Founders Guide To Managing Annual Leave & Burnout

Brett Turley
August 1, 2020

Founders rarely take time off and if you didn’t already know, it seriously impacts your chances of success. I have never met a founder that wishes they “worked harder” on a problem. 

If you’ve lived the startup life you will remember times where long work hours or burning the midnight oil seemed commonplace if it still isn’t the case. This article explains: 

  • The symptoms and impact of burnout for startups and founders
  • The effects and impact of building a “hustle culture”
  • Mapping your operations for maximum productivity and recovery
  • Understanding your employee persona
  • Creative ways to promote rest, recovery and rejuvenation

Understanding Burnout

The world economic forum estimates that burnout costs the global economy $322B every year. This can be in the form of productivity costs, increased retention issues and time theft but one thing is for certain as a startup founder, these can be company-killing problems.

Burnout Symptoms

Symptoms of burnout may differ for everyone but the following are common:

  • Continuous exhaustion or low energy
  • Disengagement or loss of interest in role or outside of work hobbies and activities
  • Reduced productivity or avoidance of key tasks
  • Irritability towards family, friends and team members

To put it simply, you have a sustained period of disinterest in things that usually bring you joy or energy. 

Burnout Risks For Startups

With different levels of “skin in the game” we can’t put the same labels on everyone in a startup but understanding the risk profiles in a team goes a long way to creating an environment where everyone can feel productive and valued. 

As founders we must remember, that your employees will rarely care about the company or the problem as much as you. When we get this wrong, the impact translates to:

  • Burnout and churn of key employees
  • Uncontrollable excess leave liabilities that effect cashflow
  • Increased recruitment costs to replace talent
  • Failure to achieve project timelines and key deliverables

Quite often there can also be a lag in the impact of burnout, meaning that these issues will only be uncovered long after the problem began. 

The Operations Cycle Of Startups

To better manage burnout risk, your operations cycle may need to adjust for your team or organisation based on the stage of your company. 

Cyclical vs BAU Operations

Cyclical operations can be described as periods of intense workloads with periods of rest and recovery that follow. The problem we see in startup and scale-up environments is that the rest period rarely comes. 

When we look at more traditional “business as usual” operations there is a more standardised workload with set hours. This often suits business units where there is a steady and consistent workload to be achieved and where steady cash flow is present. 

Stage of company

Based on the operational models above your company may need to adjust certain elements to suit the stage of growth. 

During early stage startups and scale-ups we traditionally see a need for cyclical operations to gather fast feedback on short development cycles. In more mature organisations, teams will have the opportunity to switch to a BAU model.  

Stage of team

To complicate things further, different teams may need to work on different operational cycles. Mapping times for various teams to rest and recover often gets lost in this model as the “one size fits all” approach is commonly adopted by founders or managers. 

This will also drastically impact your hiring plan and employee experience.

The Employee Experience

If you’re lucky enough to scale past that first phase of the journey and hire the first employees, are you aware of how your own work patterns transfer onto your team?

The first hires in a startup are often the most critical. When you talk about culture, habits and operations these first hires usually model themselves on the founding team in the hope of “fitting in”. 

Much like parenting, you need to lead with the right actions in order to establish the culture you want to see. 

The Employee Persona

We love our customer or user personas in startups but how much do we really understand our own employee personas?

What works well in a mature business environment rarely crosses over into a startup or scale-up. Being aware of the following areas goes a long way in assessing, hiring and retaining the right people:

  1. Life, Health & Family Situations
  2. Previous Experience & Future Potential
  3. Pay, Remuneration & Aspirations

Be aware of cognitive biases and previous experiences that impact decisions when assessing your employee personas. This is where group consensus and external validation through testing and other means will help bolster your process. 

Unlocking Employee Retention & Reducing Burnout

If you have troubles with burnout, churn and retention you might want to take some time to map your ideal employee personas against the criteria above as a first step in order to make better management and hiring decisions. 

Stress, risk and previous experience can often guide our day-to-day interactions with those around us. This is where a well-deserved break or structured rest time can foster an environment of support, trust and retention.

Ways to encourage leave use

Good culture is built from the top down, by setting up the right leave policies from an early stage you will create the breeding ground for high performance that makes people happy to show up. 

Ways To Take Time Off

When it comes to accessing paid time off or annual leave, your policies don’t have to be boring or designed just to suit management. People crave autonomy and trust so creating an environment where employees have the freedom to choose is often the best method to reduce administrative tasks and increase engagement.

  1. Let the team take micro-breaks or extend long weekends
  2. Encourage parents to double down on school holidays to spend time with family
  3. Create mandatory shutdown periods that give employees the freedom to completely disconnect. Including the founders.
  4. Create employee benefits that encourage and reward employees to invest in rest
  5. Provide access to annual leave in the form of cash-outs for those that have financial goals outside of work

Make sure that you cross-check the rules and regulations around annual leave use before you launch any benefits program. There’s nothing worse than benefits programs that are only used for marketing purposes on a job description that employees can’t access once they sign on the dotted line. 

If you’re a fast-growth company that’s looking to automate this whole process, check out bit.leave and how it could reduce burnout and supercharge your employee value proposition.