Previously, we talked about work-related stress from tools that are supposed to help us collaborate (especially when working from home). Now, we turn to another source of stress that arguably plays the biggest role in driving burnout and other mental health concerns: Stress that you bring upon yourself.
Founders are particularly at risk of suffering from self-imposed stress due to the fact that they have a million things going on around them. From product development to finding new investors and team members, early-stage founders have to constantly wear multiple hats. All too commonly, this constant engagement with what is going on outside of themselves causes them to ignore what’s happening on the inside.
Stress is a word that’s thrown around a lot, but for good reason. From a biological perspective, stress helps us protect ourselves from potential danger. From a psychological perspective, when people park lots of problems in front of us, we unconsciously register these problems (as small as they may be) as threats to our survival. This then triggers feelings of stress.
Keep in mind that some stress is unavoidable and will always be there. That’s why it’s important to look at what you actually have control over and be aware that self-care is a key component of effective leadership. Stress isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but can have detrimental consequences, so this article aims to help founders deal with it.
Glad you asked! It just so happens we have some tips to help you out:
1. Define priorities. And take them seriously.
Put problems into appropriate buckets of importance. We often struggle with effective prioritization because we’re constantly bombarded with small fires that keep us in non-stop crisis mode. This is made worse by our human tendency to catastrophize.
While you’re prioritizing, prioritize yourself too! As tricky (and time-consuming) as it may sound, you need to draw a clear line between working and not working. You need to give yourself breaks for resting and recovering. Serial founder, Anna Alex, says that her being a mother during her second startup, Planetly, helped her get her priorities straight. She experiences a much healthier balance because kids “force you to recover.”
Our tip: To boost your physical and mental health, try putting blockers in your calendar for non-work related activities, such as sports (one of the reasons I love myClubs, which lets you try out different sports and studios).
2. Surround yourself with the right people
You may feel alone as you’re burning the midnight oil, but know that you aren’t. Aside from friends and family, your team members are there to support you and take weight off your shoulders. Take it from founder Petra Dobrocka of byrd who advises founders to have great co-founders and people on the team who can support and “find solutions to problems.”
As a founder, we recommend that you make a point of hiring people you can also learn from. Once you’ve hired your team, demonstrate that you’re a good leader by setting them up for success. Stay out of their way and allow them to work. By giving people trust, ownership and splitting responsibilities you’ll be enabling your team to scale and achieve its full potential.
Our tip: Learn how to delegate. A good place to start is reading this article that describes how letting go is key to bringing your startup forward.
3. Hire a dedicated HR person sooner rather than later
Hiring is one of the hardest things founders have to do. This also makes it a big source of stress. Having someone by your side who is dedicated to attracting and retaining talent is a great investment. They will be able to remove some stress and help you build a stellar team. This person will also increase your chances of not making costly hiring mistakes (e.g. hire toxic employees) which are also a huge contributor to stress.
To dive a bit deeper here: Early on, there is so much to do that HR is often deprioritized. Haphazard hiring practices can, at worst, lead to baking dysfunction into the foundation of your company culture, something that has far reaching, costly effects and takes years to undo.
Our tip: Before you hit 20 team members, hire an HR person who will act as a cultural gatekeeper and develop an understanding of your business that enables them to independently find great team members and build a talent pool.
Founders are like parents to their startups and have a dramatic impact on how the team is doing. Did you know that founders account for about 80% of the startup’s culture? Just like how parents are best able to take care of their children when they are well, founders can better care for their teams when they first take care of themselves.
Learning to define priorities includes prioritizing oneself. This means giving oneself free time, a fair salary and getting to know the times when you are at your best and when not. Having the right people around you - both in your personal and professional life - and letting them support you also makes a big difference.
Many founders have a coach or make huge progress with the help of a therapist who helps with processing feelings of stress and becoming stronger leaders. Simply having someone to talk to can move mountains. Have some self-compassion and put less stress on yourself and generally deal with stress in a healthier way.
Startup culture definitely plays a role in normalizing and glorifying extreme stress. Hustling and health don’t really go well together and sadly there’s still a stigma attached to acknowledging you’re stressed and suffering from it, but this stigma is slowly disappearing.
In the end though, all of the success in the world will also mean nothing if you aren’t mentally and physically well enough to enjoy the fruits of your success. We have tons of knowledge, resources and people to talk with to combat the stress that you impose on yourself. So guess what: You can have your cake and eat it too.