How to Recognize, Address, and Prevent Burnout at Your Startup

Burnout has become something of a buzzword over the course of the last few years. The term is used most often in the context of the workplace, characterized by feelings of exhaustion, cynicism, and reduced efficacy.

Workers everywhere have cited increased tendencies towards burnout: An Indeed survey showed 52 percent of workers feeling burned out, and 67 percent saying the feeling has worsened over the course of the pandemic.

These tendencies, however, tend to get worse in a startup environment. This is usually because in a startup, the amount of effort workers put in directly translates to the overall output of the business.

The pressures of a startup do not discriminate, affecting the young, old, c-level, and individual contributors. Although burnout is not a medical condition, its repercussions can manifest in the physical body: Think headaches, stomachaches/intestinal issues, fatigue, frequent illness, and changes in appetite/sleep.

Needless to say, burnout is serious, and it’s important for leadership to be able to recognize, address, and prevent burnout as part of their integrated day-to-day operation.

How to recognize burnout: What does burnout look like?

Your team might not always feel comfortable admitting that burnout has crept up on them. Startup employees are notoriously tough, and their dedication to their output might make it hard to decipher between “normal” work stress and something more serious.

The Brink, a publication by Boston University, says that burnout usually manifests in three ways:

  1. Energy depletion and exhaustion
  2. Depersonalization and cynicism
  3. Reduced efficacy

Energy depletion might look like one of your most lively employees not speaking up as much, showing up late or constantly tired, and citing trouble getting out of bed in the morning or dreading the week ahead on a Sunday night. It’s also an exhaustion that doesn’t go away after a vacation, no matter how long.

Depersonalization usually looks like a drastic shift of interest in their workload, totally detached from a pile-up of projects, and doubt that any of it will ever get done to their normal standard due to the sheer size of it.

Finally, reduced efficacy often looks like a lack of focus and a significant change in their normal output. Tasks they may have enjoyed may begin to seem like a source of fatigue and frustration, taking much more concentration than they used to.

In summary, when your high performers begin to disassociate from their workload for no apparent reason and struggle to engage with the rest of the team, this is often the first sign of burnout.

How to address burnout: What can leadership do about burnout?

Unfortunately, the nature of a startup often requires your team to wear many hats, and as much as you might want to reduce the workload, it’s simply not realistic. Offering more vacation time is not a solution either—employees might feel even more stressed coming back to a larger workload, or spend their vacation working because there is simply no stopping the startup train and it’s easier to stay caught up.

So, what can you do to address your burned-out team?

First, recognize that the acknowledgement of burnout is a top-down initiative. Leadership must be willing to accept that burnout is real, and needs to be addressed.

Next, make prioritization your number one priority. Often, at a startup, everything can feel like a priority, and your team might not know where to even begin. Make it your mission to lay out exactly what the top priorities are, structuring their workload so they know exactly what is critical, and what can be backlogged. The ability to structure a workload can restore a great deal of control in your team’s mind and day.

Finally, examine how your culture supports your team’s well-being. Does your benefit package actually address what’s most important to your team, or do you assume that the weekly pizza parties and happy hours are covering your bases? Does your team really thrive fully remote, or would the option of a more collaborative space increase their potency? This should be an ongoing examination, with feedback from your team driving the majority of your decision-making.

How to prevent burnout before it happens

In a perfect world, we would all be able to recognize and attend to our own exhaustion, and it would never have the chance to manifest. Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to have that level of self-awareness. Here are ways to prevent burnout.

Encourage workers to take regular breaks and vacations: It’s important to take time away from work to rest and recharge. This can include taking a lunch break, going for a walk, or taking a vacation. Studies have shown that employees who take regular vacations are more productive and less likely to burn out.

Check-in with your employees: In addition to making sure your policies surrounding vacation time and work-life balance fit the needs of your individual team, the best thing you can do to prevent burnout is to engage in regular, meaningful 1:1s with your employees.

In these meetings, whether weekly, bi-weekly, or whatever works best for your team, don’t just check in on their projects and ask for status updates. Ask questions that speak to:

  • Their ability to engage with other areas of their life, i.e. their friendships, sleep, hobbies, or healthy habits
  • Their enthusiasm about the projects they are working on, and whether they are able to prioritize the tasks assigned to them
  • How they are connecting to the rest of their team
  • Whether they feel their work is making a difference to the overall bottom line

When these insights are shared with you, the key is to really listen and respond.

Set realistic goals and expectations: Startups often have a lot of ideas and projects in the works, but it’s important to prioritize and focus on the most important tasks. Employees should also be aware of their limitations and not take on more than they can handle.

Lead by example: It is also important for the management team to lead by example and promote a healthy work-life balance. You should ensure that employees have the support and resources they need to manage their stress and overall wellness. This can include providing mental health resources, flexible working hours, and encouraging employees to take time off when they need it.

This way, your employees will be supported in their workload, and you will be able to prevent burnout before it starts.

This blog was written by Viaduct’s Director of Recruiting and Business Operations Tom Hausler.

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