Founder Burnout: The Ultimate Guide

In the past few weeks, I came across several posts from founders who confessed they had burnt out. And there was already a list, a long one, of founders who already suffered from burnout. So, what happens in a founder’s life that they burn out? Here is the article that explains everything. Learn about the causes of founder burnout, burnout stages, how to recognize it and how to prevent it.

This is a long read. So, let me give you a #TLDR upfront: Founder burnout is a syndrome that should not be underestimated. It is easy to develop yet difficult to recognize. And it has severe consequences for your productivity, health, and startup success.

Fact: Founders Are Suffering from Burnout

Burnout hit me hard. I need a few days off.” and “I am so exhausted. Going to take some time off from Twitter and focus on my mental health.”

If you have been connecting to other founders, you must have noticed. Founders and creators all over the world are suffering from exhaustion. According to Sifted, 49% of startup founders are considering quitting. I’m not surprised. Being a startup founder is hard. It can hurt your mental health.

In other words: Founder Burnout is real. But, what is it exactly?

What Is Burnout?

Burnout is a state of emotional and physical exhaustion and loss of motivation, caused by chronic workplace stress. People who burn out are often cynical about their work and feel unproductive. Burnout is not diagnosed as a physical condition, though we know physical aspects play a role.

It has different stages, starting with an optimistic first to chronic exhaustion in the fifth and final stage. Each stage comes with different symptoms and problems.

Burnout Is More than Exhaustion

Most founders only know that final stage. To them, and maybe to you, burnout means being completely exhausted. You might not realize that burnout hits a lot sooner.

Do you know that feeling of pressure and maybe a little stress that pushes you to work long hours? It is already one of the stages of burnout and a sign that things might be off.

For some founders, it takes a long time before they feel exhaustion hit. For others the process is faster. Some founders will halt and counter it midway, others go all the way down. Let’s explore this road to exhaustion.

The Stages of Founder Burnout

Stage 1: Honeymoon

The first stage is called the honeymoon phase because you still feel optimistic and driven. Everything still seems possible in this stage and you want to make it work.

Unfortunately, this marriage between work and motivation doesn’t end well if you are not prepared for what’s to come.

Stage 2: Onset of Stress

As the saying goes, good things never last. As all startup founders, you will experience setbacks and plenty of stress. If you haven’t developed the right coping strategies during the first stage, you might start feeling it too.

Stage 3: Chronic Stress

That will bring you to the third stage, which is defined as chronic stress. This is the stage where you migh start feeling powerless and cynical about the whole business.

Stage 4: Burnout

Once you enter this phase, you will understand why it is called burnout. No more optimism and energy, but severe exhaustion and self-doubt.

Stage 5: Habitual burnout

In the final stage, burnout has become part of everyday life. If you are in this phase you will find it impossible to work on your startup. You are chronically exhausted.

Recognizing Founder Burnout is hard

As a founder, you probably recognized the description of the first stage. That wonderful time when you start your entrepreneurial journey and are still filled with optimism. But you probably did not identify this as a burnout stage.

With so much to do and so little time, working hard is simply normal for a founder. And, of course, it is fun!

But it is exactly this attitude that creates the problems. The dopamine rush of discovering new things covers a lot of negative signals that you should listen to.

Looking back, the symptoms are so easy to recognize. But back then, I didn’t see the signs and just kept on working”, says Mattia Righetti, founder of The Maker Journey. Mattia burnt out only three months after he started working on his startups full-time.

It’s the perfect example of what happens to many founders. They just don’t recognize the symptoms until it’s too late and then completely burn out.

So, it’s important to know the first stages of founder burnout as well. It’s the only way to stop the process and adapt to the stressful life of being a startup founder.

What Causes Founder burnout?

Simply put, the core cause of burnout is prolonged stress. To be more precise, by an ongoing imbalance between that stress and your possibility to recover. If the first continues to exceed the latter, things go wrong.

Are startup founders more at risk of developing burnout? Are there external risk factors that play a role? To answer the last question: yes, there are.

Needless to say, when it comes to workload, most founders are in over their heads. Many founders are looking for a way to escape the restraints of a 9-5. They end up with even less freedom or control and more insecurity. It is the perfect climate to develop founder burnout.

How Founder Burnout Changes the Brain

However, it is not just about external factors. It is just as important how a founder responds to a stressful situation.

Controlling the feelings of anxiety is key if you want to spend enough time for recovery. You definitely should. Take breaks, go out with friends, relax. Unfortunately, once you have entered the stages of burnout, it becomes increasingly difficult to do so.

Research 3 found that prolonged stress makes it more difficult to control your stress responses. This leads to overstimulation of the amygdala, the part of the brain you might know as the ‘fear center’. In turn, this leads to even less control and so on. A vicious cycle.

The consequences of founder burnout

In a 2021 inventory, CB Insights collected the data from 111 failed startups 4. Thet identified the main cause for the startup’s failures. Running out of money came out on top with a whopping 38%, just before bad product market fit at 35%. According to this overview, burnout sits in the 12th place with 5% of the startups declaring burnout as the main reason for failure. But is this really true?

According to CB Insights Founder Burnout accounts for only 5% of startup failures. But is this really the case? (source: https://www.cbinsights.com/research/report/startup-failure-reasons-top/)

Many studies show how prolonged stress negatively affects creativity, problem-solving, and focus. In other words, the cognitive costs of exhaustion are pretty high. Long before you identify your problems as ‘burnout’, your performance and decision-making already suffer from the strain. And doesn’t that influence your whole business?

Founder Burnout Leads to Diminished Productivity

So, when CB Insights mentions product mistiming or a flawed business model as reasons for startup failure, it is likely that burnout plays a role.

Especially since these cognitive costs also introduce a different type of vicious circle. One where the loss of productivity leads to more stress, which leads to more loss of productivity. All you have to do is examine those burnout stages to see how small problems only get bigger if unattended. So, yes, startup failure is most definitely one of the consequences of founder burnout. And it probably happens a lot more often than in just a mere 5% of the cases.

But what about the personal consequences? Remember the symptoms described in stages 2 and 3, where a lack of social interaction evolves into withdrawing from social events? You wouldn’t be the first (or the last) founder who found their relationships to have suffered from ambition. Not to mention the physical effects, since burnout is known to have a big correlation with cardiovascular health issues.

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How to recover from founder burnout

As you can see, it is quite easy to develop a burnout as a founder once you are past the first stage. So, what can you do about it if that happens?

The good news is that it is reversible. Sure, science hasn’t found an effective treatment for severe burnout yet. But if you haven’t entered the final stage of habitual burnout yet, you should be able to get back on your feet.

How to reverse a founder’s burnout?

1. Take a time-out

Here it is, the advice that no startup founder will follow. Take a time-out.

There is this study where medical students recovered just fine from exam stress after 4 weeks of vacation. But being a medical student isn’t the same as being a startup founder. And having stress from exams isn’t the same as burning out.

Taking time off just isn’t an option if you are building a startup, and time is of the essence. You don’t have a colleague to hand over your work to or a boss who can take responsibility when things go wrong.

Fortunately, there is evidence that a full-time vacation isn’t the fastest way to recover from founder burnout. It works better if you stay on the job. But only if you combine it with some serious relaxation and learn how to deal with that stress5.

2. Cognitive Based Therapy

Finding enough time to relax requires next-level prioritizing and stress management. In fact, all roads to burnout recovery probably need that.

This is where cognitive-based therapy (CBT) comes in. With CBT, you can reduce stress levels significantly and learn better coping strategies. People suffering from burnout tend to develop bad strategies that increase their problems. CBT helps you to become aware of this and develop better ways to beat startup stress.

3. Exercise

One of those ways is to work out more. Funny enough, getting all sweaty in the gym helps to reduce the exhaustion.

There is more than enough proof that physical activity has a positive effect on depression and anxiety. Several studies show a similar effect of exercise on burnout specifically, though the proof is still thin 6.

4. Prioritizing Self-Care

Last but not least, it is key to start taking care of yourself. Even in the early stage of stress onset, founders do tend to neglect their own needs. Therefore, recovering from founder burnout is not possible without setting that balance straight.

Make sure you get enough sleep (which might be more than you are used to), take time to eat healthily, and engage with other people. The latter will also provide much-needed distraction, besides meaningful interaction with the people you love.

How to prevent founder burnout

Of course, prevention is better than cure.

According to research, it is crucial that you learn to deal with startup stress early on. If you don’t, the rest of the stages will follow. And that will make it a lot harder to succeed and build the startup you have always dreamed of. It all starts with recognizing the symptoms, so you understand when you need to act.

Having said that, preventing founder burnout is very much like recovering from it:

  • Prioritize self-care, even if you don’t have time.
  • Make time for workouts and try to include some other lighter forms of physical exercise daily.
  • Practice mindfulness, yoga, or see a therapist to help you manage your stress levels and coping strategies.
  • Learn how to prioritize and look at ways to organize your work in a smarter way.
  • Take mini time-outs every day, also known as breaks. Lunch, dinner, and short breaks between pomodoros, for instance, will work just fine.
  • Engage with other founders to counter the loneliness of being a founder. Become a member of a community where you will find support.

Conclusion and #TLDR

Let’s sum it up, especially for those who didn’t want to read the whole article (#TLDR).

As said earlier, founder burnout is a syndrome that should not be underestimated. It is easy to develop yet difficult to recognize. And it has severe consequences for your productivity, health, and startup success.

It occurs a lot sooner than most founders realize. Luckily, founder burnout can be prevented by listening to the early warning signs. Those include trouble sleeping, sacrificing self-care or social activities for work on your startup, and feeling pressured. Adapting the right methods to deal with startup stress early on is key.

If you are already suffering from founder burnout, the best way to recover is to take time to recharge, seek help (CBT is effective), and prioritize self-care. Whatever you do, do not ignore what you are feeling. Let people around you know what you are going through and include other founders.

Research / references:

1:https://www.researchgate.net/publication/346432309_Burnout_in_Healthcare_Workers_Prevalence_Impact_and_Preventative_Strategies

2: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4911781/

3: https://www.psychologicalscience.org/observer/burnout-and-the-brain

4: https://www.cbinsights.com/research/report/startup-failure-reasons-top/

5: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8037062/

6: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/1359432X.2020.1829034

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