Startups attract a huge variety of people. For some, it’s the draw of more freedom and less bureaucracy, for others it’s the opportunity to take control of their own personal growth and development. Startups are exciting: they are fast, they are not a typical 9-5, and they give people the chance to be ambitious. They also demand a lot. The work is demanding, expectations are high, and the pace can be unpredictable and hard to manage.
It’s important to level-set here because that’s the first step in recognising that the way burnout has been dealt with by startups isn’t good enough. This is a two-way issue. Startups need to be better coaches to their people, and everyone needs to be more honest about whether their employer’s culture is right for them. We need to ask some hard questions because that’s the only way we will get better answers.
Is working at a startup right for me?
Let’s start by looking at what working for one of these companies is really like. Startups and scaleups are appealing because they seem cooler and “less corporate” than larger companies, and that is true. The thrill is real, no doubt, but so are the challenges, and I think it’s important that everyone is realistic with themselves from the outset as to whether it’s the right environment for them.
Working at a startup is not right for everyone – and that is ok.
In these setups, there’s no standing still. It’s all about rapid change, volatility, and unpredictability. There are no fixed job descriptions here; when new needs arise, you’re up (and you’re expected to step up), and this intense setting offers unparalleled personal growth, unlike traditional roles. Forget a standard career path — instead, it’s more “build it yourself”, pushing you in unexpected directions. Ultimately, it’s a partnership between you and the company. It’s a give-and-take scenario. You put in the effort, and you reap the rewards. Skills expand rapidly, benefits go beyond the ordinary, and being “always on” becomes second nature.
What does that mean for the way teams work?
High-performing teams are competitive, and the startup environment gives them the freedom to chart their own course. Managers of these teams shouldn’t be there to tell them how to work, but instead be focused on talking to them about what they need and how the business can better enable them to succeed. This includes downtime.
When we talk about optimising team performance, the idea of optimising downtime isn’t usually part of the conversation but it should be. If we want to avoid burnout, then stigmas around time off need to be flipped. Just as athletes recognise the importance of rest days to achieve peak performance, we need to start viewing it as a way to drive better results in the long-term.
The first step for us is to think of our managers more like coaches. We don’t want them giving orders, or telling their teams what to do. We always want a two way conversation paired with a culture of speaking up and being self-aware. The most recent example of this was our founder posting publicly about his own experience with burnout and making a conscious choice to change his work-life balance. That isn’t a privilege reserved for him because he is the CEO — it is something that any of our people can do at any time.
How can People teams support leaders walking this tightrope?
Managing high-performing teams brings its own unique challenges. You have intentionally hired ultra-high-performers who don’t want to slow down or stop, and are always rushing towards the next challenge. It follows then that leadership capabilities in startups must be different, and my best advice is to be more coach and less commander.
It remains true that startups aren’t for everyone. It’s also true they’re not for every leader.
In this environment, leaders balance being the ultimate enablers (encouraging teams to run and giving them the tools to do so) with looking down the road far enough to see the red flags of burnout in their teams before it’s too late.
And here’s the thing, how can you possibly guide them if you don’t recognise the signs of burnout or overexertion in yourself? It’s crucial that you familiarise yourself with these symptoms and understand them well, so you can recognise what sometimes might be invisible to others.
We’ve tried to give our leaders and teams the space to choose how and when they get their balance. Tools like hybrid working models, and unlimited vacations are there for the taking. We also offer everyone access to mental health support via OpenUp and our Employee Assistance Program.
It won’t always work. Even our own CEO recently admitted he needed to get that balance better to manage burnout — and recognising and learning from that is part of the startup experience. But having these honest conversations and reminding people that these tools are there is the first step to changing a culture.
Burnout needs to be considered as a key facet of high-performance by any serious business. The ability to tackle challenges, adapt, and deliver is only possible if you equip your teams to build resilience. It’s a partnership that demands clarity but in the realm of high-performance, mental health isn’t a compromise; it’s a cornerstone.