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Burnout and bullying: Why startup workers’ mental health is so bad

Sifted readers share their experiences of mental health in the workplace.

By Kai Nicol-Schwarz

“After the first month, it’s fair to say everything went to hell. That included my confidence, self-worth and any feelings of security I had.”

That’s how one Sifted reader described their mental health after being expected to work 14-hour days and getting “publicly mocked” at their new job. But they’re far from the only one to suffer at a startup.

87% of startup employees said that working at a startup had negatively impacted their mental health at some point, a Sifted survey of 133 readers from across Europe found.

Less than half felt like they were given the right support and 84% experienced burnout. On the flip side, 58% of respondents said they felt comfortable talking to their boss about mental health concerns.

It’s no wonder that the numbers are frighteningly abysmal. Startup employees say the pressure of building a fast-growing company and often a lack of management experience can quickly create an unhealthy environment. 

We also asked Sifted readers about the ways work had caused their mental health to suffer, how managers supported employees through rough patches and what mental health perks looked like.

Here are their stories.

Burnout and lack of work-life balance

The overwhelming majority of respondents told Sifted that their mental health had suffered as a result of working at a startup. 84% of those put it down to burnout.

“Targets often overreach what is genuinely feasible and the expectation of doing more with less is part of the startup mythology,” one said. “This just leads to burnout for staff.” 

Another told us that working 12-hour days with no job security caused panic attacks, and one respondent said that the “lack of direction” and “high pressure” resulted in a complete breakdown. 

But problems don’t stop at the top, and founders said they were susceptible to burnout too.

“I was completely burnt out, but I didn’t want to admit it to my cofounder or investors,” said one. “Eventually I was at a stage where leaving the company was the only solution. It took me at least a year to recover.” 

One cofounder-CTO said they faced huge pressure from their CEO and investors. “Isolation, harassment and changing priorities led to burnout,” they told Sifted. “I developed anxiety spikes, lost sleep and had long-lasting resilience and confidence issues.”

They eventually quit and gave up ownership to get out of the situation.

Bullying, discrimination and harassment

22% of Sifted readers told us that discrimination or harassment caused mental health problems, and the same number said that bullying was the reason. 

One manager said that she was “constantly fighting an upward battle in managing men who didn’t want to take me seriously” when she worked at a company with a “laddish culture”.

“I dreaded coming into work by month three,” she said — and wasn’t the only one to report their mental health being affected by sexism in the workplace. Others also spoke of their mental health suffering while working at startups with “rampant misogyny” and “bro culture”.

“Most of my mental health issues are related to bullying and harassment in the workplace,” said another. She recently requested sick leave. “I can barely function so going back isn’t an option right now,” she added.

When another Sifted reader suffered a post-traumatic stress disorder attack after working in an environment of “manipulation, harassment and bullying” they were told they were faking it. They were fired soon after. 

Toxic bosses and bad leadership

Two-thirds of Sifted readers said the reason their mental health suffered was because of a toxic boss. It’s a stat that chimes with the results of our previous community survey on startup bosses, with 83% of respondents telling us a minority or none of their bosses were equipped to manage. 

One respondent said that their manager complained they couldn’t fire an employee because he had raised mental health concerns. Instead “they planned to ‘make his life miserable’ and ‘manage him out’ of the business”.

According to Sifted readers, a big part of mental health problems at work was how inexperienced many managers at startups are. 

“[The inexperienced managers I’ve had] have had little regard for the impact their decisions have on someone’s mental health,” one said. Another agreed, adding “ego and inexperience can be brutal for all involved”.

The support on offer

But not all bosses were bad at supporting employees’ mental health — and 58% of respondents said they could speak to their current manager about it.

“[Me and my manager] have very open conversations and I feel like he shares his vulnerabilities with me as much as I do,” one said. “That makes me feel like we’re there for each other and just telling him about my problems helps.”

Another shared a similar story, saying: “My manager is open about his experiences of anxiety and sleep issues, and if I’m struggling with either we talk about it in 1:1s. It helps to know he understands”.

We also heard from a number of managers who told us they openly talk about their mental health issues with employees as a way of de-stigmatising it, alongside creating work-life boundaries. 

One said they “advocate and demonstrate downtime” and another told us it was crucial to avoid messaging employees about work “after work hours, or at weekends or while they are on holiday”.

Some startups have policies and resources in place to support employees struggling — like mental health platforms as a perk, mental health days off and gym memberships.

A number of readers told us that using employee mental health platforms like Spill, Sanctus and Oliva were helpful. “Spill’s Slack integration is good,” said one. “It promotes sharing how you’re feeling before a one to one with your boss, which is useful.”

Others said that they were given a monthly “wellness budget” to spend on things like therapy sessions or gym memberships, and some had mental health cover included in private health insurance as a benefit.

But employers should be wary of how these insurers cover pre-existing mental health conditions, said one respondent. “You can access therapy and counselling sessions [as a perk] — but only if you haven’t needed mental health support before,” they told us. It’s a situation their employer is currently looking into, they added.

Taking time off

Just over half of the 59% of respondents who’d taken time off due to mental health in the past said they felt their company had supported their decision, and for many that stemmed directly from their manager.

One respondent, who suffers from an anxiety and panic disorder, said it became so bad they couldn’t work, and spoke to their manager about it. “He told me to log off immediately and only come back when I felt ready,” they said. 

Another said that when their company launched a policy allowing employees to take days off to focus on their mental health, the CEO was the first to take one to make it as “acceptable and normal as possible”.

But words don’t always translate into actions. “Although my manager was supportive and empathetic when I spoke to them about my mental health challenges, nothing has been done to make my situation easier,” one respondent said. 

Some managers didn’t even pay lip service to supporting employees’ mental health. While many were able to take time off, in many cases they felt heavily stigmatised for the decision or were pressured into returning sooner than they were comfortable with.

Others said that while signed off due to mental health concerns, their manager would persistently message them about work. “I was constantly contacted by my manager and HR asking me when I was going back as the work was piling up,” said one, who had taken sick leave to recover from burnout. 

What to do if you’re mental health is suffering because of work: Sifted readers share their advice

“If you aren’t getting support to address it, leave. You are not the problem.”

“Start searching for another job. When interviewing for a new role ask what they have in place for dealing with mental health.”

“Focus on what you can control. If you have no control over the thing that is having the most impact on your mental health, change your environment.”

“QUIT.”

“If you have a manager or colleague that you feel comfortable confiding in, do it. I did and it massively improved my experience. We found solutions to what was triggering me and they often check in to see how I am. Management can’t support you if they don’t know there’s something wrong.”

“Learn how to set boundaries. Get a therapist for support.”

“Raise it to management in a constructive manner, explaining what’s causing your mental health concerns. If the response is anything but supportive, leave.”

“Remember that this is just a job and it doesn’t define your self-worth, identity or anything really. You are much more than a single role at a single company. Periodically stop and check in with yourself as you’d do with a loved one. Reach out for help whenever you can. Stand up for yourself, ask for space and walk away if you have to.”

“Speak up. It’s easier said than done — I spent long enough not speaking up — but it’s often only when you communicate that it gets better.”

👉 Read: Europe’s mental health startups listed

Kai Nicol-Schwarz is a reporter at Sifted. He covers healthtech and community reporting, and tweets from @NicolSchwarzK.

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