How to fight burn-outs at a start-up (5 tips)

Roland Grootenboer
6 min readFeb 2, 2021

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Credits: Stocksnap

A start-up’s success depends on the people. At the end of the day, people come up with great ideas, build beautiful products and make crucial decisions. Burn-outs are bringing down these brilliant minds. It’s bringing down your people when they crash and burn, wasting exceptional talent and expertise. It can even bring down your start-up as burn-outs costly and you risk losing great people. Missing out on that one moment of brilliance that can make 10x difference. So yes, this topic needs your attention.

Preventing stress in an environment like a start-up is impossible and not even desirable. Stress can be good and it’s often a byproduct of being a start-up. You probably don’t know if you’re going to make it to next year, which is fearsome and fun at the same time. That causes stress and it should. It will keep everyone on their toes and bring that buzz which is so addicting. It’s not a matter of avoiding stress in any shape or form. It’s a matter of preventing people from burning out. Here are 5 tips.

1. Survey: find hotspots and stressors.

Do you have any idea what is causing people to experience stress in your company? What are the hotspots and stressors for your employees? An anonymous survey is a great starting point. People have different interpretations of the same situation. The survey is not about finding the truth, but surfacing how people are experiencing your start-up. It’s about perception, not cold hard truth. Keep in mind that it’s a snapshot and therefore only shows how people feel this week.

There are a few clear stress markers I’d advise you to survey as a starting point. After years of studies and experience, we know the following factors play an important role in employees’ stress levels.

  • Workload (too much or not enough work)
  • Deadlines (unrealistically short, or way too long)
  • Changes (too much change)
  • Financial stability and job security (short runway)
  • Autonomy and freedom (micromanagement)
  • Manager
  • Leadership
  • Goals and course of the company (believe in the companies direction)
  • Alignment with the company culture and values
  • Responsibility (too much or not enough responsibility)
  • Role fit and definition (wrong role or a too broad/vague role)
  • Your work matters (seeing no value or impact of your work).

Note that this is list is far from done or perfect. Use it as a starting point. Creating a good survey is an art in itself. How you pose the questions is key. Check out this section of re:Work to learn more.

2. Make a plan and goals.

Okay, you learned about the perception of your employees: great job. A quick reminder that the fact that there are stressful factors isn’t a problem in itself. The goal is not to take away all stressors. The goal is to do everything you can as a company to prevent people from burning out. Time to make a plan.

Step 1: Identify the stressors that are given and won’t change.

List all factors that are causing stress but are not going to change. A few examples:

  • The fact that there will be a lot of change to the product, because you’re looking for product-market fit. If people want a clear plan for the full year, you can’t give them that.
  • A lack of financial (and job) security as you are dependent on investments and therefore can’t promise that everyone will still work here next year.
  • No clear defined jobs, roles and responsibilities. This trickles down to a lack of a clear career path.

Use the input from the survey to pin these given stress factors. In addition, explain why these aren’t changing. When you present your findings, it’s key that people understand why these are a given. It’s better to be honest and have people leave, then hide these facts and have people stumbling over them again and again.

Step 2: Identify the 3 top hotspots you can influence.

Go back to your list and look for the biggest topics you can influence. A few examples:

  • Manager capability.
  • Believe in the leaderships’ vision and plan.
  • Seeing the no impact of your work.

Step 3: Make one clear action item for every hotspot with a clear deadline.

What are you going to do to improve on these topics and how are you going to measure it. For example:

  • Management course on giving feedback in Q1. Focus on hiring more senior managers.
  • Leadership does a strategy session with the whole group to listen to everybody’s input and ideas and share theirs. Leadership to present a plan for the next two quarters before the end of Q1.
  • ‘Celebration minute’ at every all-hands where the impact of the work is publicly celebrated and rewarded.

Step 4: Present the findings and plan.

Share the outcome of the survey. Tell your people what stressors aren’t changing and why (step 1). Tell your people what the plan is per topic you can influence (steps 2 and 3). This can result in people looking for another job. That is good news, for everyone involved.

Step 5: Repeat.

Survey again at the end of your deadline and repeat. This shouldn’t be a one-off. Make this a habit and it will not only prevent your people from burning out. It will shape your company into a place where people feel empowered and thrive.

3. Hiring.

You’ve now identified the hotspots in your company and have a plan going forward: nice, well done. Next step is to sharpen your front door policy. Be honest about what people are signing up for. Tell your candidates what pitfalls there are and what factors aren’t going to change (factors you identified at step 1).

In addition, you want to structurally interview candidates on this, with something I’d like to call the burn-out-block. A block of questions dedicated to coping with fast paced, stressful environments. I’d advise to have at least these three questions incorporated in every interview.

For example:

  • Tell me about your most stressful situation up till now. What made it stressful for you? What led it to be this stressful? How did you cope?
  • What do you do the keep a healthy work-life balance?
  • Which factors cause stress for you (use the variables from your survey)?

This will give a clear view if your new employee is able to handle the situation that you’re in. When in doubt, do yourself and the candidate a favor and abort.

4. Improve managers capability.

Managers are uniquely positioned, making them key in fighting burn-outs. There are three main responsibilities every manager in your company should be trained on. It’s important to tell your managers that this is part of their job and not a nice-to-have.

Responsibility #1: Create a healthy work environment.

First up is creating a healthy work environment in which people thrive. An environment where people feel psychologically safe. A team where they can fail and receive candor feedback. A place where discrimination, bullying and harassment have no place. Where people can bring themselves to work and have work that matters. Tasks that stretch them, so they learn. Work that is engaging and roles that fit their capabilities. No team is perfect, but that shouldn’t make us lower the bar. Tell your managers what you want your perfect workplace to look like and how to foster and create it. This will take years, so better start now.

Responsibility #2: Spotting and flagging.

Next up is spotting situations where people are at risk. Managers know the people, work, deadlines, pressure, and sentiment in the team. You can train managers in their ability to spot high-pressure situations. In addition, your managers should be able to flag highly stressful situations and get the mandate to act on what they spot and flag. Being close to the people in the team is key. Demand your managers to build a professional relationship with their team members so they know when people are not in a good place. Make sure to have a plan in place when they are on the edge.

Responsibility #3: Build the resilience and capability of employees.

Even if managers create a healthy environment, work (and life) will give us lemons. We often talk about the fact that it’s employers' responsibility to do everything in their power to avoid people from burning out. Let’s not underestimate what employees can do themselves and empower them to do so..

Burn-outs are toxic cocktails and there’s no formula to it. We simply don’t know when it’s too much for too long for a specific person. Building resilience and capabilities with employees is key in preventing people from burning out.

5. Practice what you preach.

Last but not least, you have to practice what you preach. You can’t tell someone to work 40 hours when you keep giving them 80 hours of work. And you can’t expect people to believe what you say if you aren’t taking care of yourself. If you really want to take a swing at this, you should start with a good look in the mirror.

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Roland Grootenboer

Currently part of People Ops at Google. Formerly head of HR at Blendle. Opinions our my own.