Startup employee burnout: 3 causes and what companies can do

Company CultureMental Health
Team Intellect
Aug 24, 2022

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Team Intellect
Contributed by experts including ICF-accredited coaches, clinical psychologists, as well as HR practitioners with a heart to elevate employee wellbeing across Asia.

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Startup life sounds exciting. 

Unlike staid corporate environments, startups are young and at the forefront of innovation. But founders and employees of startups—defined generally as a young, growing company with less than 100 people—face a unique set of challenges. From job creep to inadequate management training, there are gaps in this fast-moving vehicle. And employees who don’t hold tight to the reins could fall off easily and experience startup employee burnout.

As a leader and decision-maker, here are the top struggles that could cause startup employee burnout and sap your company’s potential. 

1. Employees wear multiple hats

In a corporate environment, a “Communications Executive” might spend most of their time drafting press releases and liaising with external stakeholders. In a startup environment, though, an employee with an identical title might do everything from writing, to project management, to marketing work, graphic design or even video editing. True story! 

Since startups are smaller, the common expectation is to wear more than one “hat” and take on multiple roles. This leads to “scope creep”—a problem that arises from the lack of manpower. With a blurred understanding of roles, employees (and even bosses themselves) do everything and anything, resulting in heavy workloads and long hours. Sometimes, these efforts aren’t recognised with commensurate compensation.

Overworking affects one’s personal wellbeing adversely. Studies have also found undefined job scope and expectations to be major work stressors. When team members feel they are being taken advantage of, they become increasingly disengaged and startup employee burnout festers.

2. Managers have little experience and training

The problem of poor management is particularly widespread among startups. According to Harvard Business School’s survey among venture capitalists, 65% said that bad management contributed greatly to failure in startups with high potential. 

In a startup culture, poor management can breed when employees are prematurely promoted due to a flatter hierarchy or high turnover. Yet, not all folks have the aptitude for a leadership position, and even fewer have the management training they require. 

Take the case of a star salesperson who is bringing in the dough as an individual performer. When promoted to lead the team, they may lack skills such as mentorship, delegation, and performance management. Even if a new manager were willing to learn, not even higher management has all the answers. Down the line, these create unclear expectations and performance measurement systems that hinder an employee’s progression. In a pressure cooker environment susceptible to hustle culture, ever-changing processes and systems only fuel startup employee burnout.

3. HR teams prioritise recruitment over retention

Compared to a startup in its infancy, the Human Resources (HR) function can look a lot different than in established companies. In prioritising administration and recruitment to keep the company growing, matters like benefits, learning, and development often take a backseat. HR may be so fixated on finding new talent that they neglect to retain existing ones.

Managing startup employee burnout has to be more than lip service too. According to a study in Singapore, more than half of employees (54%) were not satisfied with their company’s current mental health initiatives, or not well understood by HR or managers (46%). In place of actual wellbeing support, managers are sometimes thrust into the roles of de-facto counsellors without proper training. 

How to prevent startup employee burnout

While employee wellbeing and mental health cannot fall solely on the shoulders of HR and higher management, employees often look to them for direction. What a company does or does not do are received as messages of what the company values. 

For example, a good starting point would be to provide therapy services or counselling avenues for employees. This sends a welcome signal that it’s not shameful to seek professional help when you need it, and normalises mental health conversations within the workplace.

Founders, leaders or HR managers can also consider an investment in mental health apps. Meditation workshops and self-care webinars might be “quick fixes”, but they are often short-term solutions. Apps, on the other hand, can journey with digital natives experiencing startup employee burnout on their terms and at their pace. This flexibility has never been more crucial than now—in an age of hybrid and remote work.

How Intellect can help 

If you lack the bandwidth or expertise to combat startup employee burnout all on your own, Intellect can help. Clinically backed and scalable for different types of companies, Intellect takes one thing off the minds of founders, company leaders, and HR teams who are already stretched to their limits. 

Since adopting Intellect, media company Tech in Asia has seen utilisation rates rise to 75%. Whereas managers used to check on employees’ wellbeing through 1:1s, the latter can now access third-party practitioners who are professionally trained. A third-party solution also puts concerns about confidentiality to rest, especially for employees who are worried that personal information would be used as “ammo” against them. 

Intellect’s holistic suite of solutions ranges from guided skill-building programmes to 1:1 coaching sessions. Personalisation is especially relevant for fast-growing startups, whom one-size-fits-all options in the market may not serve. Importantly, it’s much more than a one-time boost. Our ICF-certified coaches will journey with employees to put their learnings into action. After all, employee wellbeing isn’t a checkbox. It’s a long-haul undertaking to prevent startup employee burnout, create psychological safety, and improve employee engagement

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Team Intellect
Contributed by experts including ICF-accredited coaches, clinical psychologists, as well as HR practitioners with a heart to elevate employee wellbeing across Asia.

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Employees need mental wellbeing support now more than ever. With Intellect, you can give them access to the mental healthcare they need, when they need it.

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