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Startup Strain: Understanding the Weight on Founder Shoulders

In the startup world, founder burnout is a significant yet often overlooked issue. From my experience as a business coach, it stems from prolonged work stressors, leading to emotional exhaustion, cynicism, and reduced efficacy.

Despite the glorification of successful entrepreneurs, the struggles of those who fail due to factors like team or co-founders misalignment and funding shortages are rarely addressed.

As a professional (ICF) business coach, I’ve observed this chronic exhaustion firsthand. Startup narratives focus on funds raised and entrepreneurial resilience, but seldom highlight lessons from post-burnout founders. This masks the reality of startup stress, creating a need for more open conversations about founder wellbeing.

I’m not a therapist or subject matter expert in the mental health field, however with thousands of hours behind me as a professional credentialed coach, working in the startup and F500 ecosystem, I admire the resilience and grit of my startup clients and have also observed this state of chronic emotional exhaustion resulting from prolonged exposure to stressors at work.

I can recall the number of Startup conferences I’ve attended, where the spotlight is on how much funds (i.e. seed/series A) startups raised and the resilience/grit of serial entrepreneurs, however we seldom see post-burn-out founders on stage with lessons learned. Founders mask their stress, and their ideal role is to make people dream.

A **Startup Snapshot 2023 survey indicated that 44 percent of founders reported very high levels of stress, 37 percent faced anxiety, 36 percent experienced burnout, and 13 percent battled depression with only 23% going to a therapist or a coach. I coach some of the most innovative startups in Europe but in terms of support, founders are stuck in 20th century technology due to the dark side of the ecosystem.

The relentless pace, the weight of decision-making, and the emotional toll of leading a company can lead to exhaustion, impacting not just the individual but the entire organization and personal life. I was struck by Sifted’s latest article on this in the trend in 2024 and founders’ resignation.

For me one of the biggest sources of burnout comes from investors and the shadow side of the entrepreneurial ecosystem — the greediness and tension on the financial side as LPs/VCs need a return leading to startups doing more ‘build big and sell it big’; the ability to fundraise from the CEO/founder constantly selling its technology against the odds and the pressure cooker of the struggle for support. Where can I get support if I’m feeling overwhelmed, drained, and unable to cope with daily responsibilities? With whom to trust and share my emotional state without being perceived as weak or a failure?

Startups often face pressure from investors to achieve rapid growth and scale quickly. While this pressure can drive innovation and progress from IPOs and acquisitions, it can also lead to burnout among founders and employees as they work tirelessly to meet investor expectations.

Burnout is a complex condition that stems from chronic workplace stress that hasn’t been successfully managed. It’s characterized by feelings of energy depletion, increased mental distance from one’s job, and reduced professional efficacy.

As a professional coach bound by *ethical standards and knowing when to refer a client to therapy, the loss of perspective and brain fog, leading to loss of clarity of thought and struggle with decision-making is the most common characteristics I’ve experienced with clients and (myself). Professional coaching and running a company can be brutal if we do not seek self-care ourselves😊

Apart from founders struggling for support there is also a miss-conception in my profession where burnout coaching is not our domain and only therapy work. As professional leadership coaches we should know when to refer a client and I feel adequate to support a leader in prevention mode.

There is a lot written about strategies for startup founders to tackle burnout in the startup ecosystem. It emphasizes the importance of fostering a culture that values work-life balance, delegating tasks effectively, seeking support from mentors or peers, and being willing to ask for help when needed.

→ What is your flexibility?

As a business coach, addressing burnout involves a customized approach tailored to each founder’s specific circumstances. This may involve evaluating the sources of stress and setting realistic goals through “soft action learning” to facilitate growth. Additionally, addressing conflicting values and priorities is crucial, as many founders’ experience burnout due to compromising their values or neglecting personal life for work.

→ How would you rate your internal compass?

Setting boundaries is also emphasized, helping founders define what is acceptable and non-allowable in order to protect their well-being. Boundaries define limits, mark off dividing lines. The purpose of a boundary is to make clear separations between different turf, different territory. . . . and to protect and take care of ourselves.

→ What is your concept of boundaries?

I can also provide perspective and insight, offering an outside view to identify patterns and provide valuable insights not easily discernible from within the startup’s day-to-day operations.

→ What is your pattern recognition?

Furthermore, stress management techniques and decision-making frameworks are essential tools that coaches can provide to help founders effectively manage stress and navigate critical decisions. Leadership development is another key aspect, with coaches assisting founders in honing communication skills, conflict resolution, and team motivation strategies.

In summary, the role of a business coach in tackling burnout involves a multifaceted approach encompassing evaluation, values work, boundary-setting, perspective, stress management, decision-making, and leadership development to support startup founders in maintaining their well-being and effectively leading their companies.

CEO/founders’ burnout is a serious issue that needs our attention. By acknowledging its existence and implementing these strategies, we can create a healthier, more sustainable startup ecosystem.

Recognizing these signs early can help in taking preventative measures and seeking appropriate support.

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