My health was deteriorating and I couldn’t show up to work. I was taking days off of work on a constant basis. When I felt the energy to show up at the office, I had to leave halfway through the day as the emotions were just overwhelming me.
I knew I was done when having the startup ride with 150 people became too much for me. I had to change things. I wrote two Medium posts on the topic in March and April of 2019, sharing what had happened during the winter and how I’d realized that the life of a startup founder wasn’t for me.
For me, who has been openly talking about my experiences with startup founder burnout, I get asked very often that how am I doing now, but more importantly what have I changed in my life after the burnout experiences last winter.
After I transitioned away from the company that I and three other founders had founded in 2013, I felt that I needed a break. I planned to just stay at home, watch Youtube, exercise, and have fun with my two kids, getting to pick the older one from school earlier, because I wasn’t stuck in an office.
In a month, I started to feel that I wanted to share my experiences even more. The Medium post had gotten lots of interest and people were sending me messages that they wanted to have a chat with me about the contents of the article. There were entrepreneurs, who had felt that there were no other people who they could talk to about their stress.
I thought that this is interesting, people want me to talk to them about this topic. But I wasn’t an expert, I was just writing about my experiences. I started to do research on the topic of burnout, and I was specifically curious about why it’s not talked about often enough. I realized that there is an ample amount of knowledge out there about the symptoms of stress and burnout, and how to deal with them and what recovery would look like.
But the bigger issue with the burnout discussion is that it is still very taboo, and often the strong leader shouldn’t go out there and talk about their vulnerabilities. What can change this is more openness, people sharing their experiences.
In a way, the people who go into startups as founders, are committing to a life of constant stress. It’s an eternal rollercoaster, where all your actions are either wrong or right, but they can also be life-changing wrong or right.
Through the commitment, founders are saying to their staff and to their investors, that you can trust me, I can be the leader of this company and I won’t fail you. The investors might have had personal experiences from burnout, so they should be safeguarding the founders from mental overload and possible burnout.
The fiduciary duty of the CEO is to stay strong during tough times and not let their weaknesses surface. The problem lies in the fact that there aren’t other duties to safeguard CEOs from the stress. Vacations, or hobbies, that take your mind off of work, are not talked about. The work becomes an overwhelming part of our conscious living. If we are awake, we are thinking about work.
Winston Churchill used art as a form of therapy: “If it weren’t for painting I couldn’t live; I couldn’t bear the strain of things.” Also, “To restore psychic equilibrium we should call in to use those parts of the mind which direct both eye and hand. Painting came to my rescue in a most trying time, and I shall venture in the pages that follow to express the gratitude I feel. “
Churchill knew what was becoming of him, with the stress and burnout engulfing him. “A man can wear out a particular part of his mind by continually using it and tiring it, just in the same way as he can wear out the elbows of his coat. There is, however, this difference between the living cells of the brain and inanimate articles: one cannot mend the frayed elbows of a coat by rubbing the sleeves or shoulders; but the tired parts of the mind can be rested and strengthened, not merely by rest, but by using other parts.”
How do you cope with stress and burnout? Preemptive measures, early in the career of a startup founder, can do wonders. If you know of people who are just getting into startups, advise them to find activities to get their mind off of work, no matter the dangers, terrors, and horror at work. You can always start another company, but you don’t need to sacrifice yourself.