Burnout in the startup world is common.
Founders work themselves to the bone to get ideas off the ground. Then, the first round of hires works tirelessly to turn MVPs into legitimate products. The business grows quickly, opening the door for fundraising conversations. Perhaps some seed funding or venture capital comes through, forcing startups to push into another gear. After this point, there’s no definitive end in sight, as startups can work for years before they’re offered an attractive buyout opportunity or reach profitability.
Along this journey, people often forget to stop, rest, and reflect. Though working in startups is fun and exciting, the blistering pace can burn even the most motivated workers out. And burnout has serious consequences.
Burnout can cause top talent to leave and scare potential recruits away. It can create toxic environments and bring out the worst sides of people. If leaders aren’t careful, burnout can morph cultures beyond the point of redemption and bring even the most impressive growth trajectories to a halt.
The takeaway? You have to avoid burnout at all costs. Here’s how.
First, you must be able to tell the difference between burnout and stress. The primary distinction is that stress is typically tied to a specific event. People get stressed out by investor pitches, product demos, and important team meetings. They can even feel the stress going into one-on-one conversations with certain colleagues. But stress tends to disappear once the underlying stressors are gone.
On the other hand, burnout represents total depletion on the emotional, physical, and mental fronts. It’s when people can’t pick themselves up again, even after stressors are gone. People who are burned out appear detached and unmotivated. Their productivity and effectiveness can plummet, even for relatively easy tasks.
Knowing the difference between stress and burnout is key for figuring out if, as a startup leader, you need to support someone through a stressful situation or make some major changes to keep a team member from burning out. Stress is sometimes good, while burnout is never desirable.
Keep Workloads at a Manageable Level
People like to be challenged at work, but they don’t like feeling hopeless. Hopelessness emerges when there is way too much work to go around, even with people working long hours. It’s the never-ending to-do lists and a perpetual feeling of coming up short that burns people out.
Of course, in startups, there are always stretches when teams are understaffed and overworked. It’s when these stretches extend into months and years that people start to wonder what it would be like to work somewhere else.
Startup leaders have to find the right balance between getting the most out of their employees and hiring more support when needed. Workloads need to be manageable enough so that people feel like they can make real progress towards something. Problems arise when there is no light at the end of the tunnel.
Another way to combat burnout is to gather feedback from employees. Give people opportunities to speak their minds and share their concerns. Gathering feedback not only helps startup leaders assess their workforces but also makes team members feel like they are seen and heard.
Send out surveys once every few weeks or meet personally with employees to solicit feedback. Always create safe spaces for these conversations, and show that you are receptive to all opinions. Then, you have to follow up with tangible actions to address problems if they exist.
Don’t Forget About Culture
Fostering a healthy culture is another powerful method for minimizing burnout. When people are working hard in the trenches day in and day out, it’s small things - celebrating wins, recognizing individuals for their accomplishments, expressing gratitude, etc. - that fill up empty tanks in the office.
Simply talking about culture and encouraging people to help shape it can insulate against burnout, as employees start to feel a sense of ownership about what happens in their workplaces. Giving employees responsibility over culture can make them less like victims of stressful circumstances and more like leaders who have the power to shape the world. And that’s what you need to grow a game-changing startup.
For a more in-depth look at how to build and maintain a healthy culture, check out our free eBook on the topic here. We go deep on why it’s so important to focus on culture, especially in today’s remote work-heavy landscape.