Escaping founder burnout: how to protect your mental health while building a startup
Test Have you ever asked yourself what the most important aspect of your business is? Many immediately think, product or growth, perhaps even marketing. But in truth, the most important building block in a startup is actually its founder. In a company’s infancy, it’s your vision and tenacity that often sets the trajectory for success, and so it should go without saying that keeping on top of your mental health is key.
We all know startup stress is very real. Jumping from short-term firefighting to long-term strategic thinking from one moment to the next, leaves many founders feeling frazzled and spread thin. So far, so normal, right? Well, not quite. Founder burnout is an increasingly common challenge facing business owners, disproportionately affecting startup founders who are seldom able to take the time off needed to recoup. In fact, a report conducted by The Centre for Economics and Business Research found that 92% of small business owners experienced poor mental health over the past two years, with 52% stating that running their business directly contributed to their feelings of burnout.
So, while a healthy founder doesn't always guarantee a healthy company, it certainly helps to keep the ship on the right path. With more than enough on your plate, it’s important to be able to spot the warning signs of founder burnout, learn how to protect your mental health while building a startup, and what to do if it all gets too much. After all, helping to build your resilience to stress is only going to help both you and your company thrive in the long run.
What is founder burnout and why is it a problem?
Burnout is defined as a state of emotional, mental and sometimes physical exhaustion triggered by chronic stress. When talking about startup founder burnout specifically, the driving stressors contributing to this over-exhaustion are work-related. Yes, ups and downs are a normal part of any founder role, but it’s the chronic aspect of the stress that creates this hard-to-break cycle of burnout. Prolonged periods of uncertainty, little control over market conditions, or a lack of support and resources can, over a period of time, grind down your resilience, allowing the lethargy, cynicism and depression associated with founder burnout to take hold.
The trickle down effect in startups and small businesses means that a burned out founder can seriously impact morale and performance across the entire organisation. While it may be easy to categorise mental health support at work as a nice to have, studies show that companies investing in mental health initiatives saw a 53% increase in productivity and better economic outcomes as a result. With all eyes on the founder to keep morale high during hard times, it’s never been more important to walk the walk when it comes to mental health and leadership. By acknowledging the risk of founder burnout and taking appropriate action, you can create a healthier, happier and more resilient workforce for when it really matters.
What are the signs of founder burnout?
Burnout can manifest in a multitude of ways but the most common symptom reported by founders is feeling exhausted and energy depleted. Getting enough sleep but not feeling rested is a red flag and suggests your parasympathetic nervous system is working in overdrive to try to reduce high levels of cortisol created by chronic stress. Along with low energy, feelings of negativity or cynicism are common. If the company mission feels like it’s lost meaning or you feel defeatest about the direction you’re headed, founder burnout could be at play. This lack of purpose can be really challenging from an organisational level—as a founder, employees look to you to instil passion and a sense of purpose into their hard work. Without it, company culture and performance will no doubt suffer.
Finally, founder burnout can leave you feeling out of touch with your instincts, making simple decisions may feel like climbing Mount Everest. With big name entrepreneurs, from Richard Branson to Oprah Winfrey, crediting much of their business success to the power of gut instinct, it’s well worth keeping in touch with yours.
How can you avoid founder burnout while building a startup?
If left unchecked, founder burnout can derail company plans and take a long-term toll on your mental health. To start building stress resilience against burnout, make these points a priority:
Start with sleep
If the late nights and early mornings that often come with founder life are catching up with you, try to commit to 8 hours of sleep 3-4 days per week as a minimum. Remember—even if 8 hours seems unattainable most nights, sleep quality is just as important as sleep quantity. Try journaling before bed to calm any swirling thoughts, meditate or use breathwork exercises to help drift off quickly. Supplements such as magnesium, melatonin and vitamin B have also been shown to improve sleep quality and reduce insomnia symptoms.
Fuel your brain
There’s a reason why the gut is known as the second brain. The Gut-Brain axis effectively links the central nervous system (controlling your cognitive and emotional functions), with intestinal functions. Effectively, a happy gut contributes to better mental health overall. Eating a nutrient-rich diet is a highly-effective way of generating dopamine in the gut, while regulating blood sugar which helps maintain energy levels through the day. Think brightly coloured vegetables, healthy fats, lean proteins and whole foods.
Sweat it out
If exercise isn’t a regular part of your week, it’s time to shake up your routine. Any form of movement releases endorphins, which can help regulate cortisol levels, reduce feelings of overwhelm and improve sleep. By blowing off steam with a morning run, lunchtime yoga class or evening kick about, you carve out time to be truly present in your body and out of your busy mind. If you can manage it, mix things up with both solo and group activities to cater to what you need, be it thinking time alone or socialising with like-minded folk.
Join supportive communities
As a founder, it’s sometimes difficult to get perspective on business struggles, from scaling a team without changing your company culture to adapting to market corrections, that might actually be very normal. Connecting with other business owners who are further along in their journey can provide visibility into the ups and downs that every business goes through, offer insights into what works, what doesn’t and help you feel less alone in challenging times. Keeping stress internalised is a surefire way to burn yourself out, so getting comfortable with sharing is worth the work.
When you’re being stretched from all angles, it’s doubly important to keep to your stress resilience routines and change course if you find yourself going down a dark path. While founder burnout is common, it doesn’t need to be your reality with the right steps in place. Building a startup can be one of the most challenging but rewarding experiences of your career if you don’t let founder burnout get in the way of your vision.