Burnout burdens should be shared

Mental health is on the agenda this month. For founders though it is a concern every day of the month, including at weekends.

The team at Breega speak from experience because, as well as now funding great businesses, we are a team made up of many founders. So, we really understand the pressure cooker effect of hyper-growth ambition.

Throughout the team, we have experienced the incredible highs of the good times, when products progress, customers sign on the line and funding allow us to grow our businesses. We have also had moments of doubt, and anxiety about deadlines, or customer satisfaction or funding. We get it.

There’s always a ton going on with early-stage companies. Founding a company means sooner or later taking on the additional stresses related to leading a team. As a founder though, the buck stops with you. Whether it's deciding on company strategy, measuring team outputs, or executing the plans you have shared with funders, like us.

This constant role-changing between cheerleader, to firefighter and back again is mentally exhausting. Perhaps it is no surprise then that nearly half of startup founders have considered quitting citing exhaustion, financial insecurity, and lack of stability. So, what is on offer to deal with the psychological impact of entrepreneurship and how can leaders improve their mental health wellbeing to prevent burnout ?

A problem shared is halved

My approach has always been ‘a problem shared is a problem halved’. Psychological support is a vital survival skill for founding teams. What does this mean from a practical perspective? I like to think of our role as an extended advisory team, an approach we call ‘The Augmented Founder’.

Augmented founders, using as much or as little of our help as needed,  build on the skills they already have by using other peers who have ‘been there done that’ to enhance leadership and decision-making capabilities where appropriate.

That way, founders can work not as an isolated individual but as part of a slightly larger team. Decisions are no longer made alone but with the help of external guidance. Even if that guidance is just to delegate to another team member, the decision-making burden is reduced.

Unhappy leaders lead to unhappy teams

We are hopeful the ‘fake it till you make it’ days of ‘toxic resilience’ are behind us. Elon Musk’s battle cry is to be ‘hardcore’. His 100-hour weeks and Bill Gates’ no-holiday ethos worked for them back in their day. They will not work as we all become more mindful of our mental health and wider concerns about mental health rise.

But are we as investors a little to blame? Investors are very quick to over-enthusiastically explain why they buy into founders and the businesses they lead. Meanwhile for founders, such is their dedication to get ideas off the ground, they may feel the need to show near-superhero levels of resilience and outward confidence.

However, the data proves much of this confidence is an act. VCs described 2024 as the year of an ‘unprecedented founder mental health crisis’, with 72% of founders reporting that entrepreneurship directly impacted their mental health and half are considering quitting.

These struggles often don’t occur in a vacuum. Unhealthy behaviours demonstrated at the top often impact the entire company culture. A lack of understanding around wellbeing and its importance generates a work environment characterised by fear, suppressed communication, and increased risk of burnout at all levels. Ultimately innovation suffers, talent retention becomes much more challenging and team morale erodes over time.

Founders also have a responsibility towards their teams. Taking care of their own mental health isn't just about self-preservation; it's about creating a healthy and attractive environment for talent. Leaders who prioritise wellbeing send a powerful message and inspire trust within their teams. Founders aren't alone in this journey – they owe it to their people to foster a supportive environment.

Fear is not failure

Breega’s Scaling Squad is a reflection of our ethos. Not focused just on financial growth, it was designed specifically to provide pastoral support for founders in their business journey. Over the years, we have spoken to countless founders who have reported experiencing huge anxiety, night terrors and struggles in their personal and professional life directly related to work-based stress.

Fear of failure, massively outdated stigmas around mental health and the pace of movement in the startup space leave little room for introspection and seeking help. For far too long, founders have been pushed to the brink, becoming isolated and unable to nurture their wellbeing alongside escalating workloads. In short, they're losing the battle against burnout.

This is where VCs, who offer genuine support and guidance can play a significant, if not entirely selfless, role. Given the current macroeconomic environment, there has been a shift in expectation, from high growth to the delivery of profitability. It’s in these tough times that it’s important that VCs show up for their founders. Our practical help includes workshopping through issues with a clear support structure and proven guidance in place. This sort of intervention provides founders with clarity on the next steps, reducing the uncertainty they may feel to make a decision.

Less ego, more empathy

Equally important is empowering leaders to become 'augmented founders’ themselves. They develop low ego and high self-awareness thanks to robust and regular support systems and often coaches or therapists. They recognise addressing their personal wellbeing isn't a sign of weakness but rather a vital investment in themselves and the longevity of their company. These founders have to be honest with themselves and identify their own pitfalls and problems – the more they know about these, the more ‘augmented’ they will be.

We find 'augmented founders' acknowledge that their role is to enable others, rather than shouldering every burden alone. They surround themselves with a team whose strengths complement theirs. This approach requires a willingness to assess their abilities and weaknesses, and consciously move away from ego-driven decision-making.

Self-care needs to be seen as a critical business investment built on robust support systems. This includes deliberate hiring efforts to meet ongoing skills gaps and relieve pressure by building a well-rounded team. Finally, there needs to be a culture of open communication and continuous improvement.

Founders who prioritise their wellbeing are not only stronger leaders, but they also inspire and attract top talent who value a healthy work environment. This prioritisation could include discipline when it comes to making time in their calendar for breaks or moments to reflect. The 'augmented founder' isn't just adapting to change, they're creating the change by shaping a more sustainable and human-focused future for startups. This approach fosters a sort of kinder resilience in leaders.

Ultimately, the success of a startup rests on courage, clarity, and, often forgotten, support. Unlike the bad old days, coaching and regular feedback sessions assist leadership development. Now, having a coach (or any other real support system) at least each time you raise funds and each time your company faces strong difficulties is the key for founders. The ‘augmented founder’ ideal is equipped for life, not just business and that matters when the spotlight turns away from mental health.