Landscape Business Burn Out: How to Recognize It and Avoid It

In recent years the medical community has discovered that stress is more harmful to our physical and mental well-being than previously thought. Chronic stress is a killer and its insidious effects can creep up on unsuspecting individuals and begin causing problems before they realize it.

What does this have to do with landscaping, you ask? A lot. While many might think high-stakes, high-profile jobs such as Fortune 500 CEO, surgeon, or police officer, for example, might have cornered the stress market, the fact is all of us can be affected by stress and that includes landscape business owners.

In fact, feelings of anxiety, self-doubt, isolation, exhaustion, annoyance -- the list goes on -- are all complaints I hear often from colleagues, students, and my coaching clients. These feelings feed stress and ultimately create a state of burnout in which you no longer feel as if you can cope or go on. Burnout causes business failure in all industries – and that includes landscaping.

Some sources of these feelings can be people pressures, financial concerns, or perceived time shortages. All of these are common in the landscape industry which is predominantly made up of freelancers and solopreneurs as well as micro-businesses with a full-time staff of 6 people or less.

As seasonal business owners, landscapers are highly susceptible to the pressure to get it right in a very short period of time. As the season unfolds, this pressure amps up, shifting in a flash to the next seasonal pressure. The ability to be nimble, flexible, and resilient is critical to make it in a business like ours.

Everyone responds differently to stress. Some business owners take what I call the “hammer and nail” approach. They believe the best way to tackle stress is to hammer away at it. Soon, every problem begins to look like a nail and every solution is to pound it. This consumes a lot of energy and effort.

Everyone who experiences this response ends up becoming the hammer or the nail. Either you’re the hammer pounding away at every stress cause, or you become the nail and feel as if you’re getting pounded down. It can be exhausting and demoralizing.

The flip side to this behavior is a more self-sabotaging coping mechanism I call the “hide and seek” response. A more passive/aggressive approach, hide-and-seekers tend to hand off work to others and then not support them in their efforts to complete it – essentially a “dump and run” approach. Hide-and-seekers procrastinate, don’t call back, and show up late. They’re constantly looking for that one perfect employee to handle the workload, but are constantly disappointed with employee efforts. This “rescue person” simply doesn’t exist no matter what you put in the job description. Hide-and-seekers are so busy filling their schedules at the last minute and desperately trying to fix things that they don’t take the time to stop and smell the roses of their success and have no idea that the business they’re busy building should satisfy them first.

New Call-to-actionThe third basic response to stress that I’ve seen is what I refer to as “killing me softly”, after the old Roberta Flack song (am I showing my age?). In this case, it’s about the destructive behaviors some individuals adopt – such as smoking, overeating, or drinking too much – because they feel good in the moment and often temporarily help the person relax, sleep, or simply shut down the worrisome fears and stress for a little while. However, over time, these vices can erode health, happiness, and relationships.

In fact, all of these responses can, in the short term, look like they’re helping. In the long term however -- and this is scientifically proven -- you will burn out mentally, physically, emotionally, or spiritually and that’s no way to live.

Making it all work: avoiding burn-out

So how do you make it work? How do you avoid burnout? It’s not as if the main stresses of seasonality and hard work will go away from the landscape industry. What can we do to keep focus and avoid burnout? You must incorporate two key elements in your business building experience - Fitness & Systems!

FITNESS - mind, body, spirit

My dear friend and business-building buddy Laurie Warren has built an entire business around this very topic of managing your vitality through focus on overall fitness – mentally, physically, and spiritually. Together we focus on healthy business building practices. The bottom line, you get one body, one mind, and one spirit at the start of this journey and you must put these three elements front and center:

Mind: Having the right business mindset is critical and I can’t stress this enough. If you do not have your purpose and values clearly articulated in writing then it is impossible for you to know what you need to build your business. This is one of the most overlooked elements in business today -- without purpose you have no destination and without values you have no rudder.

Body: You only get one of these -- don’t mess with it. Feed it, nourish it, care for it with the same respect and attention you would tend your beloved lawn or garden (organically, I hope, but that’s another blog post). Your energy level is directly related to the food you put in your body, to your hydration and your sleep. There is no way to shortcut the body’s needs, so don’t! Consider the "Body Sass® Cleanse". I've done it a half a dozen times. It's available as a group program or solo. It may seem counter-intuitive, but when you clean up the body...the MIND wakes up with new found clarity and energy!

Spirit: Your spirit is your center, your core, and it needs attention, too. There are so many ways to feed your spirit. For some it’s religion -- having faith and devotion to something higher something more omniscient than you. For others is it’s meditation -- an inner examination and more a practice or action that helps them to separate from thinking and doing and instead just BE.

Whatever you call this and however you tap into it is perfectly acceptable. Just do it. I call this moving into the gap. In meditation, this is called "Minding the Gap". It’s a place where this isn’t work or obligation. The place where there is stillness, where the mind can disengage from work and the body can restore. Whatever this is for you, find it and go there regularly so you can let your spirit take center stage for a time.

SYSTEMS - people, production, promotion

Like the body, your business has working systems and they need to be developed, documented, trained to and then measured for your business to work for you. Otherwise you’ll end up in a “tail waggin’ the dog” scenario in which everything is backward and unmanageable.

People: Whether you work all alone or with a team, the people that you engage with can be a phenomenal source of stress and burnout unless you get some clarity. Too many landscape businesses rely on hiring anyone with a pulse in order to get the job done. This may help in a pinch, but it’s no way to build a business. You must think of your people as the most valuable place to put your time and effort. And if you don’t want to do that -- if you want to just mow the lawn, draw the design, or plant the plants and not deal with the people -- then please rethink self-employment because eventually the people will wear you down.

Production: Whether you design only, design-build, or maintain only -- or do some combination of the three -- your job is to deliver the goods. You must produce, and production is a heavy consumer of energy. If you don’t have systems and processes, if how everything is done rests with you, then forget it. Burnout will come. It’s just a matter of when.

Promotion: I use this term to cover all things business -- from marketing to sales, from administration to all the services needed to keep the business afloat. All the efforts in this area are life-sustaining for your business. Your central purpose on some level must be to keep promoting business success and vitality. Be honest with yourself. If you don’t like any of the work associated with measuring, tracking, administrating, marketing and selling to ensure that your business survives then you’ll need to develop a team to help you.

Let’s face it. Owning a landscape business comes with some amount of stress – there’s no way around it. However, you can avoid burnout.

I think on some level I avoided it in the early years with the power of youth (I’ve been doing this since my late teens). Then, as I got older, I avoided it by sheer force of will. Then, as I “matured” (chuckling a little here), I began to struggle with keeping burnout at bay, and I realized that something in my mind had to change. As I tackled my own mental state and began to focus on my body and spirit, I woke up one day and realized that my business needed some serious work or I was going to burn out no matter how well I ate and slept.

Avoid business burnout by embracing fitness and adopting systems that will set you free!

So, for the past 10 years that’s been my mission. I’m happy to report that burnout isn’t something I struggle with. Sure, I get tired. I have moments when I feel overwhelmed and even a little exhausted. But, come on, it’s not like I’ve given up the spring season! I have tools in place -- lots of high powered tools -- to make sure my business stands strong without me and that, folks, is the real answer to burnout.

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Landscape Business Owners Survival Guide