When it comes to leadership in today’s startup world, founders and CEOs are chained to their jobs more than ever because of the high demands of investors, the increasingly blurred dividing line between personal and professional lives thanks to remote working, and technology that allows they can be reached — and reach employees — 24/7.
But this always-on approach can also lead to a higher risk of stress and even burnout. While employee burnout has been in the spotlight since the start of the pandemic, leadership burnout still remains taboo.
“Especially in technology, the spirit of entrepreneurship is fast becoming one of toil, long hours and self-sacrifice,” writes James Routledge, founder and author of mental health, in The Guardian.
Angel investors, accelerators and venture capitalists (VCs) encourage startups to work harder, move faster and, in some cases, “sleep faster.” The yardstick has seemingly become hours worked, and who can leave the office last. What started as a journey to work-life balance has turned into the rat race most people wanted to avoid.
70% of tech startups fail – no wonder leaders are chained to their Slack.
The truth is, as more and more leaders promote mental health and burnout awareness among their employees, by failing to address their own mental health, harmful practices can seep through the corporate culture.
So how can we identify and prevent leadership burnout?
The Warning Signs
To avoid burnout, the first step is to recognize the symptoms, which can be a huge challenge in a pressure cooker startup environment.
Burnout is the combination of three emotions: exhaustion, negativity and ineffectiveness. say Cavin Benton, founder and CEO of Spill, a startup that provides a message-based therapy app to improve wellbeing in the workplace.
The feelings of negativity and ineffectiveness are what distinguishes it from regular fatigue or exhaustion. And it’s different from depression because it’s purely work-related – you don’t get burned out by, say, relationship problems or life stressors.
Benton says leaders should ask themselves the following questions to identify burnout in their employees:
- Do they seem more irritable, or regularly exhausted?
- Do they tend to point out the worst in everything that happens or is suggested?
- Are they quicker to shoot down the ideas of others?
- Do they give the idea that any work you give them just feels like a burden?
- Do they drop the ball at work when they normally wouldn’t?
- Are they producing fewer ideas or reacting more slowly?
But when it comes to identifying burnout in yourself, things can get a little trickier, as many startup leaders struggle to set the same boundaries for themselves as they do for their employees.
In Techleap’s new video series, Everything in, they interview some of the Netherlands’ most famous founders, from Swapfiets’ Richard Burger to Fairphone CEO Eva Gouwens. When asked how much their work costs, almost all respondents answered the same:
“I think I am 100% my work,” says Lieke Pijpers, founder and CPTO of second-hand fashion platform The Next Closet.
Willemijn Schneyder-Valbracht, CEO and founder of the production performance platform Swipeguide, says:
I am my work, and my work is me.
“Swap bike is a big part of my identity, because I started it at a very young age (22), and seven years later this has been a quarter of my life,” says Richard Burger, founder of Swapfiets.
Mark-Jan Harte, co-founder and CEO of healthtech Aidence says:
If I work too much, I just crash after a few weeks and can’t keep up. And so if it’s something I can’t do, I can’t ask anyone else to do it either.
Even those who were skeptical at first are now becoming more aware of the effects overtime can have. In the All In video series, Ugnius Rimsa, co-founder and CTO of Lalaland, which develops virtual inclusive fashion models, told Techleap:
“I was always a big disbeliever of burnout. I was like okay, this isn’t really possible or it’s kind of made up.” But the fast-paced life of an entrepreneur changed his thinking. “I wouldn’t say I’ve reached burnout, it’s more like you have a creative barrier that prevents you from being really creative. That’s what happened to me.”
As the symptoms become more and more apparent, it is important to take a closer look at some of the causes to prevent this from happening.
What does passion have to do with it?
In a study published in the Harvard Business Review, researchers found that passion and destiny (the belief that a successful entrepreneurial career “is meant to be”) makes entrepreneurs more or less likely to burn out.
Job passion was divided into two types:
Harmonious passion, or when entrepreneurs are motivated by their work because they are passionate about the subject and it is an important part of who they are.
Obsessive passion, or entrepreneurs motivated by status, money, and other rewards.
As you might guess, entrepreneurs who are motivated by status or money are more likely to burn out.
This is clearly reflected in some of the successful leadership teams that have grown in the Netherlands. For example, Michiel Roodenburg, CFO at Crisp, an online-only supermarket focused on fresh produce, told Techleap:
I have strong opinions about food. I like to talk about it with my family. I even go to suppliers with my kids. It’s part of my personal life.
Destiny beliefs added another layer to the pie. If you’re familiar with psychologist Carol Dweck’s fixed versus growth mindset, the researchers found that entrepreneurs who believe entrepreneurial success is meant to be or not were more likely to experience burnout. Meanwhile, those with a more flexible mindset were less likely to report feeling burned out.
Of course, burnout can also occur in entrepreneurs with a harmonious passion for their work and a flexible attitude. This usually happens when harmful behavior in the workplace permeates the corporate culture.
The “burn-out-proof” workplace
When it comes to “burnout-proofing” the workplace, almost all experts say the same thing: empathy is key and founders should lead by example.
Jennifer Moss, a workplace expert and author, says that: empathetic leadership can be demonstrated by ensuring that employees take time off, know their staff (for example: are they parents? are they financially troubled?) and, as Covid-19 continues to play a factor in people’s daily lives, keep them physically safe on the job. workplace.
The way leaders handle communications in the workplace often sets the tone for the rest of the organization.
In another episode of All In, Swapfiets founder Richard Burger tells Techleap that he always felt like he could text or email an employee any time of the day:
I didn’t really care when I was working, it was also a little maybe self-centered to get it out of my head – then it was gone. But then you just put it in someone else’s head. So I used to do it but have stopped as long as it is not urgent.
And while a manager may not expect their employee to respond in the middle of the night, they may be subconsciously putting pressure on them, something Swipeguide’s Schneyder-Valbracht says may be related to cultural differences:
There are many differences in work cultures. So if I send a message in the middle of the night, I don’t expect anyone to read it or respond to it. But if you’re from a different culture or social environment, you may feel like you have to answer because that’s the environment you grew up in.
Eva Gouwens, CEO Fairphone, says the pivot to remote working made her reconsider how often she contacted employees:
In that sense, I changed a bit last year. A lot of people had to work from home and you saw that those boundaries were less clear and everything blurred a bit. So I’ve gotten a bit stricter about this.
Making sure they take time off themselves is a great way for leaders to not only avoid their own burnout, but also set a good example for their employees. Several of Techleap’s founders said setting boundaries for their after-hours is key:
“At our house, the rule is that telephones are kept downstairs. No one has a phone in the bedroom and you don’t answer it until the morning,” WeTransfer’s Bradfield said.
“I try to switch off my phone or at least not actively use it when I get home,” says Swapfiets’ Burger.
Ultimately, a burnout culture is something that can sneak up on anyone — and while founders may be tempted to work long hours, send midnight emails and skip vacations, what they do sets an example for the rest of the company. .