Recognising founder burnout: spotting the early signs and taking action
January 16, 2024

Recognising founder burnout: spotting the early signs and taking action

Starting a new business and scaling takes a lot of hard work. In the first article in this series, we talked about the mix of excitement and challenge that comes with launching your business. We also defined burnout and discussed how to embrace the challenges of 'good' stress to find a flow state.

But we all know that life is not without the more challenging aspects of negative stress. We live hectic lives, in general, and this creates a great deal of stress. Therefore, we must be well-tuned into our bodies and minds to ensure we can continue achieving everything we want. This next article focuses on how we can recognise the signs of burnout and what we, as founders, need to do to take action.

Do you want to first look at what burnout is? Check out the first article in our series here.

Stress and burnout

Our last article used the World Health Organization's definition of burnout. Then, we linked this with the work of the Hungarian American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi to introduce the concept of flow state. While this is ideally the state we aim to operate in, life brings more of the negative side of stress for most of us.
The harsh reality is that burnout is on the rise. The phrase 'burnout' was first described in 1974 by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger. Since then, we have been waking up to the critical importance of looking after our mental health and wellbeing. But even with increased awareness, we continue to see more people suffering from burnout.

In 2003, a group of health professionals, social scientists and academics concerned with the continued prevalence of burnout and depression globally formed the Depression in the Workplace Collaborative (DWC). Their objective was to study the impact of continued stress in the workplace and the increase in mental health challenges and depression. Of course, it is worth pointing out that not all factors that contribute to stress are work-related. We have to take a whole-person view of this. They visualised the range of human responses to increased stress levels.

Again, the first point is that we need good stress to improve our performance – that some degree of stimulus and challenge is a positive thing. However, we can also see where challenge shifts into discomfort. I am sure we can all relate to times when we have felt that shift. We deal with it. We take care of whatever needs to be done and then resolve the discomfort, and life settles back towards something that feels far more manageable. But, if things don't let up, if the discomfort continues, stress levels increase, and our performance begins to decline towards dysfunction. Burnout is the result of this level of stress being sustained over some time. For some, they can continue to function through it, but for many, it takes them to a place where they are no longer able to perform and can ultimately lead to depression.

The issue of founder burnout

So, why does burnout affect founders so much? If you google 'founder burnout', nearly 13.5 billion results come up. Founder burnout is a real thing. In July 2023, Balderton Capital launched a Founder Wellbeing Platform following research with over 230 founders and entrepreneurs. They uncovered several uncomfortable truths about the founder experience that, if not carefully managed, can result in founder burnout.

The competitive and pressurised startup environment sets founders off on this path. Whether you are part of a known startup ecosystem, such as an incubator, or just decided to carve out your own path, there is pressure to succeed and prove that you have what it takes. As we begin to scale, this pressure increases, as you also have the burden of responsibility for a growing team, headcount costs, and overheads. This can quickly shift us from the good stress to the negative side of the curve above.

"90% of founders agree that the pressure entrepreneurs put on themselves often drives them to constantly work very long hours." Balderton Capital Research

Beyond these apparent pressures, there is the difficulty of letting go. During the early startup stages, you were involved in every single decision. Each sale. Each client project. As the volume of work grows and the team grows, it becomes increasingly more difficult to be across everything. Of course, you try. And this means you work harder to feel more in control.

However, increased stress and pressure have a downward spiralling impact on the organisation's culture. This leads to increased workplace tension and strained relationships, which, if left to continue, can begin to breed a toxic culture. There is more on this in the third article in this series.

But for now, let's explore how you can begin to recognise the early signs of burnout.

How can I recognise the signs of burnout?

You should be aware of several tell-tale signs when recognising burnout. As part of our founder coaching, we always ask our founders to be tuned into these feelings. Awareness of the early warning signals means you can take action and make changes. The more resourceful we feel, the easier it is to deal with the stress and pressure of everyday life. Think of your energy levels as a battery. The more drained the battery, the less resourceful we feel.

Warning sign #1: Feeling tired or drained most days

This is the most apparent sign that most people can relate to feeling, at least at points in their lives. For many of us, not getting enough sleep, the 'busyness' of daily lives, and long commutes all compound so that we wake each day feeling tired and low in energy. When we are in more resourceful states, we can bounce back from this and get on with the day well. However, when our batteries are drained, the sluggishness and weariness can be challenging to shake off. Reflect on the extent to which you feel tired; if this concerns you, take action to change things.

Warning sign #2: The feeling of being trapped or helpless

Do you feel trapped in your business? Do you dream of life differently? Most of us have thought of this at different points. In the main, this might be a fleeting thought or consideration. But when our resources are low, and we have been feeling the effects of the negative side of stress for some time, this feeling can become really dominant. Consider whether this is something you feel regularly or most of the time; if so, it's time to do something about it.

Warning sign #3: A sense of overwhelm

Most people would say that they have felt this occasionally in their lives. But does every day feel like this? Or do you get this feeling most days? If so, you could be stuck in the negative stress cycle and heading in the wrong direction. If this feels like you, you need to break this cycle and do something different today.

Warning sign #4: Struggling to make decisions

Constant pressure, a sense of overwhelm, and a feeling of helplessness create chemical reactions in our brains, interrupting our ability to focus and make decisions. This can lead to doubting ourselves or putting off making decisions or taking action. Prolonged chronic stress has been proven to lead to longer-term changes in the brain. So, knowing what might happen and taking early action is also critical for your ongoing brain health.

Warning sign #5: Feeling isolated or alone in the world

We all need someone to turn to to share what is going on for us or take us out of our current 'funk'. The feeling of not having anyone to turn to can be hugely isolating and compound our already high levels of stress. If this issue resonates with you, there are always options and people you can speak to. Check out a help service such as this one from the NHS.

Are you spotting any early warning signs for you or those around you?

Do any of these feel familiar to you? Do you need to work on this to help you fall back in love with your scaleup business?

Taking stock and better understanding your experience of growing your scaleup organisation can help you identify things you need to change. These areas often come up with our clients during our Founder Coaching Programmes and Founder Focus sessions. Within these discussions, we help founders begin to make the mindset shift from founder to leader and embrace a different way of being with their teams to help their scaleup growth.

Sometimes, the first step to moving forward is accepting where we are at right now. If any of these early warning signs resonate, then taking action is important. Check out our last article in this series, where you can explore some small steps that will help you make a difference.

Written by Barry McNeill | Founder and Managing Director of Work Extraordinary

Barry has over 25 years supporting leaders and teams to be more effective in driving business outcomes, such as growth, customer service and impact. He and his team have helped numerous founders, founding teams and growing organisations to develop new ways of working to achieve scaleup growth, enhanced culture, improved operational effectiveness and customer impact. You can connect with Barry through the social channels on this website.

Get in touch

Ask a question, book a programme, or arrange a free consultation.

Thank you! Your message has been received and we'll be in touch shortly.
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form, please try again.

Or contact us directly via phone or email.