% of adults attribute issues with anxiety and depression to chronic stress)
- Fantasizing about closing your business
Obviously, your WordPress business matters to you a great deal. But sometimes it isn’t just about how great your services are or how happy you make your clients with the websites you build for them. In order to ensure long-term success and survival of your business, you need to think about yourself and your general well-being, too.
What to Do If You’re Exhibiting the Signs of Job Burnout
Okay, so job burnout sucks. If you’re running your own WordPress business, it’s also something you can’t afford to have happen. After all, who’s going to cover for you if you need to take an extended absence?
If you’re ever exhibiting the signs of job burnout, here are some tips to get back on the right track:
1. Start Your Day on a Positive Note
If you start to notice that your morning routine has changed and you’re reluctant to get out of bed, then create a positive start that you look forward to. Maybe a half-hour of loud music. Or a big breakfast. Or you could try yoga or meditation to clear your brain and get ready to focus on the day ahead.
2. End Your Day the Same Way
If you create a consistent morning routine and follow healthier practices throughout the day, then you should have no problem creating an end-of-day ritual either. Specifically, set an end point and don’t go past it.
If you run out of time to complete something, simply shoot an email to your client and explain that you want to take a look at what you’ve done with fresh eyes in the morning before sending it over. Trust me, they’ll appreciate it.
3. Set Boundaries with Others
As a freelancer, you control your workload and schedule, but that doesn’t mean that interruptions and requests from others won’t get in the way—especially if you feel like you can’t say “no”.
But remember that you’re running a business. Every time your partner comes in to just “hang out” while you’re coding a new theme or your client emails you with unexpected and excessive feedback, it cuts into your focus and energy. Some studies suggest it takes up to 25 minutes to get moving again after a distraction.
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Set stricter boundaries, so you can prevent yourself from having to stop, reset, and then get moving again and again throughout the day.
This one is less about cutting down on physical clutter and more about making space within your brain. If you think about it, all of those mundane tasks you do—like managing your finances, preparing client contracts, or even website work like SEO and copywriting that aren’t in your wheelhouse—are sapping you of your energy and focus.
There are a few ways you can deal with this “reorganization”:
- Cut back on the amount of projects you take so you can manage everything within a standard workweek.
- Hire a contractor or two to outsource some of your work. Then focus on what you do best.
- Invest in cloud-based software to automate your processes and manage some of the mundane tasks for you. (Kronos found that 20% of HR professionals said that insufficient technology contributed to job burnout.)
Software developer Kenneth Reitz went the route of delegation. He said, “When you have thousands and thousands of people actively using your software, or even just your coworkers, it’s easy to get burned out when you’re the sole point-of-contact for the project.”
So, what he’s done is offload client support management and new releases to other team members.
5. Use a Productivity App
I’d recommend using a productivity app or task management software to pencil in time for the above tips. When you’re stuck looking at a computer screen and working within WordPress all day, sometimes you just don’t think about how you feel or what’s going on around you. By keeping your self-care top-of-mind, you can ensure it will get done.
6. Reconsider Your Business
Drew Jaynes, a WordPress core developer and contributor, documented his struggle with job burnout on his blog. What he found was that committing himself 100% to WordPress as a platform engineer was not ideal. Although he enjoyed the autonomy and chance to contribute to a project like this, he ultimately found that the isolation and the need to simply push through the exhaustion was too much.
He toyed with the idea of splitting his time between WordPress contribution and web development client services. However, in the end, after weighing the possibilities, he chose to shift his primary focus away from the WordPress core and join a team where he could regularly collaborate and work on projects like Easy Digital Downloads.
7. Adjust Your Pay Rate
Here’s another area where a predefined element of your business may be the cause of stress and frustration. If you were to increase your project rates, you could potentially take on less work and focus on taking projects from better clients. This would make your work more fulfilling, both monetarily as well as professionally.
8. Get out in the Community
Networking and staying connected to the WordPress community, in general, is a great way to give your brain a rest from coding and designing while still doing something positive for your business. You can:
- Listen to podcasts
- Follow a WordPress blog
- Go to a local WordCamp or other WordPress event
- Follow WordPress influencers and connect with other professionals on Twitter
For example, if you’re worried that your skills are getting rusty because you’ve always got your head down working, this will give you a chance to take a look around and brush up on new techniques and processes. Being able to see what others in the community are doing and taking the time to talk to them about it can also serve as great motivation.
9. Get a Support System
You may be in business on your own, but you can’t always do it alone—especially when your head is stuck inside your work 24/7. Talk to friends, family, and colleagues about serving as a support network. Tell them you’re concerned about being able to maintain a proper work/life balance and let them know it’s okay for them to pull you out if they spot the signs of burnout.
10. Just Say “No”
Web developers and designers have so many different ways they can make money with WordPress. However, all those possibilities can quickly become draining if you try to take on too much.
Take, for instance, the example of Siobhan McKeown who’s had her hands in way too many different WordPress pots.
Although it’s exciting to continually get more work and discover new opportunities to contribute to the wonderful world of WordPress, sometimes it’s best just to say “no” to some things.
11. Implement a Strict Pre-Bed Schedule
During the day, there’s so much go-go-go that you don’t really have much time to wind down. Then, if you end up working late or, even worse, spend all night glued to your TV or phone screen, you could really mess with your sleep cycle. Here is how you can power down and turn your brain off for a good night’s sleep.
12. Exercise Regularly
The ADAA recommends regular exercise to fight mental stressors. They suggest starting small, participating in activities you actually enjoy, and taking time to zone out with music or an audiobook.
13. Take a Break
Whether this means taking a few hours off to go to the park and clear your head, playing hooky for a day and heading to the beach, or scheduling an actual vacation, it doesn’t matter. If you’re sensing you need a break, take it.
The co-founder of WordPress, Matt Mullenweg, was asked in a live chat about whether he’d dealt with burnout before and how he handled it. Unsurprisingly, he said that breaks are what work for him:
“To avoid it now I try to take small mini-breaks frequently, be that a ten minute meditation every day, jogging a few times a week, or taking a few days to recharge once a month. I find that’s better (and less stressful) than trying to do a big blow-out reset or vacation once a year.”
What it boils down to is this: Working hard is great. But not if it’s at the expense of your health.
Realistically, the best way to prevent job burnout is to always remain cognizant of your mental and physical health. By keeping your personal well-being within your list of professional priorities, you can avoid ever having to tell clients you need to take a mental vacation or force yourself to work through a serious illness.