How to Prevent and Address Burnout During Scale-Up
Nikole Yinger didn’t expect to be someone’s boss right out of college, let alone lead a whole team of people. Frankly, she didn’t even ask for it. But it was the 2008 recession and the news organization where she worked had just laid off the older, higher paid employees, “leaving the young and inexperienced in charge,” she says.
Like others her age, Yinger had no people leader experience or mentorship. No one offered to have a conversation about expectations with her, and she didn’t know if she was allowed to ask for one. She felt an immense amount of pressure to protect her team, many of whom were also struggling.
“As a people manager, I was just triaging: ‘Who is standing up straight enough to do this work?’” she remembers. “Burnout was pretty much the norm.” People were out sick for weeks. At 25 years old, Yinger had developed debilitating back pain.
She knew there had to be a better model of an organization that took care of its people, so she went in search of one. For a few more years, Yinger worked in news but then departed the east coast for Silicon Valley, where she signed on as senior talent designer at Airbnb while obtaining her Master’s degree in counseling psychology. Today, she is an associate psychotherapist (AMFT) and consultant on company culture and people issues like burnout.
What Is Burnout?
When asked how she defines burnout, Yinger starts with what it isn’t. “It’s not just being tired.” Last year the World Health Organization updated its definition of burnout to "a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed."
Leading burnout expert and UC Berkeley professor of psychology Christina Maslach identifies three conditions of burnout:
Exhaustion: loss of energy, fatigue
Feelings of inefficiency: reduced productivity or low morale
Cynicism: irritability, withdrawal, and loss of idealism
Perhaps not coincidentally, the three dimensions of burnout map neatly onto the timeline of a company, says Yinger. In the beginning or startup phase, a team may feel exhausted because they’re completing a ton of tasks, wearing many hats, but they’re still motivated and energized. Over time as the company becomes more complex, organizational drag creeps in; things aren’t moving as fast, and inefficiencies surface. If things stay like that for too long, people may start to feel cynical and wonder, “Why did we even do this in the first place?”
Ultimately, burnout can feel like a loss of purpose. And when work has become so central to our sense of being, losing direction can take a considerable emotional toll. That’s the risk of working for a mission-driven organization in a purpose-driven economy, says Yinger. Purpose-driven work can boost well-being overall but the “shadow side” is people feel less able to emotionally separate from their work. They don’t feel empowered to set limits. Take it too far and you have “badge of honor culture,” she says, as in, “‘I’m proud of the fact I got pneumonia this year.’”
If she could offer one takeaway, she says, “The research is clear: Burnout is an individual symptom to an organizational problem.”
Why Tech Is Susceptible
Tech startups seem specifically ripe for burnout. In an April survey of 11,000 tech workers, 57% reported feeling burned out. The problem isn’t tech-specific, says Yinger, but in rapidly scaling organizations, people start to rely more on systems than relationships. Without taking time to recalibrate culture during scale-up, a company risks burning employees out.
It’s really important that team leaders model the behavior that they want their employees to do, not just tell them to do it, says Yinger. “Culture is seeing.”
A great example of modeling leadership comes from Circleup founder Ryan Caldbeck. In an October blog post about his own battle with burnout, he wrote, “Persistence was my superpower. Persistence is a double-edged sword, and my decision not to take a break, to not take more off my plate, hurt me, my family and the company. That was the biggest mistake of my career."
Yinger recalls working at Airbnb with a customer service leader and former Navy Seal. His division was under a lot of pressure during the company’s hypergrowth. Rather than acquiesce to every demand that came down the pipeline, he created a culture of protection around his team by negotiating tradeoffs and countering the stresses of the wider organization. His team loved being there, despite a very challenging year.
“You don’t want to build a company where you take 20-year-olds and burn them out and then they leave as 30-year-olds,” says Yinger. “You want people to be able to do their full tour of duty at your company and leave better than they came.”
By all means, if something is business-critical, borrow against your energy reserves. You’re bound to get in the red sometimes. In peak performance, we want just the right amount of pressure to feel activated but not so much we feel anxious all the time. You can’t always be in that savings account, says Yinger. Pay yourself back.
And speaking of backs, hers is better now.