From Burn Rate to Burn Out – Is Startup Culture Impacting Your Mental Health?


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Linda Sage MA, BA Ed (Hons), DTM is an award-winning international speaker, trainer, mentor and author. She published Caring for the Caregiver, a proactive book to help people who care about others to learn to care for themselves too. She has been featured in several medical and corporate magazines, CEO Today Magazine and Forbes, as well as becoming a regular broadcaster for ELFM, in Leeds.

Being your own boss can be a dream come true for many. However, there are also times when it can be a nightmare. Shouldering the full responsibility for your company’s success can bring even the toughest entrepreneur to their knees. 

This is true not only of founders, but of startup teams in general. The all-hands-on-deck approach and fast-paced environment required for startups to grow is exhilarating at times. But it can also be a breeding ground for burnout. 

Below is a quick tick-list to check yourself (or your team) for warning signs. 

  • Are you busy and continually expecting yourself (or your team) to be doing more with less?
  • Do you check and answer work emails at all hours?
  • Do you sleep in the same room as your device?
  • Are you working evenings and weekends, just to do more work the next day?
  • Do you sometimes wake up during the night thinking about work?
  • Do you find it difficult or impossible to switch off?
  • Do you speak to the phone before your family in the morning?

These questions are testers for early signs of stress.

Stress, Anxiety & Depression are Real – Not ‘Excuses’

 1 in 4  people  in the UK will experience mental health issues, and 1 in 6 people each week report experiencing stress, anxiety and depression.

The global pandemic has only exacerbated these behaviours into becoming habits. Before our feet have even touched the floor by the side of our bed, we are engaged in work. We never leave home without our gadgets, and we work at all hours. We are already weighed down before we start our day.

Mental health makes up over 50% more than any other reason for absenteeism. Many of us who identify with the above list of questions struggle on and take no action in the early stages. We make excuses, we ignore signs and symptoms – until we simply can’t anymore.

Don’t Do As I Did

I review companies on how their staff are supported (or not) with mental health in the workplace. One thing they all had in common was that, while many people know about self-care, knowing and doing are two different things. 

In 2005, I burned out. I had a massive caseload of some of the most notorious offenders. I was also caring for elderly parents, and had a daughter on the autistic spectrum. Predictably, I forgot about myself.

The most bitter pill was learning that it never needed to happen – I let it happen, and I suffered the consequences. Even though I worked in mental health, there was still a huge elephant in the room that I could not talk about. The stigma, the guilt, weakness, the fear of judgment – all these kept me struggling on until breaking point.  

It’s not just me, either. Some people don’t mention any signs or symptoms for over a year. For many – especially men – it takes a lot longer. And sadly, this is often because of myths, misconceptions and untruths surrounding mental health.

Over the decades, I have worked with thousands of people of all ages, backgrounds, cultures and economic backgrounds. Regardless of differences, there are always three types of stigma:  personal, professional and cultural. 

  1. Personal – the expectations we put on ourselves, the demands and the irrational beliefs we carry with us. 
  1. Professional – many industries have an unwritten expectation of duty. 
  1. Cultural – many cultures still deny mental health, shut it away, ignore it, don’t discuss it, or make excuses for it.  

None of these are healthy. In fact, all they do is make matters worse.

Managing Mental Health in Your Business

Mental health is complex, but if there’s one thing I know, it’s this: people with mental health issues want to work. 

They often struggle in, man-up, plod on silently – but it’s not the best way to go. As a result, they have problems concentrating, communicating and juggling tasks. They get cranky with customers and colleagues, yet they feel they can’t speak up to their employer. 

In many cases, the employer doesn’t know how to have a conversation, let alone support them. Worse yet, they stigmatise or even fire them. 

Comments like ‘We are all stressed’, or ‘Pull yourself together’ feed very nicely into the 3 types of stigma above. These irrational thoughts are already implanted into the belief system of this person – and they leave feeling worse than when they came.

Not only are these team members unaware of their options – they can’t even have a conversation about it. They don’t take time off, and the whole situation inevitably spirals. Presenteeism costs companies four times as much as absenteeism. Let’s be honest, we have all done it – being at work, but not really being there, focusing on other things, other people, and other places. 

The sad fact is: we don’t talk about mental health in our workplace enough until we are past breaking point.

Open Dialogue about Mental Health

Doctors are great, but they shouldn’t be where you have the first conversation about how you’re feeling. You leave the doctors with a diagnosis and pills. Antidepressants are prescribed like sweets, and while they are certainly the right course of action for some, they can lead to addiction and many other side effects. Not having these conversations in the workplace is disengaging and destructive.  

Leaders and employers who talk about mental health universally gain respect. Train your team to spot the signs and the symptoms. Ensure they’re able to have these conversations. It’s vital that they know what to say and when to say it – as well as when to keep quiet and listen. 

The first day someone calls in sick is a golden opportunity to have a mental health conversation. Offer support to your people.  A company is only as good as its staff. They are your biggest asset.

When people join a company, we offer an induction on how to lift a box, or get into the computer system. But we don’t train them how to have a conversation with a colleague when they are struggling. Usually, we wear blinkers and say nothing. We hope that ignoring things will make it go away, instead of just asking ‘How are you?’ – and then really listening.

The same rule applies to founders and leaders. If you are struggling, you should say so. Using the standard ‘I’m okay’ is living in denial if you are not, in fact, okay.  

This is not just a one-off conversation, or a poster on the back of the toilet door. It’s a cultural shift that takes time and effort.  The wonderful thing is that anyone – and everyone – can do this.

Have you ever heard positive chatter around the water cooler or meet-up areas? As a leader, if you let these opportunities pass by, you’re reinforcing a negative workplace and engaging in a toxic environment. Open up the dialogue and listen. It could make a lot of difference.

Mental Health Issues are Not Going Away

We all deal with mental health issues at some point in our lives. COVID has also added pressure by forcing us to educate our children, work and live all in the same environment. These demands have pushed many of us to the brink. 

Stress, anxiety and depression are the tip of the mental health and hidden disabilities iceberg. There are hundreds of conditions, syndromes and disorders. Most leadership and management teams are not mental health specialists, so having expert support reduces your stress, anxiety and blood pressure.

Hidden disabilities are even more difficult to spot – yet their influence on workplace and social performance is huge. 

Dyslexia, for instance, is not just a difficulty with reading, and dyspraxia is not just about being clumsy. These and many other traits affect all areas of life.

There are 7.3 million individuals identified with dyslexia in the UK, while the US reports it to be at least 15% of the American population.

Mental health is costing the UK £45 Billion a year according to Deloitte – but for every £1 paid in prevention, £5 is recuperated.

Many adults have never been diagnosed with these conditions, and as a result, they’re unaware of why they struggle with certain tasks.

Whether its for yourself or one of your team, have a check for these signs: 

  • Butting into conversations
  • Poor relationships
  • Concentration levels
  • Multi-tasking problems
  • Eye contact
  • Dislike of physical contact
  • Rapport with others
  • Time management
  • Language comprehension and following instructions

All these affect the individuals and their workplaces.

Be Proactive, Not Reactive

As an employer or leader, you need to give people around you permission to speak safely – and be prepared to listen. 

Managing a team is challenging. COVID has only increased this with remote teams, all a blend of different cultures, thought processes and habits. Add mental health into the mix, and it can feel like you are chasing chickens.  

You don’t have to be a mental health expert – but you can be a mental health advocate breaking the taboo, busting the myths & misconceptions and dissecting the elephant in the room piece by piece. If you so desire, consider bringing in specialist support. This isn’t always as expensive as you’d think. 

Whatever you decide, take steps now to show that mental health is not just somebody else’s problem – it belongs to all of us.

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