From burnout to a four-day week: how I learnt to look after myself and my business

Entrepreneur Hayley Knight explains how burnout led to her walking away from her business to find a better way of working.

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The move to a four day working week has been the right one for me. But it took some serious setbacks for me to understand how much I needed it. In 2020/21, I experienced severe burnout, though it took me quite a while to acknowledge it.

I was deeply engulfed in it, to the point that it seemed like an inseparable part of my identity. I mistakenly associated feelings of exhaustion and stress with running a successful business, fostering an unhealthy mindset. But it was more than just being overworked; I constantly felt drained, my emotions were erratic, and I held onto anger and resentment towards people in my life.

My health suffered as well, with frequent illnesses, weight fluctuations, and persistent anxiety. I was far from being my best self for both my clients and loved ones, but I concealed it all, telling myself and others that I was working hard to achieve the life we wanted. However, the reality was that my quality of life was nonexistent.

No way out?

Entrepreneurs and small business owners often face burnout, a condition that can lead to chronic symptoms including depression and extreme self-doubt. During that period, my mind shut down, and I entered survival mode, operating on autopilot. I knew I needed to address the issue, but the exhaustion and anxiety made it difficult to find a solution other than working even harder. Reflecting on that time still brings back a sense of anxiety.

Life should be more than just a cycle of eat (when remembered), sleep, work, repeat.

My husband and I had planned to travel, which became another excuse for working excessively – “I need to save money for our trip.” However, I hadn’t thought about managing work and travel or even fully enjoyed the anticipation of our trip. I had worked during previous trips, so I assumed it would be no different this time.

Exit strategy

Ultimately, the trip became a turning point. I knew I was at a crossroads, My husband was unhappy, and this trip felt like a make or break. I had to choose between continuing down the same path, feeling and acting as I did, or pausing everything to reset and start anew. I realised the need for a fresh perspective and saw travelling as a means to achieve it. It wasn’t an easy decision. Shutting down my business and stopping work completely for a year was the most terrifying thing I had ever done. But it was also the best decision I have ever made.

Travelling the world became the catalyst for real change. I vividly remember the shift in mindset during a music and wellness festival in Croatia – a perfect setting for embracing this new chapter. For the first time in a long time, I felt free and unburdened by responsibilities. I had a vision of throwing my phone off of a cliff, into the ocean, symbolising my desire to detach from its hold on me. Throughout our journey that took us across different continents, including Antarctica, I learned the significance of healthy boundaries and habits in creating a successful business.

Healthy mind, body and business

I started prioritising self-care by reading more, meditating, exercising regularly, and maintaining a healthier diet. The pivotal moment, however, came when we spent time in the Amazon Rainforest without phone data, allowing me to fully disconnect, reflect, and process my emotions. It was during this period that I contemplated the kind of professional I wanted to be as I re-entered the working world. I had learned to love myself and wanted to rebuild my life based on my own definition of success, not others’.

Working a four-day week had never crossed my mind before. I was used to working tirelessly throughout the week, including evenings and weekends, believing it was the path to success. Travel taught me a valuable lesson: to live for work, not work for life, and that both work and personal life impact the quality of work. As I regained control of my life, I decided to implement four-day work weeks, dedicating the extra day to professional and personal development, something I had never allowed myself time for before.

Working smart

Studies have shown that four-day work weeks can boost productivity and benefit both physical and mental health. Since resuming work in April as a freelance PR professional, I have adopted this schedule and noticed reduced stress levels, increased happiness, and more time for creativity and developing ideas for my clients, as well as more time for my loved ones. My husband and I are now working together on our new PR and marketing agency, BE YELLOW, where we will champion the idea of adopting a four-day work week.

I’m not suggesting that everyone should follow my path of leaving everything behind to travel the world for self-discovery and healing; my story is unique. However, if you’re experiencing symptoms of burnout, I encourage you to take a break and step away from work, and technology. It might seem overwhelming at first, but if you use this time wisely, even if it’s just a long weekend, or regular afternoon breaks, it will be the best thing you can do for yourself and your business.

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Hayley Knight - co-founder of BE YELLOW

Hayley Knight is the co-founder of PR and marketing agency BE YELLOW, and former Deputy Head of PR at Pride in London. Her accolades include Elle UK's 23 under 30 female entrepreneurs and Amor magazine 30 under 30, as well as being listed as number 6 in TechRound’s top 100 PR agencies. Knight is also a TEDx speaker and has been featured in various publications including Metro, The Guardian, The Times, Stylist, The Telegraph and Wired.

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