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In Case of Burnout, Put Your Oxygen Mask on First

October 12, 2021

Why Prioritizing Mental Health Pays Off

Burnout is costing us more than just productive hours.

Globally, workplace stress accounts for $322 billion in healthcare spending, turnover, and low productivity annually.1 The conversation about mental health at work is frequently pushed down the agenda, yet it remains a palpable issue. Burnout is not just having a bad day at work but, in the words of the WHO, it’s “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”.2 The fast-paced and high-stakes environment of startups and hypergrowth organizations make it easy for us to do too much, for too long.

In the Asian tech world, overworking has a 3-digit nickname called 996. 996 is often used to describe the long work hours spent from 9 am to 9 pm, 6 days a week. It faced a major backlash3 when a Chinese developer made a GitHub project with a blacklist of companies with long work hours – notably including prominent names in China’s tech world – as well as a whitelist of those with healthier balance, most of which are foreign companies with satellites in China.

We talked to George Kesselman, recognized fintech leader in Asia, President and founder of InsurTech Asia Association. He’s also the Head of Commercial of ZA Tech, a technology venture founded by ZhongAn Online, a global leader in online insurance, and backed by Softbank’s Vision Fund. He shares his realizations on mental health during the growth phase of his startup, why it is important to balance productivity and recovery, and what we can do to prevent burnout in hypergrowth organizations.

George points out that the dedication to work apparent in Asian culture is commendable, but it also paves the way for burnout. As burnout is deeply embedded in startup culture, there rests a responsibility to consciously seek a healthier balance in contrast to the mothership. Teams working in SEA are smaller compared to their China-based counterparts and George elaborates the need to cultivate a counterculture of openly discussing and actively addressing mental health across the organization.

Realizing Burnout is an Issue

Startups carry with them an incredible amount of energy and possibility. Poised for rapid growth, they experience change at breakneck speed. Founders can get overstretched, with business needs trumping the demands of their personal lives. 

For George, the realization was a slow burn. In a span of 2 years, he was constantly working on fundraising, pitching, growing his team, and developing products. He recalled catching up with his team one day when tears just started welling up in his eyes. Out of concern, his co-founder remarked that he looked tired and suggested that he get some rest. This prompted him to take a step back and recalibrate himself before attending to the next growth phase of the company.

Hypergrowth is a common cause of burnout. Situations like achieving a funding milestone for instance can lead to scaling up, triggering a race to keep pace with heavier workloads. Onboarding new hires can take weeks to months, meaning investor expectations and business needs grow faster than the organization’s capacity. 

George also shares that engineering teams are prone to burnout when they execute pivots. Engineers can be vested in what they have built and have taken high ownership of the product. They may liken it to a baby – they created it, groomed it day in and day out, and developed affection for it. The sudden shift puts a strain on them and requires a period of recharge. However, work still demands that they show up and continue to build.

Reset and Recharge

Burnout is not exclusive to startups. In a recent study by Blind, an anonymous survey for technologists, 83% of workers in FAANG (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, Google) said they are demotivated at work.4 Google addresses these mental health issues through initiatives such as no-meetings weeks, resiliency videos, and TEA (thoughts, energy, attention) check-ins. 

George elaborates that when a team is underperforming, this may already be a strong signal of low morale and motivation. If they’ve sustained productivity for years, a change in this pattern may signal that stress, at work or at home, may be becoming unmanageable. Check in with the team and ask for feedback. Even good talent can crumble in the face of burnout.

George recounts seeing low productivity in good talent despite long work hours and it prompted him to evaluate and look deeper. He opened and normalized the conversation about mental health by checking in with his teams and giving them a safe space to be heard. While work dedication is highly lauded, recovery on the physical, emotional, and mental capacity should also be highlighted especially in hypergrowth organizations where excessive workload and unreasonable time pressure are the norm. Creating time for resets and recharging will be more sustainable for good talent not just to survive but to thrive.

Lead a New Way Forward

Despite the offer of unlimited holidays in some organizations, employees and leaders of startups notoriously go years without taking time off. Enforced leave is being implemented to make sure they get the rest they might not realize they need. Asian culture is largely collectivist in nature and takes focus away from the individual to form and serve the overarching organization. Staff operate on the premise that acceptance and respect for the social order are necessary to succeed, and they must exhaust themselves to be considered diligent in their roles. For change to happen, it needs to come from the top down.

George has since learned that recovery is better than endurance. He leads by example by working reasonable hours and seriously unplugging during rest days to manage his work schedule sustainably. Putting his oxygen mask on first, he ensures that he takes care of himself – good diet, proper sleep, and exercise – before he takes care of others. Focusing inward allows him to take stock of what is within his control. And by doing so, he can serve in his role better and inspire other team members to follow suit. 

We set the tone and pace of the organization. When employees see us taking care of ourselves, maintaining boundaries, and displaying empathy, they can also envision a higher and better version of themselves inside the organization and work towards these models. As stress is part and parcel of working in hypergrowth companies, proactively managing our response to it can minimize the path towards burnout and lead to a better way forward.

Final Thoughts

  • Consider your pace and recalibrate if you need to.
  • Learn to recognize signs of mounting stress in yourself and those around you. 
  • Leading by example is the best way to get our teams to take charge of their own wellbeing, motivation and performance.
  • Breath, reset and remind yourself - everything is going to be okay.





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