Startup Burnout: Founders, You Can Take a Vacation

Yes you're busy - and yes you play a lot of critical roles within your company, none of which benefit from you being burnt out. Startup founders, maybe more than anyone else on the planet, have a really good reason to truly unplug and give themselves some rest, so they can stay in the game for the long haul. Productivity expert Dr. Ken Yeager will drop some science on you and point out exactly how much bullshit is built in to your excuses as to why you are just way too important to take a vacation. Give it a rest (see what I did there?).

May 3rd, 2016   |    By: Jenna Birch    |    Tags: Emotional Support


Vacation. A concept that sounds nice in theory, but is a total bitch for startups to pull off. Or is it?

For a startup founder, the logistics are terrifying. Who’s going to meet with those investors? Who’s going to start that COO search you planned a month ago? Who’s going to run your next evaluation? (Heaven KNOWS Jim can’t do it.) That generously crafted vacation policy that you dangled as an incentive to your early employees doesn’t apply to you, right?

According to a report from Project: Time Off, created to cast a new light on our country’s view of vacation days, we leave an astounding $224 billion in unused vacation time on balance sheets each year. The workaholic tendencies are even worse for startup founders, who have no “vacation time” on the docket – and may suffer from a high rate of startup burnout.

If you take time off, you feel like your head will explode 400 miles away from the hustle and bustle of your company. The real problem is, we’re not taking vacations anymore. We’re taking preoccupied trips that feel more stressful than your standard workweek.

But let me be frank: not taking a startup vacation is completely fucking with your health and productivity, and absolutely will lead to startup burnout if you let it.

Lots of companies are beginning to realize that well-rested workers are productive, creative workers. Virgin Group and Netflix offer employees unlimited vacation days on an honor-system basis so everyone is getting the R&R they need.

Others, like Colorado-based software company Full Contact, offer thousands of dollars in incentives if employees only use their vacation days each year to unplug and unwind.

But I caaaaan’t, you’re whining. If you take a vacation, you are going to worry, you think. You are going to try to delegate the tasks you’d rather hoard until “things settle down” and you have a system of people in place who are equipped to handle daily operations.

Family Vacation at the Beach


I’m sure you have a whole line of excuses for remaining on the clock, so I asked productivity expert Dr. Ken Yeager, a psychologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and director of the Stress, Trauma and Resilience (STAR) Program to debunk all those myths.

“People with startups, it becomes an obsession,” he says. “There’s always another goal to reach. You become addicted to the business, and that’s what’s most important — how long you can delay gratification.”

#SorryNotSorry, but here they are.

“I’m not that tired.”

I know how this whole building-a-business thing works. I know what you mean when you explain to everyone in your life that you’re “not that tired.”

You’re running on four hours of sleep a night, but you never needed that much sleep anyway. You’re thinking about hooking a coffee IV to your arm, but the whole American populace exists on this drug.

It’s not just you! You’re F-I-N-E, you say, as you brush the tendrils of hair you haven’t combed in three days away from your sweating brow. Just fine.

Let Dr. Yeager lay a truth bomb on you:

“Just because you’re not tired doesn’t mean you’re not burned out.”

Startup burnout is a little more layered than you probably realize, and it’s affecting you when you refuse to take a break. “Creative energy is the first to go,” says Yeager.

When you have an abundance of creative energy, you have loads of balance. Everything is flowing. It’s when your kickass new idea takes just a half hour to outline, or you roll through your meeting with investors getting better and better as you go.

Pretty soon, though, that creative energy dries up. All of a sudden, you have to take another risk to move forward in your business.

“Long before the point of exhaustion comes the adrenaline,” Yeager says. “Then you’re functioning out of nervous energy, and anxiety becomes the form of energy that’s powering you.”  

So it wasn’t just the extra java powering your jittery, manic late nights! But it’s not all bad. To succeed, you have to take risks and there’s an itty-bitty dose of nervous energy built into all of those.

“That’s what growth is,” Yeager explains. “Looking at oneself and defining oneself, but learning to live just outside your comfort zone and build in risk.”

Yeager says you should constantly be fluctuating between periods of creative energy and risk-taking. Because the next type of energy is a toxic kind.

“Fear is a great motivator,” says Yeager, explaining that when we’re not seeing the successes we anticipated, we begin to have serious worries. “But fear of failure can turn into an obsession.”

Ah, yes. Now that we’re freaked out, we’re humming along again. However, you’re probably feeling a boatload of resistance. You’ve come a long way from creative energy now, and you’re hitting lots of roadblocks with fear-based energy. Your presentations suck. You haven’t figured out how to break through to new investors. Your employee search is not producing solid candidates. So, you get mad.

Meet your unwelcome little friend, Anger.

“Anger is outwardly directed,” says Yeager. “It’s aimed at those who are in your way. It is ‘their fault.’ Anger becomes a false sense of energy — and it’s not until the anger is completely gone are you totally burnt out.”

That’s right. As you build your business, your business is slowly unraveling you. Startup burnout is a sneaky little devil that you have to evade. By the time it washes over you in full, it may already be too late.

Do a gut check. “Ask yourself where your energy is coming from most of the time,” says Yeager. “Creative is balanced, risk is nervous, fear is obsessed, anger is outwardly directed.”

If you’re spending most of your time in fear- or anger-based energy, you’re burnt out, and you need a vacation. Run out of all your energy wells, and you may lose your business.

“I have too much work to take a break.”

As you know, building a business is kinda hard, and startup culture does not typically dole out breaks like gift baskets.

So… you never see friends or family anymore, you micromanage the shit out of everything, and you can’t let go of your baby to some underling who might do things a little differently than you would.

Eek. If that sounded pretty condemning, good. I’m not here to coddle you.

Get off your damn high horse, says Yeager. “Do you really need to do all of it?” he asks. “Is there someone else who can?”

My guess is a few people come to mind. Competent folks, to whom you might delegate tasks. But when you go to let go, you just can’t. You don’t know why.

You might be operating in that state of fear we discussed above. It’s a step before burning out, but it’s not wise to linger on the edge — the stress takes its toll.

A 2014 study published in the International Journal of Stress Management showed that 90 percent of those meeting the criteria for burnout met the criteria for depression. Do you really want to get to that point?

Likely, you’re holding on so tight to the reins of your business that you’ve forgotten how to let go. “Loosen your grip,” says Yeager. “More creativity will start to flow.”

You will never know if the people you work with are equipped to operate day-to-day business unless you step the off the premises. And unless you take a real, honest getaway and force others to step up in your stead, you can kiss your sanity and creativity goodbye.

If you’re the sole operator of your startup business, I’m not letting you get off so easily.

Yeager says that he talks to loads of people who think they’re too important to take a vacation. And then they take a vacation. And guess what? No one dies.

If nothing else, that vacation can give you a sense of perspective: You are not so important that the world will stop spinning when you stop working.

“We all know about absenteeism, but there’s also presenteeism,” he says. “Everyone starting a business lives with that — ‘if I’m not there, it won’t get done.’ We got away from that with industrialism, but the pendulum is starting to swing back.”

But no one, no matter how good or well-equipped, can do everything without the sum of those successes and man hours taking their toll. “We become victims of our own successes,” Yeager says. “Success is sort of like vanilla ice cream. The first bite tastes good, but there are diminishing returns.”

“I can’t unplug anyway. This so-called vacation is not worth the hassle.”

We live in an age of perpetual connectivity. I’ll bet you can’t remember the last time you turned off your smartphone. You probably field phone calls while you’re in bed at night.  If you’re almost asleep and you hear the buzz of a new email, you check to make sure it’s not important.

AT 2:34AM.

It’s rude to leave a text unreplied for a few hours, so the idea of taking a vacation where you aren’t glued to your phone and computer is nearly unfathomable. “The worst part of the vacation is that you’re spending the first two days notifying everyone that you’re on vacation,” says Yeager. “Maybe the third day, you take a break. By day four and five, you’re preparing to go back to the office or work.”

Yeager gets it. He’s not even going to suggest you unplug the whole time, or throw your iPhone into the ocean like some freed super-founder might do in a movie. You’re not going to try and clear your plate, and then dive back in.

“You’re going to decide when to work and how much on your vacation,” he says. “Maybe that’s one hour a day, 30 minutes in the morning and 30 minutes at night, so you’re not getting swamped.”


It’s that simple. You just have to commit to taking a smart startup vacation, with quick check-ins back at the office, so you can work smarter and better upon return.

How often do you need to check out? “What I’m going to say might shock you,” says Yeager, “but four times a year to keep your creative-functioning intact and maintain a sense of perspective about what’s important.”

Life does exist on the outside, friends.

Retooling after startup burnout isn’t impossible, but it’s hard to break well-worn habits.

Yeager says he knows a business whiz, who has gone from broke to millionaire, broke to multimillionaire, back to broke and finally to multibillionaire.

“He is an amazing businessman, but he gets burnt out,” says Yeager. “His health has suffered. He doesn’t sleep. He doesn’t eat right. He’s had major surgeries. He’s only in his 50s.”

Yeager says that life is building toward the end game. It’s a marathon, not a series of sprints and shutdowns.

“Build that resilience, and you will hold the key to breaking the burnout cycle,” he explains.

About the Author

Jenna Birch

Broad ranging freelance writer and editor who covers a huge array of topics but holds a special place in her heart for Startups. @jennabirch

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