Progress or activism? You want so badly not to fail, that you work day and night without taking a break and care for yourself and your employees. It can be hard to accept that sometimes the best thing to do to achieve top performance is to stop working and start “playing”. Of course, you don’t want to switch to the opposite end of the spectrum and play too hard without putting in the work. Once you find the balance between work and “recharge”, you can avoid the dangers of burnout and enjoy your work much more. But how to avoid falling into the culture trap of all work and no play?
In February I mentored a Silicon Valley startup that was right at the edge to fail for a reason that is not the typical ABC of why startups fail. In fact, they were operationally on the right track: had raised a seed round, had generated a good amount of buzz in the industry, and their MVP seemed like having reached product market fit. However, internally, they were struggling big time. The engineers were at each other’s throats, the growth hackers were losing motivation and their KPI numbers were down! As a consequence, the founders were more and more panicking with the situation.
Instead of continuing down this road of self-destruction, they were humble enough to ask for help. Together, we looked at how personnel was being managed to see if we could find the problem there. What popped to my eyes was employees working 80+ hour work weeks, people coming in sick instead of taking a day off, and absolutely no time being taken off by anyone. Employees didn’t even take proper lunch breaks and just ate lunch at their desks.
Hence, no room was left for recharging — for creativity — for fun! The startup was suffering from a classic case of burnout. In trying to be successful, they were working themselves so hard they almost combusted. Does it sound familiar?
Once I went through all numbers and actually had certainty that “the working style” was the key reason — the fix was an easy one! I came up with a 12 weeks plan which included team building, self-care, and ultimately defining the company’s culture. Not only was it crucial and in time — but after only three weeks everyone was feeling rejuvenated, motivated and committed again. We all were tremendously satisfied seeing the startup getting back on track and move forward.
Change Your Frame of Mind
As a startup, the thought of taking a break probably stresses you out. Your current mindset might be that there’s no time for play and any time away from work is wasted. However, it’s time to change your frame of mind when it comes to rest. Think about marathons. If the person who trained the most for a marathon won, then runners would train for 23 hours a day. However, that is not the case, and even winners need to take a break. The idea of resting and recovering is understood and embraced in the athletic world, but ignored in the startup world. It’s time to embrace the idea of rest and recovery for work, too.
When you’re working on an intense project for hours at a time, you might feel like you’re being productive, but you probably end up leaving work wondering where the time went and how you could possibly have so much left to do on your list. By taking breaks when you’re most prone to distraction, like around 3 p.m., allows your mind to reset for renewed focus and increased productivity. Even a 15-minute break is enough to achieve this.
When you understand that rest is a key to productivity, you need to share that message with your employees. Your team also needs to understand the importance of rest and recovery, and they need to know it is acceptable for them to take a break to recharge.
Why Does Burnout Happen?
Over the past five years, 48% of Americans reported increased stress, and the number is likely higher if you ask people in startups. Along with increased stress, many employed adults have a hard time balancing their work and personal life. Many people feel like they are stuck in an unrewarding job. Especially in a startup stress levels run high — — way too high!
Other indicators people getting in a cycle of high stress, is when taking work home, not taking breaks, and stop taking care of themselves, both physically and mentally.
Hopefully, none of your team members are struggling with that reason for burnout, but it is likely that many of them unwilling to take those breaks are headed in the direction of burnout.
Warning Signs of Burnout
How do you prevent burnout? One way is to recognize the warning signs so you can stop it before it gets too far.
Your physical and mental health are both negatively affected by burnout. If you’ve been feeling depressed, get sick a lot, have back pain, or are struggling with obesity or heart disease, you should consider how your work is playing a role in your health.
Stress affects the part of your brain necessary for executive function. Executive function impacts your memory, emotions, decision making, and focus. Burnout can cause you to make silly mistakes, bad decisions, or have emotional outbursts.
Both personal and work relationships can be affected by burnout. You might find yourself snapping at colleagues or even your loved ones. Or, maybe you find yourself withdrawing and avoiding contact with people. When your relationships start to suffer, burnout could be to blame.
If you are normally a positive person, but you start to focus on the downside of situations or find yourself judging others, it could be a cause of burnout. Projects and interactions that usually give you excitement no longer do so. While you feel like you’re putting a lot into your work, you might not feel like you’re getting much out of it.
The toll stress takes on you often leads to exhaustion. Even after a good night’s sleep you might have no energy, and you end up relying on large amounts of caffeine just to stay awake during the day.
When you start your startup, motivation comes naturally, and you’re very optimistic about everything. When burnout hits, you start to lose that motivation, and you begin to do work out of fear of being fired or missing a deadline. When your motivation starts to stem from negative places, your performance could be affected as well. If you notice a dip in performance, you should determine if burnout is the reason.
Ways to Fight Burnout
One of the easiest ways to fight burnout is by taking a break and disconnecting from your work. Periods of intense focus should be balanced by intense rest for maximum productivity. Disconnecting is especially important. If you don’t completely remove yourself from work electronically, it’s like you’ve never left work. Set designated times to check emails and voicemails while you’re at home, so it’s not an all-consuming task.
How long of a break should you take? Breaks of varying lengths can be beneficial.
Maybe your workload isn’t too intense, but you are so disorganized that you can’t handle your work effectively. Taking the time to get organized will help your load feel considerably lighter. Even if the time isn’t focused on tasks specific to your startup, it will benefit it in the long run.
Your natural response might be to withdraw from people when you’re feeling overwhelmed, stressed, and burnt out. However, those closest to you can be the best thing for you when you’re experiencing burnout. Spending time with people can help you remove yourself from work and the stress involved and have some fun.
It’s important to pay attention to the signals your body is sending you. You might be quick to blame your headaches, stomachaches, and sore joints on things like food and sleep. Don’t overlook the fact that stress and anxiety can cause many of these aches and pains. Burnout will manifest itself in your body, so listen to what your body is saying to you and take care of it.
Exercise is Key
When it comes to your personal health, you need to put yourself first at times. You might have all the motivation in the world for ensuring your startup’s success, but you need to apply some of that motivation to taking care of your body and exercising. Even the most successful and motivated people have a hard time making exercise part of their daily routine. If you do so, though, you’ll reap many benefits.
It might not make sense that expending energy helps you have more of it, but that is the case when it comes to exercising. One study found that regular, low-intensity exercise increased energy by 20% and reduced fatigue by 65% for sedentary people. Even a short, brisk walk over lunch time can help you return to work energized and happier.
Working out also helps your mind. When you’re focused on running that extra mile or doing that extra rep of squats, you clear your mind from the stresses of work. This allows you to return to your work refreshed and more productive. Exercise improves your circulation, which in turn delivers blood and oxygen to your brain more effectively. Your focus and decision making is improved, which helps you avoid making mistakes you’ll stress about and regret later.
Discipline is necessary for a startup’s success, and exercise can help teach you discipline. When you stick to a routine, you’re teaching yourself how to be dedicated to a single thing. The habits of follow-through and commitment you get from exercising regularly will carry over into your startup.
If you put off exercising, that can carry over into other aspects of your life. Instead, here are some tips to get started:
For instance, I run 4 times a week with 10 minutes stretch before and after. Then the other 2 days I do 20 minutes exercises. And before you say you don’t have time for it — I’m a family father of two boys, married and have a series of cross-functional responsibilities. I wake up EVERY morning at 5.30am — and I just do it! This is more important than the tasks you have on your table — as it keeps balanced the status of your mind and your body resistant. Regardless what you come up with now as a reason for why you can’t do an activity, is an excuse — and you are lying to yourself!
Taking Breaks as a Team
Teamwork is essential for startups. New employees need to get to know each other and learn how to trust each other. Additionally, startups are stressful, and it is vital for all members of the team to take a step back from the stress to relax and refresh. Doing so will make all parts of your startup run smoother and more productively.
Team building is a great way to prevent burnout, build trust, and promote your company’s culture. Many people cite job burnout as a reason for quitting, so by implementing team building as a way to fight burnout, you’re more likely to keep your good employees.
Some team building ideas:
Running and working for a startup is stressful, and burnout seems inevitable since all you do is work to prevent your startup from failing. However, your success is much more likely if you’re able to step away from the work and take the time to rest and fight burnout. Listen to your body and put yourself first sometimes so you maintain your health, both physical and mental.
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Originally published at whatittak.es.
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