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Overcoming hustle culture and achieving work-life balance in startups

September 16, 2022 - 19 min read

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The challenges of working in a startup

The chaotic thrill ride of startup companies

How leaders can improve their team’s QWL

Protecting your personal Quality of Work-Life

QWL tips for leaders

QWL tips for employees

What people will do for a good QWL

Setting the right priorities

It’s hard to know exactly when “hustle culture” became part of the mainstream, but it’s hardly a new phenomenon. Hard work is a cornerstone of American life, and the art of the hustle is merely its latest iteration.

Everyone from Silicon Valley CEOs to famous rappers wants to brag about their hard work. And a strong work ethic, grit, and resilience are valuable traits. But in the world of startups, a healthy work ethic often morphs into an unhealthy infatuation with burnout, overwork, and chronic stress.

You know how hard it is not to be a workaholic if you're running an early-stage startup. Hustling hardly feels like a choice when your responsibilities range from acquiring seed funding to finding the best employees. Until the business officially takes off, you usually work long hours with a skeleton crew — the bare minimum of workers necessary for day-to-day operations. 

It’s a similar story if you’re an employee. As the company grows, you’ll find yourself working long days with people you didn’t expect. You might even be unsure if you’ve properly set up the direct deposit for your paychecks. 

It’s certainly a thrill ride. But the rush can make a healthy work-life balance in startups feel impossible to achieve.

But prioritizing mental health isn’t only possible: it’s necessary for success. It’ll simultaneously make you more effective at your job and give your company a competitive edge.

The challenges of working in a startup

“Hustle culture” can lead to burnout and high employee turnover, which only hurts a business’ bottom line. Let’s start with some facts and figures:

The main point is this: starting a company is hard work. That’s why “hustling” feels so important. 

Entrepreneurs work day and night, seven days per week, trying to beat the odds. And those work demands trickle down to startup employees, asking them to do much more than their original job description.

This isn’t always a bad thing. The challenge is what makes startups exciting. Every decision feels significant, pushing the company toward new levels of growth and success.

But that doesn’t change the fact that 5% of startups fail because the founders suffer from burnout. And, if employees quit because they’re overworked, it can cost the company millions.

Every little advantage helps. So if you and your company make mental health a priority,, you’ll have a leg up on your competitors.

And if you don’t believe us, here are strong Quality Work-Life (QWL) company examples:

These companies are among the strongest in their respective sectors — and they’re doing it while valuing mental health.

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The chaotic thrill ride of startup companies

The challenge with rapidly-growing companies is that the rules are constantly changing. New people join the team, roles and responsibilities shift, and HR policies lag. Decision-making happens quickly and between a few team members.

Let’s say they hired you three months ago to write some code, and now you’re a department head responsible for a small group of software developers. It’s enough to give you whiplash. But it’s possible to find reprieve amidst the chaos. It just takes a bit of effort.

How leaders can improve their team’s QWL

Everyone has a role to play in fostering a safe and positive work culture. If you’re a company leader, here’s how you can empower your team to take care of themselves.

1. Remind your team to rest

Some overtime time is unavoidable. Your team has deadlines, and sometimes they’re impossible to meet within an eight-hour workday. But if someone’s consistently putting in long work hours, send them home once in a while. They need to recharge to be at their best when needed.

This also means you can’t contact them during off-work hours. Avoid sending them emails or Slack messages during their time off. Otherwise, they may feel pressured to keep working and never fully rest. Schedule your messages for the next day. Then you don’t forget, and they’re not interrupted.

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2. Frequently check in with your staff and colleagues

Keep an open line of communication with your team. This will help you stay ahead of potential issues, like burnout or worker discontentment. They can also let you know whether they need extra support to perform at their best.

3. Jump in when your team needs help

You have your own deadlines to worry about. But if someone else is struggling and their deadline is around the corner, lend a hand.

Because the company is so small, teamwork goes a long way toward success. This helps everyone finish quickly, build team morale, and share the burden of stress.

4. Give everyone a voice

You hired your people for a reason. Listen to them when they say a deadline isn’t feasible. Allow them to suggest changes to make processes more efficient or improve work-life balance.

They’re most affected by your timelines and policies. If they’re any good at their jobs, their advice is invaluable.

5. Encourage a healthy virtual culture

If your team is mostly remote, getting your virtual culture right is important. Here are some things you can do:

  • Define what “remote” actually means. Should people be at their desks during certain hours? Are they expected to be on call? Which meetings are mandatory and which are optional? Setting clear expectations will help everyone plan their life accordingly.
  • Create a tracking system for people’s availability. Try making a shared calendar specifically for scheduled time off. This will help everyone maintain healthy boundaries because they’re clear on who is working and when.
  • Use the right virtual tools. An email is a great tool for communication, but it has its limits. Software like Slack or Microsoft Teams can help your team communicate their boundaries through “online,” “offline,” or “busy” statuses.

Protecting your personal Quality of Work-Life

QWL refers to your company's comfort, quality of life, and work-life balance. A good QWL will help you and your team perform at their best.

Whether you’re an employee or a startup founder, work in an office or remotely, here’s how you can protect your personal QWL amidst the chaos. These tips apply to employees, company founders, and everyone in between.

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1. Find your work-life balance

What does work-life balance mean to you? Everyone will have different answers. But once you have a vision for your ideal balance, you can set your work boundaries accordingly.

2. Set a clear cut-off time

It’s tempting to plow through a 16-hour workday without a second thought, but this is a recipe for disaster. Even if you don’t stop at 5 p.m., give yourself several hours before bed to unwind. Stopping at 7 p.m. will give you time to eat, relax, and prepare for a restful night to feel fresh the next day.

3. Make the best of your day off

Whether you’re a co-founder or an employee, take full advantage of any time off. Make time for things that relax or inspire you — as long as they don’t involve work. Resetting once in a while will help you feel rested and keep a positive mindset.

4. Sharpen your time management skills

Plan your time deliberately with clear daily, weekly, and monthly goals. Use the Pomodoro Technique to use your time efficiently. Be mindful of your energy levels and rest when you need it to prevent burnout and low productivity or concentration.

5. Create a routine to pull you out of “work mode”

This is especially important if you work from home. When you sign off for the day, find a way to transition into leisure mode. Go for a walk, take a shower, or listen to a podcast. Do whatever you need to make the mental switch.

6. Have a designated work area

A designated work area can help you create mental boundaries between work and home life when working remotely.

If you have an extra room, turn it into a home office. Otherwise, devote a corner of a room for work or set up a space that you can easily convert when you need.

There’s nothing quite like working at a startup. If you’re struggling to find the right balance, try working with BetterUp. Our coaches know the deal and can help you set clear boundaries to protect your well-being and perform at your best.

QWL tips for leaders

As a company leader, it’s noble that you put your employees first. But it’s important not to sacrifice your own well-being in the process. You need to lead by example, showing your employees that it’s okay to manage their mental health.

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Rest will also protect your entrepreneurial spirit and prepare you for any challenge. Here’s what you can do:

  • Delegate tasks you can’t do yourself. Outsourcing things on your to-do list will help lighten your load. Make sure to give clear deadlines and expectations to the people tasked with your work.
  • Create a daily self-care practice. De-stressing activities like exercise and meditation can easily fit into your daily schedule. Just 15 minutes is enough to help you feel more relaxed and energized.
  • Connect with others. It helps to have a social life outside of work. Whether it’s your family or friends, make time for the people who care about and support you.

QWL tips for employees

If you’re an employee, you have a role to play. Take ownership of your mental health to remain a valuable asset to your team.

Here are some tips to consider:

  • Tell your boss about overtime. Make sure your boss is aware when you’re going above and beyond. This will 1) make you look good because you’re stepping up for the team and 2) help them understand when you finally need a break.
  • Drop the negative self-talk. In the high-pressure work environment of startups, it’s easy to feel like you’re not doing well enough. You’re good at what you do, so own it.
  • Stick to your boundaries. Unless you’re on-call for emergencies, turn your phone off and avoid checking emails. This will help you truly disconnect when you’re away. It will also teach others to respect your boundaries.
  • Remember your career goals. Your boss hired you to do a job, but you said yes for a reason. Revisit your personal goals, vision statement, and life purpose. When you’re feeling tired, this will remind you why you love your job and how it fits into your life plan.

What people will do for a good QWL

Here’s the thing about work-life balance and salary: workers are willing to give up $10,000 per year to have clear boundaries between professional and personal life.

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This is a testament to the stress levels of the modern workforce. In fact, 44% of millennials say they’re stressed all or most of the time, according to a 2020 Deloitte survey.

It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that companies that offer a good work-life balance have higher employee retention rates. And their employees tend to perform better than if they are stressed out, which gives companies a competitive edge.

Setting the right priorities

It’s difficult to create a work-life balance in startups, but not impossible. It requires strong decision-making and earnest effort. Otherwise, you risk burning everyone out — including yourself. And that’s a recipe for failure.

BetterUp understands the challenges facing high-performing individuals. Whether you’re starting your own company or a tech startup’s fresh new talent, our coaches will help you be at your best.

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Published September 16, 2022

Elizabeth Perry

Content Marketing Manager, ACC

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