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Take a Break: A startup guide to avoiding burnout

“You know the saying, startups aren’t a sprint. They are not a marathon either. They are marathons, punctuated by sprints.”

-Danielle Fong

Over the past year, I have watched TINT grow from four employees to twenty-two and its been a lot of hard work, long nights, and frustration (also tons of fun, fulfillment and gratification) to get to this point. As an early engineer, I have been guilty of trying to brute force my way through tasks by just spending more hours on them. And after a year, I am nearing burnout.

This past year, I took about six real days off work and worked a part of almost every weekend. Even on my days off, I was always working or always near my computer to respond to work related things. I never got a real break to let my brain decompress from the cognitive overload of being part of a fast paced team.

Then, in early 2015, I took six consecutive days off of work and it was amazing. I got off the work grid (minus one tiny work emergency) and it felt great to not have any responsibility for a while. When I did get back to work, I felt refreshed and ready to tackle the next set of challenges. Wouldn’t it be great if I could feel this energized and excited about work all the time? That got me thinking: why not?

 The Burnout Problem

I often like to imagine myself capable of anything if I just work a little bit harder or invest a little bit more time. Unfortunately a little bit harder and a little bit more time can turn into 60, 70, or 80 hour work weeks. And while the one-off hell week might increase short term productivity, it hits diminishing returns right away. Those that try to extend these short term gains past a couple weeks will quickly learn that their brains cannot handle the overload, and they start to feel sluggish, stressed and depressed. This is burnout — and its very real in our constantly connected world.

Suppose 8 working hours gets the company 8x productivity. The common thought is that 9 hours gets 9x productivity and 15 hours will get you 15x productivity and so on and so forth. Unfortunately, this isn’t really how humans work, is it?

We shouldn’t think of work as an endless time sink where we can always reliably dump more hours to get the job done. One extra hour in front of the laptop will not get you one extra hour of productivity. In fact, it’s likely to give you a net negative in productivity because the employee is that much more stressed.

Instead, it would more prudent to focus on being effective with the time we do have allotted for work.  Learn to say no – it is a sign of strength to give yourself a break when you need it. Life is too short – so as I head into my second year at TINT, I am trying to change how I approach productivity, so that I can work to live, not live to work.

How do you Work to Live?

Everyone deserves a break (cofounders too!) and should feel empowered to take one. A break can be any period of time, from one day to a few weeks, and everyone should experiment with different time intervals. The goals is to recharge your brain from the endless hours of work and put yourself in an environment that is known to be relaxing and refreshing.

Take a Break: Avoid Burnout

For some people this is taking a vacation and exploring new cities across the world. For others it’s exploring their own city on a weekday. When was the last time you went to your local city park on a Wednesday and just explored it? You will quickly discover a whole different city than what you are used to on the weekend.  For some people its just sitting at home and watching TV, playing sports all day, or shopping. Whatever makes you feel happy and at ease — that is what you should be doing.  The idea is to get out of your work routine and disassociate your mind from work. There are a few simple things you can follow to maximize your break :

  • Get off the work grid — Stay away from emails and turn off slack. Don’t think about work while you are enjoying your break. However, you should make sure you are reachable for work emergencies (and they better be real emergencies).
  • Have a work buddy — Sometimes being out of the office for even one day can cause you to fall behind all the dynamics and happenings, especially at fast moving startups. Coordinate with a work buddy who will fill you in with these vital events when you return.
  • Schedule reasonably — Make sure you work with your team to make sure your break is accounted for and there is enough forewarning for the team to accommodate your request. Don’t expect to take a three month break. Don’t expect to take every other day off. Be reasonable and responsible, but do take your well-deserved break!
  • Don’t use weekends as a substitute — Weekends are weekends.If you take a Wednesday off, do not feel pressured to work on a Saturday to make up for it. If your schedule permits, take the Wednesday off. The choice to work on Saturday is up to you, but there is no need to glamorize it and make others feel guilty.

Remember we are all adults and are more than capable of sorting out own schedules. If you know you have a big impending project, make sure you get it done. Don’t let breaks or vacations be an excuse.

The Responsibility of the Company

A lot of what lets employees enjoy their break fall on their shoulders, but much of it also falls on the responsibility of the company. This begins with setting a tone in the office, where taking a break is respected and encouraged.

Set up a real, fair and attainable vacation policy. Don’t offer huge amounts of PTO with the knowledge that you will never let anyone take them. While having an “unlimited vacation policy” sounds amazing, the lack of structure tends to make employees err on the side of guilt for taking a few days off here and there.

In 2014, TINT boasted an unlimited vacation policy – get your work done and take off as much time as you want. Sounds great, right? But many TINT employees took less than a handful of days off in 2014.  We realized that in order to make an “unlimited” policy work, companies must help employees feel empowered to take days off. For 2015, we have started to use the phrase, ‘recommended days off per year’. We have tentatively set this at twenty days for 2015 — we want everyone at TINT to take at least that many days off from work, if not more.

The important lesson here is that employees need breaks to sustain a high level of productivity.

Don’t Vacation-Shame

Ensure that break shaming or guilt tripping does not happen. Avoid ever saying the phrase “this terrible thing happened because so and so was on vacation” or “you missed out on all this because you were gone.” Companies need to foster a culture where its okay to be out of the office and encourage their employees to do so.

Nobody’s job function should be so critical that the business cannot operate if that person was OOO for a week. If that’s not the case, then some employees are doing too much and responsibilities should be spread out amongst the team. Do you have a teammate that never takes a day off? Do you think the company could function without her or him? If you said, “no,” then it’s time to make that person take a vacation. Find the holes in your company knowledge- no one person should hold critical information or processes in their head.

TL;DR – It’s important to take breaks before you even feel stressed or burned out. Foster an environment that encourages workers to take time off, and don’t glamorize burning the midnight oil. It will increase productivity, not harm it, in the long run.