Startups – the perfect storm for burnout.

Startups, infamous for their trendy teams, quirky workspaces and endless perks.

Every new recruit is made to feel like ‘one of the family’ and ‘having fun’ is part of the job description.

Whether you’ve been working in corporate or you’re just starting your career, this style of working feels pretty good. It even feels a bit glamorous in a ‘you can wear jeans and drink free beer’ kinda way.

But it’s not all bean bags and patting the office dog. 

There is A LOT of work to be done and it needs to be done fast.

People are expected to figure things out as they go, and more often than not the direction they need to go in isn’t mapped out. 

Flat-hierarchies means there’s little support from managers, or if there is then the managers are often young, inexperienced and under even more pressure than their team.

Job roles and priorities are constantly in flux and you never quite know what work will come your way.

It starts off well…

It’s exciting to start. Especially if you love problem-solving and fancy a burst of personal growth.

But the excitement starts to fade amidst all this uncertainty and your task list bulges at its kanban seams.

These circumstances are enough to push even the most resilient worker to burn out. 

But when you add in a constant stream of new colleagues to build relationships with, pressure from investors and the omnipresent threat of failure (90% of startups fail), it really is the perfect storm for poor mental health.

I’ve experienced burnout a few times, but they pale into comparison with the mental health crisis I experienced after working in a startup.

As burnout rates increase (some reports state COVID has pushed 80% of us towards it) and more stories of the strain startup culture puts on mental health surface, it’s clear that age, gender nor seniority grant you immunity from this workplace phenomenon.  

Rapid growth takes its toll…

I recently spoke with Sancar Sahin about his experience of burnout. Sancar has held leadership positions and led marketing teams in startups such as Typeform, Hotjar and GetApp.

At Typeform Sancar led his team through rapid growth, massively expanding headcount and the scope of his role following a round of investment. It was an intense period of change for him and business.

“I started noticing that my energy wasn’t taking me as far as it used to. I wasn’t making time to exercise or socialise, my life was coming second to work.

“I was comparing myself to other marketers in the startup world and putting a lot of pressure on myself to deliver. I felt like there was always something more to know and do, so I kept on working.” 

This pressure came to head one Friday evening when Sancar ordered his favourite curry. 

“I knew something was up when I massively overreacted to a silly mistake. I ordered a tikka, rather than a tikka masala and the dry sauceless chicken felt like the end of the world!”

He shared this with a big smile on his face, much like I do when sharing my own defining moment of poor mental health – an impromptu fight with a badly folded towel.

These things feel so significant in the moment, but with time, space and hindsight it gets easier to see the funny side of it.   

The tipping point…

He knew his dramatic reaction was the sign he needed to step away from work. He took some time to rest and recover before starting a new role at Hotjar. Whilst there he used his experience to help him educate and support his team’s wellbeing.

“Hotjar had a really open culture, mental health was talked about freely by the CEO and this allowed others to do the same. Everyone has a wellbeing budget and people are encouraged to spend that on therapy if they need it.”

This openness made it easier for Sancar to look out for his team.

He was able to share his experiences and even created videos to help them understand the challenges that startup employees face and why. He gave them support to understand their own mental health needs and permission to look after them.

This helped him and his team to spot the signs of struggle and create an environment where people looked out for each other.

However, he said that people’s openness put extra pressure on managers and leaders who weren’t so comfortable dealing with the sensitive topic of mental health at work. 

“As a manager, it can feel as if you need to diagnose or therapise people who come to you when they’re struggling. But we only really need to listen, be supportive and signpost professional services.”  

I couldn’t agree more.

The importance of support in and outside of work…

With the right awareness, support and training so many of the things that cause people to burnout or face poor mental health in the workplace can be resolved.

And for those that can’t, then effectively signposting and providing access to professional mental healthcare is the next step that businesses should take. 

In fact, I’d argue that the plethora of wellbeing perks startups offer – think ping pong, free fruit and discounted gym memberships – shouldn’t even be considered until teams and managers are trained and everyone has been provided access to mental healthcare.

Providing accessible, high-quality mental healthcare is currently where Sancar is focusing his attention.

He has recently co-founded Oliva, a personalised online therapy platform with Javier Suarez (CoFounder of Travel Perk and ex in a bid to make mental healthcare a part of everyday life. The platform blends personalised, high-quality therapy with smooth, easy to use technology that makes getting support accessible in terms of price and location.

From my own experiences, finding a therapist in a foreign country when I was already pretty sick only exasperated my burnout symptoms. Despite having quite a comprehensive private health insurance the quality and accessibility of the therapy was pretty poor. 

Knowing that mental healthcare is catching up with the tech that we know, love and use daily is super exciting. I really hope that these sorts of services will be a standard part of wellbeing packages that startups offer in the future.

Go and check out Oliva’s website and their Instagram account Mind Chronicles where they share real-life stories of everyday mental health struggles and breakthroughs.


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And if you want to learn more about how you can support your wellbeing you can find me, my big shiny teeth and all my tips over on Instagram

Or if you’d like some support for you or your team, drop me an email on [email protected] – I’d love to help.