Updated 10 February 21
As a startup founder you’ll probably expect to face stressful, uncomfortable situations, but what about burnout? Burnout is different to stress. It’s not as widely discussed, but it's an increasingly common challenge founders face. And if not treated carefully, it can completely derail yourself and your startup.
Rebecca, founder of Aquarate: “I started experiencing migraines and insomnia. I just assumed it was just something that comes from being a founder. When I reflect on it, I was definitely burned out. I felt depressed and completely exhausted. Everything I thought about my business was cynical and all the passion I once had was gone.
Now I can tell when I’m starting to burn out because I get headaches and lose motivation. When I spot this, I recognise that I need to take a step back rather than waiting for it to escalate and fall apart. This is where having a business coach has helped me to think about work/life balance sustainably. Now work is a high priority, but I realise it’s not everything.
I only spoke to my business advisor once I had hit rock bottom. I felt as a founder and CEO that I needed to maintain my appearance as a ‘leader’ (whatever that means). I felt like I couldn’t share my struggles. I had to be the one to have it all together, all the time, to lead the team. I overcame this by taking myself out of the workplace, to neutral ground. I found it made it easier for me to be vulnerable and really communicate how I was feeling.
I’m also aware that working in a small startup team, it is easy for everyone to feel overwhelmed. You forget everyone is in the same boat, and even if you feel like you’re hiding it well - people notice, and absorb it. It’s important to discuss stress and burnout with your team, and also to take those little breaks, or water cooler moments, to have non-work-related chit chat too.
Putting my physical and mental health before the business is the only way I've managed to cope with burnout. Some of my prevention methods include:
I’ve learned the hard way, it’s not about working 60+ hours a week. I was worried my business performance would suffer, but I was 100% wrong. It’s about working smarter not harder. I now know that balance is needed for me to perform at the highest level, it may seem not that fun, but having experienced complete burnout it feels the only way to make the business work.”
Mark, founder of Thrift: “The best way for me to describe it is mental treacle. In a short space of time, I went from having clear thoughts and lots of energy, to what felt like my whole body and thought process were in a thick haze. I felt empty, devoid of any motivation and mentally and physically exhausted. I thought it was just a ‘tired phase’ I was going through. That it would simply sort itself out on it’s own - as if it were a cold. The only person that knew something wasn't right was my wife, Claire.
It's the precarious balance in early stage start-ups between managing investors expectations and executing what you have agreed with them. Sometimes as founders we don't ask questions because we almost don't want to know the answer. Our imagined reality is sometimes easier to deal with. But learning to be honest, not burying your head and asking for clarity from our investors was a great way to minimise one of my main stressors and reduce the ‘lost’ feeling I was experiencing.
For me the easy things that help me avoid the onset of burnout the most are:
Georgia, founder of Umii: “At first I was so excited about becoming a founder and making progress with Umii that I thought ‘I'm going to work 24/7 to make sure this succeeds!’. From working weekends and late nights I quickly became drained and unmotivated about the work I was doing. When you experience burnout for the first time it’s not easy to recognise, but even harder to admit to yourself.
When I start becoming demotivated, stressed and overwhelmed about a situation, they are my warning signs of burnout. It sounds obvious but what helps me is taking a break. I take time to reflect on the situation and realise that often, it's not as stressful or difficult as I first thought. When my brain is clear I am able to make better decisions and find a solution.
If you’re in a 9-5 job with set tasks and hours, it can be easier to detach yourself from work at the end of the day and relax. But as a founder I’ve needed to be available at all hours, it can be really hard to know when to stop and switch off. There is always something you can be doing. So I find it really important to add structure to my calendar. I prioritise my tasks for the week and make sure to plan in time for breaks and keeping at least one day a week work-free.
I book in 1 hour slots to concentrate on specific pieces of work. After I’m finished, I make sure I get up from my desk and move about for 10mins. Whether that's to refill my water, make a coffee or just do some laps around my house! I also make sure to take time to switch off from work and spend time away from screens by reading a book, cooking, or going on a daily walk at lunch without my phone.”
Rich, Cofounder of DLG: “My cofounder and I have talked openly and honestly about our burnout. We know each other’s triggers so if we don’t notice ourselves that we’re spiralling, we can spot each other's warning signs and it’s great to have that support.
The change to 100% remote working has had a big impact on the social aspect of working in a team. I was able to disguise burnout a lot easier in an email or 30 minute video call. We needed to make the effort to continue having honest conversations. Now we make sure to set aside time each week to discuss how we're feeling and any support we feel we need.
I've also adjusted my working hours and workouts which has had a big impact. I've tried to embed good habits around my days in terms of nutrition, movement and screen time. Knowing that a small change repeated consistently, can have a significant and compounded impact over time.
Another thing that’s helped me has been to look for the little wins. I find ways to trigger the reward pathways in my brain. A little win here or there can give you that motivational push to jump onto the next task. Little by little what seems impossible to achieve, will be chipped away. I break large tasks down into a list of smaller ones and prioritise what needs to happen first. I make time each week to look back and recognise what we’ve achieved and the progress made.
Ultimately I’ve learnt when and how to switch off, it looks different for everyone but you need to find time to recharge. If you don't take care of yourself you won't be able to take care of your business. There will be times you may need to work 110% but it is not sustainable, so you need to understand when to push yourself and when to recover.”