Entrepreneurship 101: How can startups prevent burnout at workplace?

Entrepreneurship 101 aims to share ideas, references, and suggestions that can help startup founders tread the entrepreneurial path smoothly. This week, YourStory discusses how can startups prevent burnout at workplace.
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Amrita*, a former marketing associate in the F&B sector, realised she was no longer motivated or satisfied with her work. “Workload was shoehorned into timelines. There was an expectation to churn out content all the time while simultaneously looking at digital sales, PR activities, and generating reports. Work groups on WhatsApp were cutting into personal time and there was not enough compensation or incentives.” 

Amrita was burnt out. To cope with the stress, she started dance movement therapy and meditation but when things became worse, she quit her job. 

Upasna Dash, Founder-CEO of Jajabor Brand Consultancy, realised her need to be a part of every project, review every detail, and focus on getting each thing exactly right was leading her to burn out. “I’d spend long hours overworking, moving from one task to another. My system was just working as long as I could.” 

So, what causes ‘burnout’?

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), burnout results “from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterised by three dimensions—feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job…”

Simply put, it is the state of mental, emotional, and physical exhaustion caused by excessive and continuous stress. This has seen an exponential increase in the last two years due to the added stress caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Microsoft Trend Index 2020 found that India had the second-highest employees (29 percent) facing increased burnout across Asia. 

On Entrepreneurship 101 today, we discuss how individuals and companies can help prevent it, what causes it, and what to do if you are burnt out. 

Identify and acknowledge

The first step is to accept that you are burnt out.

Akshaya Bhargava, Founder and Executive Chairman of fintech startup Bridgeweave, had a very successful job for four years. However, he never realised how stressed he was until he joined a 10-day Vipassana programme. He quit his job and went on to take the entrepreneurial route.

Ranjita Ravi, Co-founder of Orxa, adds, “You can recognise you are in a burnout phase when you find it hard to care about the goals you previously cared about or when you find yourself feeling helpless to deliver on them.”

Mental health expert Veena Jain tells YourStory that entrepreneurs and startup employees often come to her for help in dealing with burnout. 

The Counselling Psychologist and Founder of mental wellbeing initiative Jagruth says, “Some come for burnout for issues like time management, others for procrastination, some feel severely stressed, some carry an unnecessary burden to prove that they are most eligible, and others have the disability to say no.” 

Burnout can also be caused by unfair treatment, lack of clarity, improper training, and an atmosphere of unhealthy competition within teams. 

Akhil Gupta, Co-founder and CTO of NoBroker, too confesses to having experienced burnout. During the early days at NoBroker, he was the only coder in the team and wouldn’t get the expected result. “I felt dejected.” But his startup’s greater goal motivated him back to work. 

Ranjita experienced burnout both as an employee and an employer. She lost three family members within 18-months amid COVID-19. “The situation was further aggravated by macroeconomic supply chain issues that led to delays in our product development and launch. While none of these was in my control, the resultant impact on my work and the delays to my deliverables led to burnout,” she says. 

She believes that burnout usually happens when individuals become so invested in a project that all other priorities—family, social life, and hobbies—end up taking a backseat. Add to that, a lack of control.

Surface-level solutions

With burnout so closely linked to work-related stress, it is important to look at how companies can often, unfortunately, foster a high-stress environment that can increase the rate of burnout.

Former startup employees Tanya* and Monika* confess to having cried in the office washroom when they could not cope with their work expectations. 

“At the time of joining, I was prepared to work extra hours to learn new things, go out of my comfort zone, and not limit myself but soon I got into the loop of working round the clock and losing track of days,” Tanya says. “I was shouted at for reasons that did not make any sense…It made me lose my sanity to the point I wasn’t able to talk to anyone without breaking down.” 

She started seeing a therapist and sought solace in different dance forms to get rid of burnout. Further, the absence of a human resource (HR) department in her company magnified the problem and she finally quit. 

On the other hand, when Monika, an electronics and communications engineering graduate, joined a consultancy services company, she was expected to code despite her non-IT background. “I was not provided any KT (knowledge transfer) session and was expected to know every little detail of the technology used,” she says. 

Both add that their former workplaces had no mental wellness support system for their employees. “The company organised yoga sessions on special requests once or twice a year. But, of course, that was of no help,” adds Monika.

The latest Microsoft report reveals that of the 31,000 people surveyed across 31 countries, around 53 percent are now more likely to prioritise their health and wellbeing over work. In fact, 18 percent of the respondents said that they quit their jobs last year.

While this attrition rate is not good news for employers, the solution lies in providing a work environment that can prevent burnout. 

What can startups do?

“The key contributor to relieving burnout is the culture you foster,” says Upasna of Jajabor.

She says that Jajabor incentivises employees and ensures they work in a collaborative manner to avoid the ‘rat-race’ situation. Additionally, the weekly, monthly, and quarterly meetings are designed to incorporate conversations around work stress. 

Tanya believes that all companies must have a structured HR system and a proper system for day-to-day work to avoid overburdening existing employees. Amrita adds that “Employee-friendly policies, financial compensation for the workload,” and better training would have helped her continue working for her former employer. 

Media professional Riddhi* says that she could have avoided burnout if she was treated better and if her team was managed better. Her last organisation, where she worked only for four months, was “short-staffed, mismanaged, and consisted of ill-behaved coworkers,”  

Akhil believes a deficit is created when people work in silos without the opportunity to seek help from their peers. At NoBroker, the leadership team holds regular one-on-one skip-level meetings. 

“Observing people and teams and mapping them to patterns help us identify burnout situations before they go out of hand,” he says, emphasising that entrepreneurs need to align goals and expectations for the team. 

While the proptech unicorn aims on keeping its working environment as relaxed as possible, employees do feel burnt out at times. Akhil says this is because employees can get stuck on a problem and do not seek help from peers and seniors. To reduce such scenarios, the company has an open channel as “90 percent of the time, these are issues that the leadership would have experienced themselves,” he adds. 

Ranjita is sensitive to how her employees behave at the workplace—skipping meals, working several long days and nights in a row, and managing tough situations with customers are some of the signs she pays attention to within her team to spot burnout. 

Former Orxa employee Tufan Kumal Samal confirms this, adding, “I was one of the first few hires at Orxa and I can assure you that the company never failed to provide for the employees’ needs as long as it was within their means.” Additionally, Tufan says that the founders have always been transparent with the team. 

Entrepreneurs also have to make sure they do not burn out. “An empty cup cannot pour for others,” says Upasna. 

Akshaya believes one should lead by example by maintaining a healthy lifestyle with a good work-life balance. “This will speak to employees that the organisation provides a conducive environment for employee wellbeing,” he adds. 

Expert opinion 

“Company policies often make employees choked up and they feel they do not have the ability to decide how they would want to work,” explains mental health expert Veena.  

She explains that first-line managers should identify changes in their employees’ body language, behaviour, and how they carry themselves at the workplace. “We usually have the habit of solving everybody’s problems. However, instead of quick fixes, employers should identify the obstacles and understand the problem and help in perspective building,” Veena adds. 

Also as a former HR professional, she suggests that companies should have a well-being clinic. “The wellness team should not be a part of the payroll. They should come from a no accountability zone and not be biassed,” she says. 

Additionally, Veena is of the opinion that employee engagement activities should be restructured. “They should be more empowering and less fun.” She adds that they need to focus on personal improvement topics like perspective building, wealth management, policy management, time management, mind and body management 

She asks, “Playing antakshari freezes your mind for some time but what about when you go back to work, does playing antakshari make you feel fresh?” 

Entrepreneur Ankit Prasad, Founder and CEO at Bobble AI, says that his startup allows teams to go on workcations and organise training workshops and peer-to-peer interactions to enable a healthy work environment. 

Bobble AI also covers the cost of counselling, therapies, and treatment of employees. It has a structured programme–Wellness in Totality (WiT)—to identify all the causes of burnout at the workplace and design customised solutions.

“As an organisation, we believe in the philosophy of prevention and cure. Hence, we proactively, in a personalised manner, assess-diagnose and design intervention. Administer well-researched tools and generate reports, provide one-on-one insights about understanding and managing self,” Ankit tells YourStory.

*Names changed to protect identity.

Edited by Saheli Sen Gupta