3 Strategies to Prevent Burnout When Working at a Startup

There are many myths about working at a startup, such as that alcohol flows non-stop in a non-stop fraternity party-like atmosphere, that foosball tournaments dominate the working day and that t-shirts and jeans are more common day-to-day work attire than button-down shirts and slacks.

OK - that last one is true.

However, despite the casual work attire that many in the corporate world sometimes believe signifies that someone does not take one's job seriously, startup employees work hard. Very hard.

Unlike more traditional corporate environments where the demanding 9-6 expectation has long since replaced the 9-5 work schedule of yesterday, startup employees often must make due with limited human capital to stay under budget. This expectation can result in working late into the night to deliver a project on time. Additionally, with fewer workers per department, each person needs to take on more projects at any given time.

The combination of a heavy workload plus long hours can quickly lead to burnout if the employee does not take steps to safeguard himself or herself from it.


Burnout: What is it?

According to Entrepreneur magazine, American-German psychologist Herbert Freudenberger first named the phenomenon in 1974. He considered it a "situation where you mentally or physically collapse due to workload or related issues."

The Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research reinforces the belief that burnout is not merely a psychological state, but one that impacts the physical as well. It believes that it is a special type of job stress. It is "a state of physical, emotional or mental exhaustion combined with doubts about your competence and the value of your work."

The Oxford University Press reinforces that burnout is the "physical or mental collapse by overwork or stress."

Whether caused by simple stress or a full-scale mental exhaustion, it is a serious problem. In fact, research shows that 62% of all employees experience stressors to the point of burnout. Business Insider reports that of the reasons that workers resign, three of the top-seven have touch points related to burnout. Research shows that 86% of Millennials have experienced burnout - a revealing statistic for a generation whose oldest members are only 35-years-old.

While it is impossible to eliminate stressors entirely, here are three tactics that employees can and should embrace to prevent burnout. Moreover, strategic leaders should encourage implementation of these tactics as burnout and employee attrition have significant direct and indirect costs for enterprises.


1. Personal Wellness

In sharp contrast to the years when Baby Boomers dominated the American workforce, Generation X and Millennial workers and leaders value a healthy work/life balance. The Huffington Post reported that 52% of these workers had turned down a job that would have negatively impacted work/life balance.

Leaders regularly - and often inadvertently - push startup workers in their care toward the work side of the equation. Far too regularly the "life" component is either forgotten or diminished to the point of burnout.

What does the "life" side of the equation represent? Commonly known elements include items such as having quality time with family and not "living" at the office to the detriment of one's personal life.

That said, personal wellness also includes elements that are, well, personal!

Getting a full eight hours of sleep each night provides a means for the body to rejuvenate itself so that it is capable of performing at an optimal level the next business day.

When work stress strikes and deadlines loom, far too many workers "skip lunch," remain at their desk and continue to chug away. Quite simply, it is counterproductive. Livestrong reports that eating lunch raises blood sugar levels that in turn provide the energy necessary to focus and concentrate. Additionally, skipping lunch slows down a person's metabolism - a major concern for those focused on fitness.

In fact, personal wellness includes almost an exhaustive list of tactics that help employees stay sharp, alert and ready to face each new business day, including working out, going for a run, curling up with a book to stimulate the mind and personal grooming.


2. Mix It Up

Did you know that the well-regarded World Health Organization considers monotony a hazard at the workplace that can lead to stress? Admittedly, assignment monotony is not typically a pressing concern for most workers in the fast-paced startup world. However, stress-producing monotony can involve more than day-to-day duties at the office.

Monotony also relates to one's daily routine. Think about it: Whether we admit it or not, most of us are creatures of habit. We arrive at the office, drop our personal belongings off at our desks, head to the kitchen to grab a coffee, return to our desks, fire up our computers, reply to unanswered emails, etc.

Mix it up! Monotony can lead to stress and stress can lead to burnout!

Try shifting morning tasks around in a different order, or better yet, add a new item to the list. Doing so can help to make work more attractive, and perhaps more importantly, it can help an employee to deepen his or her engagement with both assigned work and the startup as a whole!

Sitting at the same designated workspace each and every day can lead many workers to feel the adverse effects of monotony too. Startup employees whose work focuses on creative endeavors, such as artistic asset creation, content development or web design, are especially prone to the perils of monotony. A stagnant environment can lead quickly to burnout as the creative well runs dry.

When possible, try working in a different location to shake things up. It helps to refill the creative well of inspiration! Stand up, grab that laptop and leave that desk behind, if only for an hour or a day. Head outside and sit in the courtyard to work, find an unoccupied conference room for a change of scenery or even find a comfy chair where you can concentrate, approach tasks from a different point of view and revitalize your creativity!

Other ways startup employees can crush monotony include: schedule a work from home day, utilize flex schedules and suggest a challenging project that has never been performed at the startup previously. Get creative and mix it up!


3. Remember You!

Earlier we examined the critical importance of having work/life balance. Too often, however, the life side of the equation falls by the wayside for startup workers. Simply stated: imbalance is neither healthy for workers, nor does it benefit employers, as it can lead to disengagement, a decline in productivity and yes, burnout.

One of the simplest tactics for overcoming or warding off burnout is to "be in the moment." As described by Forbes, burnout is often a product of the unknown and worrying about the future, instead of concentrating on the present moment and the task at hand. By focusing on the current task, instead of thinking about all of the tasks that are piling up on your to-do list, a startup employee will be able to maintain perspective and reduce stressors in the process.

It makes sense. Which is more stressful: thoughtfully considering a single project or trying to finish 20 tasks simultaneously? Checking off one project at a time provides clarity, increases focus and reduces stress.

Another tactic that helps startup employees to reduce stress and fight off burnout is not overthinking. Overthinking can happen when considering or worrying about work outside of the office once in awhile becomes a daily occurrence. Overthinking can also occur when workers think about a single task "too much" at the expense of other duties. Overthinking increases stress and restricts a healthy work/life balance. That imbalance will inevitably lead to burnout.

While easier said than done, don't overthink - simply do. Break down larger, more intimidating projects into bite size chunks. While it is professional and healthy to want to please a superior with "perfect work," perfection rarely occurs in the real world. Bosses understand this. Embrace that understanding in return. Doing so will reduce stress!

Another fantastic tactic to remember the value of a healthy work/life balance is to remember to schedule time - for you. It's far too easy in Startup Land to forget about one's personal life. Don't fall into that trap!

Schedule activities that you enjoy outside of the office! Calendaring a night out with friends, planning a future vacation or even jotting down something as simple as, "Read a book at Starbucks on Wednesday from 7-8pm," will significantly reduce stress. Doing so is a visual representation to remember to foster a personal life and will give you something to which to look forward to that has nothing to do with work.

Finally, two wonderful - and related - tactics to remember you is to learn how to say "No" and to practice delegating.

In a perfect world, we would all be able to take on an unlimited number of projects and tasks. Unfortunately, there are only 24 hours in each day. No startup employee can do everything and still maintain a healthy work/life balance. It's impossible.

In fact, there is an opportunity cost to everything. Saying "yes" to one request reduces the time one would otherwise have to work on a different task.

Saying "no" to someone - especially a superior - isn't easy. It takes practice. Saying "no" doesn't mean that one puffs up aggressively and refuses to do something. Rather, it can be as easy and non-confrontational as communicating, "I have XYZ projects on my to-do list that each have time-sensitive due dates at the moment. Would it be alright if I worked on your request three days from now when my calendar is lighter so that I can give it the attention that it deserves?"

Delegating also is not easy for many startup workers. Instead of viewing it as "passing work off to someone else" - a consideration that can increase stress levels - think of it as embracing the idea of having a supportive team. Strong teams welcome helping one another when time allows.

No individual contributor exist in a silo. Fostering teamwork will reduce stress, because, over time, teammates learn to trust one another, and not to feel guilty about requesting a helping hand occasionally. As we say at TaskUs, "Teamwork Makes the Dream Work."

Although eliminating stress entirely is the stuff of pure fantasy, regularly practicing these three high-level strategies will help reduce both it and burnout. Practice makes perfect, so make an attempt to incorporate each into your professional life and discover the positive benefits that each provide.

Both you and your employer depend on a healthy work/life balance. You're worth it.



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Michael Buenaventura

October 30, 2016