Saying the phrase “startup culture” conjures up a wide variety of associations – usually some combination of long hours, nap pods, and foosball tables – but the reality isn’t so simple. While workers, especially the millennials who dominate today’s startups, demonstrate an obsessive commitment to work, they’re also suffering from extreme stress. This is leading to burnout and mental health issues, as well as physical ailments.
So what does it mean that startups and hustle culture are hurting employees? It’s a complicated issue and one that demands companies look at employee needs holistically. This is as important for your employees’ health as it is for the health of your company.
Assessing Employee Risk
In order to understand your employee’s needs, it may help to change how you think about your business. As The Wall Street Journal phrased it earlier this year in an article on overstressed workers, the underacknowledged reality of running a company is that “Every employer is in the health care business.” Between health insurance, workers’ compensation, and other forms of coverage, businesses invest enormously in their employees’ health. And when employees are overworked or injured, businesses suffer equally sizeable losses from lack of productivity, hiring, and lawsuits.
One step towards meeting your employees’ needs is to assess which workers are at an especially high risk of burnout or injury. In a recent study of job transitions, the workplace information firm Glassdoor identified key signs an employee is likely to quit. And while there are many factors at play, workplace culture and routine opportunities for advancement are central issues. If your business is helping employees grow in a healthy way and has a supportive culture, then it will inspire loyalty. But if you’re pushing workers to the edge without also helping them climb the ladder, they’ll be out the door.
So what can your business do to encourage wellness while maintaining performance standards? It all starts with ensuring that your employees know how to advocate for themselves and that you will support them. Connect them with resources regarding how to file a workers’ compensation claim and explain how your company will support them if they need to do so. Ensure that your employees have access to health insurance that covers mental and physical health issues, and create a culture that supports workers who need to take time off for health-related reasons.
In addition to supporting workers by providing workers with sufficient insurance coverage to meet their needs, it’s important that your workplace encourages work-life harmony. Many startups believe they do this – that by creating a “fun” workplace and offering remote work opportunities they’re already doing everything they can for their workers. This isn’t the truth of the situation, though.
Work-life balance is much more complex and often requires startups to think hard about expectations and workplace structure. Do you expect employees to answer their emails at all hours? Do you have policies that make it easy for workers to access childcare or take time off when their children are sick? Most importantly, what are your supervisory structures like? There’s a growing recognition that many workplaces don’t offer “psychological safety” – a sense that one can speak out without risk of punishment, and that this single factor is one of the most vital aspects when it comes to ensuring employee mental health.
Burnout is a growing crisis in the tech industry, but it reaches into every corner of the startup world. Add in the expanding gig economy, which offers none of the traditional supports of the workplace, and workers are in a precarious position. If we wear down millennial workers, and the Gen Z employees coming up behind them, our entire economy will be at risk.
From startups to major corporations, putting workers’ needs first is necessary to our long-term economic health and prosperity.