Elizabeth O’Neill: Facing Up to Burnout

Facing up to Founder and Team Burnout

“I lost motivation. I just didn’t care. I cared deeply, but I had nothing left. I couldn’t get up in the morning. I felt very sensitive and emotional.”

Joel Gascoigne, Buffer


Burnout can be very different for different people. You might be sensitive and emotional, or drained of emotion. It may make you hyper-vigilant or leave you being slow to notice the important things. You might feel like Sisyphus, endlessly rolling a rock uphill.

Burnout can affect you in many ways as a founder and the solution is almost never as simple as having a nice long vacation. Burnout is bad for productivity and for morale. Burnout is contagious. Founder burnout has many different causes. Typically, burnout relates to the protracted intensity of work (standard in startups) coupled with either: misalignment with your personal internal values; being stretched for too long beyond your emotional comfort zone; or an external block.

In this interactive BoS talk, Elizabeth discusses how founders can identify what’s at the root of their burnout and then take the right steps for them to move past it. The reason that understanding the root cause of your burnout is important is because the solution to burnout is different for each person. It is usually related to an internal versus external block. Elizabeth will help you understand the context of your burnout and take the steps you need to address it successfully.

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Elizabeth O’Neill: Facing Up to Burnout

Mark Littlewood: I’m going to introduce Elizabeth O’Neil, who was introduced to BoS by Natalie Nagele. She has been to our conference in the US and a number of the online ones as well as leading are really interesting breakout last year focused on founder burnout. I’m not going to say much because whenever I introduce speakers, I say something and it kind of spoils their thunder.

So please put your virtual hands together and welcome Elizabeth, a symphony in blue! That’s coordinated. I think interior designers across the world will be applauding.

Elizabeth O’Neill: I do you have to say that when I designed my office, I intentionally did it in this color of blue that just reminded me of the sky, because it felt like it would give me like, positive energy. And that actually reflects a little bit of how I think about the world. And you’re gonna hear that more today. So let me just pull up my, my slideshow. It’s so nice to be back here today.

Just give me one sec to share my screen and get this into slideshow mode here. All right. How are we doing?

Mark Littlewood: We’re doing good. We can see slides. So double win. All right, awesome. So thank you again.

Elizabeth O’Neill: It’s awesome to be back at BoS and talking about a topic that’s really, I think important and has affected so many of us. Already in the chat, I saw a lot of thumbs go up about people who have experienced this pretty recently, right? That place where you just feel completely physically and mentally depleted, like you have nothing left to give. It’s something that I have personally felt, and every founder I’ve coached has been in the place of burnout at some point. It’s really just so prevalent in the startup startup journey.

A personal experience of burnout.

And you know, for me personally, I was sharing with Mark that when I agreed to do this talk, I thought that I needed to take a little bit of time to reflect on my own experience and burnout many years ago. It’s something that I had sort of like moved past kept going, and didn’t really look back up until about a month ago when I started to think about this topic again.

All I could do was cope and survive. So that summer, I really succumbed to burnout. For me, that was my personal experience. That felt pretty soul sucking, combined with not having any time and just sort of like that exhaustion of life. And then on top of it a really big family issue brought me to that place. And this is a very human experience, I think that we’re probably all going to experience this at some point in our lives, for founders, and for people who are in the startup space, I would argue that this is going to probably happen to every founder at some point, because it’s just part of the nature of the way that the work is the pace of it, the intensity of it, the variability, the unexpectedness, all of that weighs into the experience.

For me, on a scale of energy, I had probably been hovering just above burnout for a pretty long period of time when I fell into it. So this was sort of like that’s the summer when I kind of bottomed out. But you’ll also notice that it took me a while to get out of burnout, because I first had to address the underlying issues that had brought me to that place to begin with.

That was my personal experience. But for founders, it can look a little bit different.

The founder experience of burnout.

Alex Turnbull is the founder of Groove. He is someone who I’ve been working with for quite a while. He posted his personal story about burnout a few years ago, the time when he was sort of in his darkest place as a founder. And he’s allowed me to share his story with you today.

So at the time, you know, his team was in shambles, his product had really kind of gone off the rails. Growth had flatlined, he had two small kids, he had no money, no time and really, like no more enthusiasm for running his business. So shit got really dark. And that’s often what happens. So we sort of succumb to burnout, this place of hopelessness, despair, this feeling of is this all there is. Or sometimes we try to fight through it, which can help us in the short term, but doesn’t really help us address what caused it in the first place.

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What does burnout feel like?

So let’s just quickly start off. You know, this is what the American Psychological Association tells us burnout is seems pretty onpoint Right? Um, I saw that, you know, a bunch of you had raised your hands about what burnout feels like.

Just for a quick moment in the chat, if you can, I want everyone, to just take pause and take a second. Bring yourself back to that place of when you’ve personally been in burnout. And I want you to write just the first word or phrase that comes to mind about that for you. Let’s just take a minute and throw it in the chat…

Tired, low, motivation, survival, literally overloaded, overwhelmed, apathy, fear.

Absolutely. For sure. All of these things are really reflective of that burnout experience.

And, you know, I’m tired but I need to be able to sleep. Yeah, that’s also a big one. So that just that feeling of insomnia short attention span, yes. Anxiety. Absolutely. Constant battle. Yep. Right. Feels like we’re just, it’s never ending, right. Hopeless like feeling like there’s no way out.

Oh, absolutely.

And so yeah, so this is a great list, and you probably gonna see some of these on this, what I call the world’s most depressing word cloud. Like I look at this, and it’s just like, oh, but it’s exactly what you’ve reflected here. Right? These are the words that often come up in the literature about burnout.

Thank you for that for lifting that up. Mark. We need some levity, right? Because this isn’t easy, right? These are really hard feelings.

The effects of burnout

And, you know, on that note, it’s a place that more than one founder has told me like this is the point, when, for the first time ever, they seriously think about selling their company.

And that makes total sense. Like it is, it’s hard, it’s hard when you can’t see your way out at hearts when it’s hard when it feels like a constant battle. And so beyond the fact that it really sucks to feel this way, why should we be concerned about burnout? Well, there’s first like, the personal implications to you, your personal productivity, your energy, it feeling ineffective, occasionally being ineffective, it’s definitely when your style under stress comes out. That can affect your relationships, both inside your company, and then outside your company. Because you know, burnout doesn’t have any boundaries, right. And then there are the business reasons. So if you’re physically or mentally unavailable to your team, then naturally that’s going to affect the pace of decisions being made, it’s going to affect things moving forward as quickly as they can.

So I’m gonna start with some of the more obvious ones, the ones that you probably kind of go to when, when you’re, when you’re working through it on a day to day basis. So long term intensity of the work, pervasive in most startups and in many careers, right. So just this sense of like, it never ends.

I was talking with somebody recently who was describing their week and how crazy it was. And so I said, well, on a scale of crazy if 10 is like, the craziest. Where are you at right now? And he said, Well, I’m at a seven. But for the last two months, I’ve been out of nine, right? Like that’s, that’s pretty, you know, standard for what it can feel like when you’re running a startup.

Not enough resources, this is always a big one. You know, if you could only have that extra developer or the extra funds, or maybe a little bit more time to get that launch ready. You know, it would make things so much better.

This can definitely drag you down. When you don’t feel like you have the resources. In my experience, I think it can also serve as like an accelerant to maybe a deeper reason, like a deeper reason for your burnout. If you don’t feel like you have these things, it adds fuel to that fire.

Other life stressors, you know, births, deaths, illnesses, wars, international conflicts, pandemics, you know, all of these things take up our mindshare and our emotional capacity for good reason. And it can really weigh us down – being stretched for too long beyond your comfort zone. So you know, this is very common in fast with fast growth growth startups or with founders who are transitioning to see do so when you’re in a place for a long

Not having enough high energy moments, so whether it’s in your business or outside of your business, if you don’t have enough opportunity to bring like genuine fulfillment, and add genuine joy back into your life, and put some positivity back on your balance sheet, if you will, then that can be very challenging.

I mentioned the CEO who loves to be in the product, but now never has any time to do that. So you know, the reason why they started their company in the first place, they’re not even really able to find experience the joy of that anymore, because they’re now off, you know, doing all these other things that are now part of their responsibilities that, that they didn’t start their company to do in the first place.

Alex from Groove would tell you that every single one of these was checked off for him, and just sort of accumulated and culminated in this situation that just felt really intense and hard to get out of.

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The importance of your values and burnout

So I want to take a moment and talk a little bit more about this last one around values, because it’s not one that we often associate with burnout. But like I said, in my experience, it’s probably one of the deepest reasons. And so what are values? Well, our values are simply the rules that guide how we personally move through our lives. It’s the meaning that we personally attach to our most essential beliefs. And so hopefully, you’ll notice this is like a happier word cloud, a nicer word, cloud. These are all examples of values. There’s like, loads and loads more, right? But, um, what’s important, and I can like, I can look at this list, you can look at this list and say, Yeah, you know, all of these things like, these are good things to have in life. I like to have all these things in my life.

But the most important piece is what is key for you? What is at the top of your list? What are the things that are absolutely non negotiable in your life, and that if you didn’t have them as part of your life, that would feel it would feel disconnected? Let’s take radical candor. So I might value radical candor, but it’s not an essential value for me.

But for the person who does have radical candor as a key value, if they are feeling like someone that you’re working with is being evasive or more or less transparent, then it’s going to make sense that they are going to be really dissatisfied with that working relationship. And it may even affect that person’s satisfaction with their job in general. Like it’s, it goes that deep. So that’s, that’s the type of thing that happens when there’s a misalignment. You know, in your values. It’s when what we’re experiencing is in some way, not in line with those things. And then that can cause like that sense of deep disconnection.

And that’s a place where you know, a vacation can’t help fix it, right. It’s like the leader and I’m gonna go back to the breakout earlier today when we were talking about those difficult conversations, if you’re a leader who values harmony, like who operates and needs to have that harmony in your life, it’s going to be very challenging and difficult to have those difficult conversations to have to fire someone to manage disagreement on your team, right? That’s like a, that’s sort of like a values conflict, if you will, it’s not always something that you can necessarily do something about. But the first step is to sort of become aware of it and acknowledge it.

Or Alex from Groove who thrives on achievement. achievement is very important to him. And so when he’s waiting around for his product to get fixed, and it’s like, taking forever, and it’s feeling like a waiting game, that again, is a disconnection with that desire to to achieve and feel like you’re seeing results.

Breakout – your personal experiences of burnout

So we’re going to take a pause here, and we’re going to do a breakout, because part of the magic of BoS is being able to learn from each other, and share with each other with your own experiences.

What I want you to do is go back to those common causes that we were just talking about, in your mind. And I want you to try to relate those things, to either the personal experience that you’ve had with burnout, or maybe someone close to you has had. And so how is that related? And what’s come up in with those examples? And then if you have time, maybe share what’s like a value for you. That’s a non negotiable.

And so Kirk, I think what we’re gonna do is we’re gonna break everyone out until like, maybe groups of three. And we’ll come back. Let’s see how we’re doing with time. Maybe 10 minutes or so. 10 minutes.

Kirk Baillie: No problem. I will.

Elizabeth O’Neill: Before we do it, does anyone have any questions?

Kirk Baillie: No. Last chance for anyone. Awesome. I will send you all to rooms. Now…

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10 Minutes later…

Mark Littlewood: That was very interesting.

Elizabeth O’Neill: How was that?

Tim Burgess: A little like speed dating, I quickly become vulnerable with people you don’t know.

Elizabeth O’Neill: It’s, you know, we don’t often get the opportunity to share a story like that. Right, Joe? So, yeah, it’s when you have when you have the opportunity. It feels good to be able to take that.

Joe Leech: Are you familiar with the concept of a vulnerability hangover is you may you may see, it’s this idea when you the next day you wake up you think I overshare that I feel like, you know, it’s like it’s this concept of when these two sort of things you share and you have that that hangover effect of it being too much for you. It’s generally a good sign, by the way that you’ve had one of those – really interesting.

Mark Littlewood: It’s without blowing our own trumpet. It’s because it’s actually about the people that come and we consciously create a degree of space and an environment where people can feel able to do those sorts of things. But it’s remarkable how many people spill the beans on all sorts of things to BoS, not just online, but in person events as well. It’s fascinating. Elizabeth, I should shut up.

Elizabeth O’Neill: Good. Well, I’m glad to hear that you had that chance, right. And hopefully you were able to relate it a little bit to some of the things that we talked about. And so it’s nice to be able to feel like you’re in good company. That and it sounds like many of you did. It’s also maybe a little solace, you know when you’re in it.

Dealing with your burnout

So let’s now talk about how you can move forward. And maybe even think about how do we move forward? Or maybe? How do we prevent it from getting to that point. Or maybe sometimes we can even minimize the amount of time that we’re in burnout.

No quick fixes

What I will caution you is that these are not quick fixes. So I’m not going to be sharing like the five steps to cure your burnout overnight. These things are intended to be practiced. And they’re really meant for your long game, like your long game in life, as well as in leading your company.

Reframing mindset

And so the first one is reframing your mindset. Very often, when we are at that place, where we’re just operating on fumes, we feel like there’s no way out, it’s we’re too exhausted, to really even see a way out, we might feel out of control of the situation that we’re in, we might feel stuck. And all of that comes with the territory. It’s just that’s that’s the nature of burnout in a nutshell. And yet, that mindset also gives us very few options and really no way forward. And so if we can reframe our mindset, and remind ourselves that we choose what we do next, as impossible as it might seem to do in that moment. When we can do that, then possibilities and solutions become available to us. And from there, we can figure a way out.

For me personally, that meant finally admitting that the even though we were financially very dependent on my executive career, and the thought of walking away from that was totally petrifying that every day that I spent feeling unfulfilled and feeling unsatisfied, and that it was really a choice that I was making. And so when I when I finally owned up to that, and by the way, that that chart that you saw earlier on where I like my burnout was like this long, that was me doing battle, you know, with that with that mindset, right. And when I finally owned up to it, I was able to find the creative energy to design sort of like the solutions and more of the life that I wanted to create for myself. So that’s, that’s what happens when we’re able to shift our mind. And when we get into this place of I control what I do next, that starts to lift your energy and make more possible.

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Be mindful of your situation and feelings

So the next one is also not an easy one but it can definitely change your life with practice. So this idea that when you become when you can become aware of what’s really happening, what’s really contributing to your burnout, then you can start to see what you can shift, you know, and sometimes these things are not easy, some some things within that whole list of you know, burnout causes, maybe you can’t change them, it’s not like you can get money if you don’t have money at times, right? But within all of these things, what are some things that you can start to shift, where you can start to find a way out of the situation. So this all sounds pretty basic, right. And many of us studies show actually, most of us, or rather, the people who were being studied, most of them believed that they were self aware. And yet, only 10 to 15% of people actually meet the criteria for self awareness. So there’s a big opportunity here to become more aware, and then see what that’s telling us about our situation.

I want to share a framework to help you tap into your full awareness. And so you can evaluate things like burnout, and then other other things in your life. So our logic or emotion or intuition, these are all ways that we pull in important information into our lives. They’re key sources of information to help us process what’s happening. So logic, you know, I’m sure you’re very familiar with it. It’s where we use analysis judgment. It’s really sort Have like our conscious mind our conscious thinking. And then there’s an emotion. So the physical sensations, the mental sensations, it’s that’s telling us how we feel about something. And then there’s intuition. So like, that’s the sense that we might have about something, it feels a little bit more instinctual. It’s, it’s more unconscious, it’s kind of like that deeper knowing. And so when we’re processing something most of us tend to rely on maybe like one or two of these sources of our intelligence. I, for one, had ignored my intuition for years. It wasn’t really until I was able to just sort of listen to that intuition saying like, this is, you know, something fundamental in your life is not working. You know, that was an important clue that I had been ignoring. But if we can use all three, it helps us to better understand what’s going on.

I’m super curious if we could do a quick poll. In the in the poll, select which of these between logic, emotion and intuition which of these is your most dominant? Like, what’s the one that you go to first, when you are processing through, like a situation? Let’s see what comes up…

All right. If you can show us the results, correct. That would be cool. You’re okay, so it’s really neat to see who like how we use this.

56% use logic, that doesn’t often surprise me, because I’m in business. Many people tend to just be using their logic a lot, right to problem solve through situations. So logic, emotion and intuition. So if you lead with logic, if you’re one of the 56%, that leads with logic, then the way that you can use this is first, so like, if you lead with logic, then check out how you feel about the situation. Watch for physical sensations, like those are important clues for you. And then check for whatever else comes up, around around the topic. And then that way, you can kind of use all three of those to, to get to the right answer. I’m just looking at your question Mark. “So does that mean 56% of people think they use logic?” Yes, good point!

Mark Littlewood: Everyone’s logical right.? But then minds are maleable…!

Elizabeth O’Neill: Yeah. And so if you react first with emotion, then use your logic and intuition to figure out what the emotion means. And then what to do about it. This will also help you to act intentionally, as opposed to being reactive. And then lastly, if you start with an intuitive thought, like a thought that just comes out of nowhere, then use your emotion to test whether it’s accurate. And then use your logic to analyze it. So this is sort of how you can use all three of these together to be able to more fully understand, in the case of burnout, what’s your burnout, trying to tell you about your situation? So I want to leave you just with one final idea to take back with you today. Because for me, it brings a lot of hope. Especially when you’re in that place of just feeling like you’ve got nothing left to give, but it feels like there’s no way out. And we’re it goes back to this idea of awareness.

Awareness is like the sun. When it shines on things, they’re transformed. So there’s a lot of hope and knowing that when we can just start to observe and be more open to what the situation is telling us. Then we can move forward in a way that helps us start to create more of what we want In life. So, a pause here. I think we have a couple minutes. Mark, do we want to do? Questions?

Mark Littlewood: Yes, please. Yes, please. Thank you. Thank you very much. Questions.

So we had, I had a really interesting conversation. I don’t can’t say who it was with, but it was in the breakout. And it was someone who had experienced burnout quite early on, in, in their life. And they seem to have used that experience, really cleverly, and have become much more aware of when you’re experiencing very experienced burnout. That doesn’t feel like it’s very common. And as a father of teenage people, I’m constantly amazed at how smart and self aware and bright the younger generation is, I think they seem to sort of understand much more about how their minds work and whatever than I did at that age. Can you? Can you use this? Can you use this, this, those experiences and and become more aware earlier? What’s the what’s the best way to think about that approach? approach that?

Elizabeth O’Neill: Let me make sure I understand your question. So is the question that, you know, by us having these experiences, does it help us to become more aware, like the next time around? Is that? Is that what you were asking more?

Mark Littlewood: Yeah, kind of? Yes. Yes. Let’s say, Yeah, I’d say that. That is? That’s the question. Yeah. Or if it is, more, particularly if it is, are there things that you can put up front of mind that really helped to remind you, if that makes?

Elizabeth O’Neill: Yeah, absolutely. Like, if we have the chance to kind of reflect on and actually, well, while you’re all in your breakout, Jo and I were chatting a little bit about our own personal experiences with that, and there’s so much to be learned, you know, when we are in that place, it’s sometimes easy. I was mentioning that for me, like, I just wanted to kind of close the door on that and keep on moving and keep on moving forward. But the truth is that there’s a lot of really important data, you know, in that experience, you know, what does it tell you about the things that you can tolerate and what you can’t tolerate? What does it tell you about how you coped with it? And how you might want to approach that differently next time so that you can you can minimize the severity of how that felt.

Mark Littlewood: What do you do when you see other people around you who are not expecting a diagnostic? How do you address those things? Because again, human beings can be very sensitive and I read a lot of these a lot of books about psychology and things if you say to someone and you’re genuinely concerned, interested, worry about and you say, Oh, you look tired, people would take that as a direct assault. It kind of goes right into the chimp brain. Are there any thoughts on broaching this with people exploring it?

Elizabeth O’Neill: Yeah, I think it it starts with doing your best to know who you’re talking with, right? And what and what does what might trigger them in that moment, like, you know, one person might feel very validated and acknowledged by being seen as being tired, someone else might feel very judged. So So knowing who it is that you’re having the conversation with and what they’re, like prone to react to and how they might react to that. I think that’s the first place to start. Interesting Mark

Mark Littlewood: Sorry, Mark Stephens, did you look like you were,

Mark Stephens: I was wondering whether you felt that different types of people would experience different types of burnout? Because we were discussing the difference between the founder wants to control life, and the employee who’s more like, thrown by lack of direction maybe? Or do you just think we all just create our own hell for ourselves, regardless of our roles?

Elizabeth O’Neill: Oh, that’s a great question Mark. Does burnout differentiate based on your role, experience and the life and work experiences you are having? Ultimately your experience and contex is unique, we’re not going to experience things the exact same way. My experience is is very different for everyone so it is very difficult to predict how it will affect any individual based on what you perceive as the external forces.

Mark Littlewood: Do you have any other resources that you can share? I think this is one of those topics that lots of people have experience of, I think it’s also a difficult topic for people to talk about potentially, or where would you advise someone to go?

Elizabeth O’Neill: That’s a good question. Let me put some thought into that. And before our break out, I’ll, I’ll share that with you and you can share it with the team.

Mark Littlewood: Okay. Fabulous. Thank you.

Elizabeth O’Neill: And so thank you, everybody. If you have any questions or want to talk about this further, I will be in the breakout later today. You can also find me in some of these other places.

Mark Littlewood: Fabulous. Elizabeth, thanks so much. Really interesting and look forward to the resources and also picking that conversation up in the breakout later on.

Elizabeth O'Neill
Elizabeth O’Neill

Elizabeth O’Neill

Elizabeth is an expert in helping founders and their teams get aligned and positioned for growth. As a People & Culture consultant and Executive Coach for early stage startups, she’s on a mission to make the startup experience feel more human.

With twenty years of experience working with leaders and teams, she’s found that the secret to creating a sustainable culture is having just the right amount of process, being unapologetic about your values, and knowing yourself and your people. She holds her BA in Psychology from the University of Chicago, a MSW from Columbia University, and is an iPEC-certified coach. You can follow her on her Medium at Founder Connect.

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