June 12, 2024

The Growing Problem of Startup Founder Burnout

startup founder burnout

There’s a growing problem in startups: Founders, who are the guiding light for their teams, are experiencing unprecedented levels of stress, burnout, and even mental health problems. With a growing emphasis on profitability, founders need to cut costs, keep teams lean, and achieve key targets with less wiggle room than in the past — and the impact can be felt all around. According to a report by Startup Snapshot, 54% of founders are very stressed about the future of their startup, and 72% of founders report mental health impacts, including anxiety, burnout, and depression.

As a startup founder myself, I find these data points both terrifying and sadly, a bit reassuring. I too am familiar with hitting my limit, even when I’m passionate about what I do. That's why I wanted to take the time to really examine founder burnout and ways to manage the stress.

The State of Founder Burnout

As the data shows, this issue is more widespread than you may realize. I thought that it was a rare occasion until I started noticing patterns and tone changes in our most recent conversations with Double customers—many of whom are founders and CEOs. They are experiencing higher levels of stress and anxiety about the future of their businesses, their teams are more under pressure than ever before, and they are finding it hard to get their heads out of the water.

What worries me most is the mental health impact that we founders may face as a consequence of the heightened pressure. If you’re anything like me, you’ve felt the urge to work extra hours in response to this pressure. However, when we over-extend our time, we don’t give ourselves the work-life balance we need to perform at our best. A lack of work-life balance may correlate with or contribute to poor mental health: people who work over 55 hours per week are more likely to develop depression or suffer from anxiety.

As I researched this issue of founder mental health and diminishing work-life balance, I came across a survey of 150+ founders conducted by Sifted. The insight into the founders’ current state of mind was troubling:

  • 45% of founders said they thought their mental health was ‘bad’ or ‘very bad’ at the moment. 85% said they’d experienced high stress in the past year, while 75% said they’d had anxiety in the same period.

  • 57% of founders said they’d started exercising less over the past year, compared to the previous year, while 42% said they’d started eating less healthily.

  • 55% of founders told us they’d suffered from insomnia in the past year, while 53% said they’d experienced burnout.

  • 62% said they’d been on holiday less than they usually would, while 64% said they’d started spending less time with friends and family.

These sentiments echo what I’m hearing from Double founders –– stress impacts their lives and health. Unfortunately, the effects of founder stress and burnout can reach beyond a single person and affect the business itself as well. According to research conducted by Balderton Capital:

  • 88% of founders agree excessive stress can result in bad decision-making.

  • 83% of founders believe that constant high pressure can lead to team burnout.

  • 64% of founders say constant high pressure in entrepreneur-led companies can have a negative impact on business performance.

Does this sound familiar? What can we do about this concerning trend? While there isn’t a one-stop magic bullet to eliminating stress from a founder’s life, there are ways to reduce it and manage it better. I’d like to share some tactics that have worked for me and many of the founders at Double.

4 Tips For Managing Leadership Stress

1. Prioritize

A founder’s to-do list is never empty. Even though you might be inundated with many demands that all seem urgent, you need to focus your time on what will actually deliver the highest value for your business. Accepting that I will never get to the end of my to-do list was a pivotal moment for me.

Kyle Kirwan, Co-Founder & CEO of the data observability platform Bigeye, opened up about his delegating journey with us several months ago. He noticed his schedule filling up and realized how unsustainable it was for him to continue in the same way. He described the moment it hit him that he was taking on too much:

I was eating a Cliff Bar before a customer-facing call. It was the afternoon, and I hadn’t made any space in my day to eat lunch, so I was starving and didn’t want to be ‘hangry’ in front of a customer. I realized I needed some support getting my schedule under control.

Now that Kyle has been able to whittle down his schedule, he is able to focus on work that makes the biggest impact:

“I try to ensure there are uninterrupted blocks in the week where I can do deeper work. That means a few days are meeting-heavy, where I’m helping our leadership stay in sync, and other days where I can sit down and do thoughtful work.”

Kyle’s story teaches us that packing your workday with too many tasks is not always effective. Be mindful of these early red flags that you might be overdoing it—they are a great trigger to really review how you spend your time every day. Consider what work is most impactful, what you can delay or pass off, and where your strengths as a leader can be best utilized. Sometimes, letting go of some projects or tasks is the best way forward.

2. Take Your Personal Life Seriously

Passion for work and a willingness to hustle are admirable qualities in an entrepreneur. However, neglecting your identity outside the office can drain your reserves and lead to faster burnout. And if you're already in burnout territory, the only option might just be to completely disconnect to be able to recharge.

Establish boundaries so you can focus on your family, rest, or hobbies outside of work. If you’ve been following me for a while, you may have heard me speak about my personal relationship with work-life balance. I make sure that I have most evenings available to spend with my daughter, to read, exercise, or just rest. This personal time is important, because it sharpens my performance for work. Making space for personal time is not only a choice you can make at any moment to feel better, it might also be beneficial for your business. On top of reducing your stress, it will push you to figure out how to do your work in less time, a great forcing function to automate what can be automated and delegate the rest.

Some of my most impactful moments in my delegation journey have been returning from vacation and realizing that my team did an amazing job on the projects or processes I had delegated to them and that I don't need to put them back on my plate.

3. Make Time for Tasks That Bring You Joy, Delegate Those That Don't

It's easy to forget that as an entrepreneur, you should work in your zone of genius and not just deal with incoming problems day in and day out. The feeling of accomplishment of having spent the time you wanted on a subject you're passionate about can fuel you more than you think.

On the contrary, for the tasks that drain you, learn to delegate. Whether you’re delegating to your managers, teams, or an assistant, taking tasks off your plate empowers you to focus on leading and improves your resilience long-term.

Initially, it can be hard to let go of tasks you’re used to handling yourself, but over time, you will see the benefits. For example, the Harvard Business Review suggests that delegating can increase your earnings. Forbes shares that delegating saves leaders time, develops employee skills, and motivates teams.

But what if you have a small crew? Is it fair to delegate too much? It may not be possible to create a new role to take on everything you need help with right now, especially if you’re trying to work with a lean team to reduce costs. However, even hiring an office administrator, using virtual assistant services occasionally, or working with a part-time remote office assistant can help by taking several hours off your plate every week –– without breaking the bank.

For example, Double customers delegate an annual average of 348 hours per person to their assistants. Many of those customers are early-stage startup founders. That’s a lot of time saved that they use to focus on higher-level strategy, deep work, family time, and rest.

4. Build Your Support System

We all know that the founder's journey can be a lonely one. Having people around you who can support you through all the ups and downs will make a world of difference. For me, in the past years, this has meant:

  • Working with a team of people who give me energy, even and especially when I tell them I'm feeling down

  • Building a community of peers to talk about day-to-day operations, vent, and put things into perspective

  • Having a few supportive and compassionate advisors on speed dial to help me through tough decisions

  • Getting an amazing executive coach to help me understand myself better

  • Checking in weekly with my Double to make sure I stay accountable for prioritizing time for myself and offloading tasks that drain me

Perspective Matters

The last tip I'll share is something I only recently realized. Hard times are normal for entrepreneurs, and sometimes, the best thing you can do is just to let them happen. Shifting my perspective from "I need to fix everything asap” and setting the bar way too high for myself to "What can I learn while things are rough?" had a massive impact.

Things still feel hard and stressful on most days, but I also have started to find some sense of accomplishment in being receptive to what the situation has to teach me. And that is the beauty of the entrepreneurial journey.

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