No, you shouldn’t be at the breaking point non-stop.

Photo by Nubelson Fernandes on Unsplash

Startups experience burnout more often than larger or more mainstream companies. They have to deal with a wider array of problems, and usually at the same time.

In fact, burnout mostly happens because of a combination of reasons — it’s rarely just the lack of funding or just too much client work that’s causing it.

Dealing with such problems typically falls onto the shoulders of a small team. That leads to extreme exhaustion, which threatens the success of a startup.

Before we get to how you can recover from it, let’s first define startup burnout.

What is Startup Burnout?

I like to visualize burnout as an overheating engine. Everything may look fine on the surface… until your car explodes.

But here’s how WebMD defines burnout:

“Burnout is a form of exhaustion caused by constantly feeling swamped. It’s a result of excessive and prolonged emotional, physical, and mental stress. In many cases, burnout is related to one’s job.”

So, think of burnout as stress + exhaustion.

Most startups experience burnout when they start to grow. While having more client work is a positive sign, it often continues to be handled by the same number of people. The same two people continue working on what could easily be a three-person job. Sooner or later, this leads to a full-on burnout.

But other things can cause burnout, too. My experience is that it often happens due to a lack of work-life balance or no sense of responsibility among employees. Both scenarios are extremely common with startups.

And no, startup-wide burnout is not rare. But that doesn’t mean it’s normal — it’s just normalized.

Why Is Startup Burnout Such A Problem?

Stress has one purpose: to help us respond quickly to dangerous situations.

But feeling stressed over an extended period has the opposite effect. Stress makes us feel overwhelmed and unable to cope. It makes it harder for us to make smart decisions.

When that happens in a startup, the staff becomes unable to solve existing problems, let alone deal with new ones. They start making more mistakes, and solving issues generally takes more time.

As a consequence, burnout creates a ton of new problems:

  • Zero staff motivation
  • Crushed productivity
  • Weaker mental and physical health
  • Overly-emotional responses and arguments
  • Staff stops caring about a startup’s success

If you recognize any of those signs — like decreased productivity and motivation — among your staff, make changes asap. Here are a few ideas on what could help.

3 Ways To Recover From Burnout

Big thanks to all the sincere startup founders that shared how they survived burnout. All my advice is based on their real-life experiences.

So, here are the three major takeaways from their stories.

1. Hire New Employees

  • Inspiration: Alex Turnbull, the CEO and founder of a startup called Groove, wrote an amazing post on how he and his team survived burnout. One of the first things he did was bring a new person to the team. And doing that immediately took the pressure off.

Alex admits that hiring is risky because it strains your budget. Plus, hiring the wrong person can be detrimental to your work culture.

But it’s often inevitable. And hiring the right person can bring much-needed relief to your entire team.

From my experience, burned-out founders already know which position needs filling. They just don’t know how to get good candidates.

What helped Alex the most was getting references from other people. If that’s not an option for you, you may find suitable candidates by perusing social networks. You may even try writing openly asking for recommendations in a social media post.

You can also give candidates trial tasks to check their skills in action. If you need ideas on how to test the candidates, why not ask your team to brainstorm with you?

Don’t let the complexity of finding a good hire scare you. You shouldn’t put it off if your startup is at a breaking point.

2. Take A Startup-wide Break

  • Inspiration: Joel Gascoigne, the CEO and co-founder of Buffer, is another startup founder who experienced burnout first-hand. The thing that made the most difference was taking a long-overdue break. But the trick was in keeping himself from checking in on his company while on the break.

Most startups know they need to take a break. They feel it. But both staff and founders put off taking vacation days. Some do it to avoid burdening other people, while others don’t feel like they can rely on their colleagues.

But the most challenging part about taking a break is usually resisting to check in on your company.

Well, Joel had a different experience. He didn’t feel the need to check in on his company at all.

That was partly because he had already lost motivation by the time he finally took a break. But it was also thanks to two other things:

  • He had a team he could trust.
  • He had delegated the responsibilities.

So, make sure to prep your employees before your break. Teach them how to handle their new responsibilities, and make sure they know what they are.

Also, resist the temptation to micromanage. Let your break be a real break, so you can recharge your batteries and come back better.

Lastly, encourage your employees to take a break, too. They probably won’t until they’re told to.

3. Give Your Employees More Autonomy

  • Inspiration: Andrew Filev, the CEO and founder of Wrike, was on the brink of founder burnout several times. One trick he used to recover from it was giving his employees more autonomy. But do so, he had to build a strong work culture first.

Founders who feel the need to micromanage failed to do one thing — build a strong work culture:

“Work culture is a collection of attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors that make up the regular atmosphere in a work environment.”

As a founder, you’re in charge of aligning your employees’ goals with your startup’s goals. To do so, you need to ensure your employees understand your vision, share your beliefs, and behave in a way that reflects those beliefs.

Otherwise, your employees will lack the context “to make smart decisions with autonomy.” And you want them to make the decisions so that you don’t have to handle everything yourself.

But your employees can’t make the best decisions for your startup if they don’t have the full context.

That’s why you should share your vision with your employees and let them have a leading role in bringing it to life.

Don’t Underestimate The Power Of The Little Things

We’ve gone through some pretty drastic changes you should make to survive or prevent burnout. But you shouldn’t forget the little things, either.

Things like staying hydrated, getting enough sleep, and exercising can all make a difference. (No matter how cliche they sound.)

The most important thing is to start making changes as soon as you notice the first signs of burnout, no matter how small those changes may be. Building a startup is a marathon and not a sprint, anyway.

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