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Overworking, Today's Cocaine

My Thoughts on Peer Pressure and Burnout

 / 5min read / Culture

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The fact that yesterday was the World Mental Health Day is pure coincidence. Instead, I am writing this article out of a mix of feelings of worry, anger and faint. There is one out of all the startup stories of my network that currently touches me the most. A company systematically drifts into a burnout culture. Seemingly regardless of the consequences. Here are my thoughts on this.


Disclaimer: I'm neither a doctor nor a psychologist, I have hardly studied the subject, and the following text has no scientific foundation at all. It is merely an attempt to put into words what I perceive among friends, to raise awareness. Hopefully, it ends up in the LinkedIn/Twitter feed of the respective managers.

I See Something You Don't See

Those who know me are aware that I love to work — especially surrounded by people who are motivated and have a sense of humour. But also with a vision in mind, that is worth the effort. In a recent article, I wrote about my time as a developer advocate. I was travelling all the time. Catching the first flight at 6 am, straight to an event and after-events for networking reasons. Not before midnight in my hotel room. Sometimes over weeks.

It was truly stressful and far beyond the hours stated in the contract. Nevertheless, our Head of DevRel and CPTO did everything to ensure that I got some rest in between. Whether by taking an occasional week off or extending the business trip in the most beautiful cities in Europe privately. My body had time to recover. It is human to need some breathers. We are not machines.

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The First Symptoms

In contrast, the startup mentioned above is quite different. To be honest, I am very impressed by how colleagues stick together and support each other. Looking at the people, it seems that the startup has huge potential not only from a business perspective but also from a cultural perspective. In my opinion, they are currently putting both at risk. Sure, working in an up-and-coming startup is no walk in the park. Everybody knows that more than 40 hours are coming one's way. So I would be even more interested in your thoughts on the following.

Dan is in his mid-twenties, lives in one of the most vibrant cities in Europe and works in a startup as a frontline employee. The way he talks about it, I considered applying there myself half a year ago. In the meantime, I don't even recommend the company to others because I can't reconcile it with my conscience.

The calendar is packed, 10–12 hours a day, private life moves into the background; he lives in a bubble. Even on weekends, he can't get any rest, because 60 hours were not enough to accomplish the assigned tasks and set goals. Yet he is not slow in any way. On the contrary, he has been exceeding all expectations right from the start. Sure, whoever does the job for three people over-performs. But such sprints are not feasible forever. He is tired, but can't sleep. The days are marked by exhaustion, headaches and a lack of hunger. He does not know how to get out of it. He wants to maintain his pace. But he also realises that it can't be healthy and that he is reaching his limits. At the same time, the first doubts arise. Can he actually do more? Is he just too weak or too sensitive?

Just because you don't understand it doesn't mean it isn't so. Lemony Snicket

The Diagnosis

Every now and then there is a silver lining. There seems to be light at the end of the tunnel. It seems that the management and leadership team have understood the company's and its employees' health status. Be it through mental health apps or speeches about how such conditions are no longer tolerated as it's been temporary and exceptional circumstances. Unfortunately, all this is meaningless when the next day it turns out that it was just empty promises. The so-called exceptional circumstances threaten to become a permanent state. Don't fool yourself any longer; the situation is critical. Ignoring it or playing down the situation does not change a thing and postpones important decisions.

It saddens me that even Dan would not recommend anyone to start there anymore. In a company where everyone must be a brand ambassador, these are clear indications that these are toxic and unhealthy conditions.

It's important that you don't lie to yourself. If you lie to yourself, you end up with burnout. Patrick Pichette

Fuel to the Fire

To see this ambassadorship vanish is even more pitiful when considering that he actually loves to work there and be part of the team. If he needs help, he gets it. Also, fun does not fall short. Nevertheless, maybe this team is not entirely innocent of how the whole thing evolved. There is certain peer pressure. The others are still working, despite the circumstances, so Dan can't complain or even let them down. His managers are also clearly at their limits, so he can't load them with his own worries. Certainly, not only Dan feels and thinks that way.

It may not feel right to say anything in such a situation. However, it should be the job of his manager to shield the team, take care of them, listen to them and eventually even collapse before the team does. Moreover, silence and acceptance add fuel to the fire. Both the leadership team and the frontline staff co-create behavioural patterns and thereby establish a new standard. Leadership demands more; the team doesn't challenge the decision and delivers; leadership thinks it's okay; and all over again. So what needs to be done to break this vicious cycle?

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The Therapy

The most obvious step is to break the silence and raise awareness. First of all, for oneself, about the fact that everybody can change a little, to break the cycle of co-created patterns. Also, that the situation, which has now lasted several months, is not healthy or even normal. Last but not least, that just because others seem to manage it, there is no reason to shut up. Ultimately, it is not a question of refusing to work, but rather of making it clear to the supervisor that one suffers.

Ideally, this will raise the awareness of the Board that something needs to change urgently. The employees should be the priority, rather than the (unhealthy) growth of a startup that will stop at nothing. Maybe they need to slow down the hyper-growth to a point where the current staff can be retained. Otherwise, and I'm sure of it, they will lose dozens of employees soon through resignation or health problems. That's not only not smart but also significantly more expensive.

With this in mind, I wish you a happy Sunday, have a good start into the coming week and take care of yourself. If you need someone to talk to, I'm here. Let's talk about what you can do in your specific situation.

Cheers,
Felix