The hidden dangers of start-up culture: Avoiding burnout 


Felizitas Lichtenberg looks at how to avoid burnout when working at a start-up 

As workers begin to return to the office, and businesses start their slow return to pre-pandemic norms, employee burnout has re-emerged as a significant issue in the UK. A nationwide survey from Indeed Flex found that the number of UK workers experiencing stress or burnout in the workplace doubled in 2023, highlighting the growing impact of the problem.  

Establishing boundaries can involve communicating clearly when you need to leave directly after work or blocking out time in your calendar for personal activities 

This issue is especially prevalent among start-ups and early phase companies. With a notoriously fast-paced and hands-on environment, research from Sifted has found that 84% of start-up employees have experienced burnout at some point. Therefore, navigating the pressures of work-life balance and avoiding burnout while at a start-up can prove to be incredibly challenging.  

It’s important to reflect upon how workers at all company levels can address this and prevent burnout. Naturally, there is no one-step equation to eradicating this issue, and often it can be a challenging topic to broach with colleagues and bosses. However, there are certainly steps and measures that can be taken to minimise the risks and effects of burnout.  

Set boundaries 

The first, and perhaps most important, is to establish clear boundaries with your boss and/or wider team. Analysis published by the TUC found that UK workers put in £26bn of unpaid overtime across 2023, showing that working beyond paid hours is commonplace for employees across the UK.  

While working late can often feel like a necessity, it is important to avoid feeling as if you should be working during your free time. Establishing boundaries can involve communicating clearly when you need to leave directly after work because you have plans, or blocking out time in your calendar when you want to fit in a workout during your lunch hour. Ultimately, it is important to create separation between your work hours and social hours. Setting firm boundaries helps to find a healthy balance and aids enjoyment of both. 

Effective task management 

Another preventative measure, that is perhaps often overlooked, is learning how to prioritise time and tasks effectively. Learning to effectively prioritise tasks is an often-underutilised skill, but one that can play a key role in preventing excess stress and burnout. By managing tasks by order of priority – instead of trying to get through everything without a plan – can help you maintain focus and prevent feeling overwhelmed by large workloads.  

In addition to this, studies have shown that pausing work throughout the day improves mental wellbeing and enhances productivity. Taking regular breaks from work – be it spending time outside or emptying the dishwasher – can help to alleviate stress and prevent you from becoming overwhelmed. Working with no respite is not only damaging to our physical health – excess screen time has been linked to carpal tunnel syndrome, posture issues, neck pain and eye strain – but can also leave you mentally exhausted.  

Build your support network 

As well as taking internal measures to prevent burnout, you should also try to build and foster a strong support network in your workplace and beyond. Support networks can include colleagues, mentors, friends and family members who provide emotional support, practical assistance and encouragement during challenging times.  

Many start-ups also offer free therapy support, which is a tool that should be utilised. It can also help to have open conversations with your team about what drives you, allowing greater focus areas of work that you enjoy.  

By fostering a sense of community and mutual support, individuals feel less isolated and more empowered to navigate work-related challenges. Support networks offer opportunities for sharing experiences, seeking advice and receiving validation, all of which contribute to overall wellbeing and resilience when faced with burnout. 

Incorporate stress-relief into your routine 

Finally, often the best way to prevent burnout is to address your daily routine and try to incorporate stress-relieving activities such as mindfulness exercises, physical activity, or hobbies to alleviate tension and promote overall mental wellbeing.  

A 2017 study of senior executives working at an oil company found that, after 16 weeks of daily mindfulness activities, the executives experienced less stress, improved physical and emotional health, enhanced sleep, better health-related habits and behaviours, and more self-compassion – implying the significant mental health benefits of stress-relieving activities.  

While it would be great to see more start-ups offering free mindfulness training to employees, if you’re frequently suffering from burnout, trying to incorporate these activities into your daily routine could become a crucial preventive measure.  

Collective responsibility 

With burnout continuing to be an issue among start-up employees – and the UK workforce as a whole – companies have a responsibility to educate workers about how it can be prevented, as well as offering support where necessary. That said, it is crucial to try to understand the checks we can all put in place to prevent ourselves from reaching the point of burnout.  

Felizitas Lichtenberg is Global Head of Diversity and Inclusion, Wellbeing, and ESG at SumUp 

Felizitas Lichtenberg

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