Fighting Business Burnout



The daily demands and economic struggles of retail can cause stress to build up over time. Here’s how to keep your passion alive, especially as the 24/7 holiday season gets into full swing.

For Kris Schmid of Diehl’s Jewelers in Bernardsville, N.J., deadlines are the biggest reason he occasionally feels burned out. As a store owner and bench jeweler, repair and custom design requests often stack up in the middle of a never-ending pile of other retail-related tasks. “It can get pretty stressful,” he says. “In this business, when you need to get an order finished, you need to get it done no matter what—even if you’re on vacation, or it’s 3 a.m. on Christmas Eve.”

For Lisa Trujillo, owner of Mark Gregory & Co., in the San Francisco Bay area, the lack of a ­storefront—she sells online as well as at trunk shows and to private clients on location—stresses her out the most, primarily because she constantly finds herself hauling sample cases and coordinating between custom designers and clients. By the time Christmas Eve rolls around, “I just want to lie down and not get up,” she says.

And while Gail Friedman, co-owner of Sarah Leonard Fine Jewelers in Los Angeles, thrives on the busy vibe and varied nature of her retail life, she admits the industry’s “new normal”—having fewer staff and more time-consuming technology tasks to handle on her own—can send her reeling. “Sometimes I have to really tell myself to relax and just go with the flow,” she says.

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To quote Mark Twain, “Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand.”

Most retailers say they stick with the job through thick and thin because it is exciting, ­fulfilling, and fun—but the stress of running a store day in and day out also can take its toll over time. Small-business owners, experts point out, must take care to manage stress properly over the long term if they want to see continued success. Otherwise, they warn, fatigue and frustration can set in, which eventually can turn into what is commonly referred to as burnout.

“It’s very challenging for independent entrepreneurs because there are such a vast number of things to know and do to be successful,” says John Weaver, a Wisconsin-based psychologist and consultant. “Jewelers aren’t just selling the product they love, they also have payroll to meet, employees to manage, and bookkeeping to do.”

Mary Gresham, a psychologist in Atlanta who coaches small-business owners, agrees that independent retailers typically have a limited amount of resources that must be applied to all facets of the business. “If the way you apply those resources results in a long period of stress where your body begins to fight back, you really have to explore how to deal with it,” she says. 

Symptoms of stress-related burnout can vary, says Gresham, but typically include being tired after a good night’s sleep, being irritable, having trouble sleeping, or skipping meals and neglecting other self-care. The results can lead to short-tempered reactions to staff or customers. “Or some people start obsessing about money, the bottom line, as opposed to the process of creating a good atmosphere in the store,” she says.

While Trujillo’s business is still relatively new—she’s been through two holiday seasons thus far—she says she’s already battled some burnout symptoms. “My brain seems to not want to shut off,” she says. “I get so exhausted and want to go to sleep, but sometimes your body doesn’t want to cooperate.” 

Trujillo has developed her own coping mechanisms for when stress hits the surface. “For me, it’s reading,” she says. “I’ll find a really mindless, silly book, something like a mystery that’s written at a 10th-grade level, and that works well.”

Gresham recommends jewelers determine the activities that give them energy and the ones that are draining, and, if possible, offload the draining ones to an employee, part-timer, or intern who enjoys doing them. “If you have a small workforce, even if it is just two or three people, they’re all different—so a job you don’t enjoy, someone else might,” she says.

Sarah Leonard’s Friedman says she counts herself lucky that she hasn’t had to lay off employees during the downturn. But she hasn’t replaced those who have left in recent years, meaning she’s working harder than ever. “I get in at about 6:30 a.m. and then I’m buzzing all day,” she says. Playing to her employees’ strengths helps her cope: “I have someone who does such amazing window displays,” she says. “Now, if only I could offload my email to someone else!” 

Maintaining a sense of humor, she points out, is definitely key to keeping stress at bay: “I have a sign in my office that says, ‘I can’t have a crisis next week—my calendar is already full.’ ” In addition, Friedman tries to make sure she takes a three-day weekend each month or so. “We go away to a place we have in Big Bear,” she says, referring to a mountain retreat about two hours east of Los Angeles. “I still have my email on my phone, but I only answer if it’s urgent.”

Diehl’s Schmid also says scheduling can’t-miss vacations is important, and he makes a point to go away with friends who are outside of the industry. “We rent a house over New Year’s and make a big long weekend out of it,” he says. “It’s a way I can really shut the shop out.” He also makes an effort to work only five days a week during nonholiday times. “I will work late on other nights, but I try not to give my customers my Friday or Saturday nights,” he says.

Being a part of jewelry organizations also has helped boost energy and reduce stress, adds Schmid, who is an active member of the Independent Jewelers Organization. “It’s therapeutic to talk to other jewelers and it helps me get reenergized about the business,” he says. “You really get a sense that you’re not alone.”

While a certain amount of stress is unavoidable, particularly with the new realities of retail, burnout does not have to be a given, says Weaver. And if you do find yourself battling its symptoms, you can reverse their effects: “I have seen small businesses turn around on a psychological and emotional level,” he says. “And in addition, they have become much more effective in reaching their organization’s goals.”

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