Strong Startups Are Led by Healthy CEOs: Why We’re Prioritizing Founder Wellness

Strong Startups Are Led by Healthy CEOs: Why We’re Prioritizing Founder Wellness

By Arjuna Costa and Lisa Mikkelsen

As the fintech fundraising landscape shifts from boom times to a more challenging environment, we see the pressure ratcheting up on founders and their teams – passionate people who are already taxed by two years of working through the pandemic. While it may not seem intuitive, this is a critical time to prioritize wellness within your startup and it starts at the top.

Covid-19 has strained the relationship between leaders and their teams, leaving CEOs and founders more isolated while employees are feeling directionless or undervalued. A year into the pandemic, more than one-third of founders rated their mental health as bad in one study. In a global study by King’s Business School, participants rated their life satisfaction an average 12% lower than before the pandemic.

These studies show that the greatest source of CEO stress is uncertainty. We have all been living with layers of uncertainty for more than two years now, enduring unpredictable changes to our lives and workplaces. During early shutdowns, many startups feared going out of business. Then equity markets resurged and startups kicked into rapid growth, scrambling to hire, fundraise, and launch products – often while a majority of their employees switched to remote work.

Now, with venture capital wobbling in 2022’s uncertain economy, the stress is spiking again.

‘Empathy-squeezed’ Founders Risk Burnout

If you’re a CEO or a founder, you’re probably shouldering much of this uncertainty alone, often feeling the need to put on a brave face and not burden your team with the pressures facing the business. And yet, employees do not want business realities hidden from them. They want authenticity and decisive leadership from their managers.

At the same time, you may be grasping for alignment with your co-founders on how to best lead teams through this turbulent time. You may hesitate to ask for help from investors because they may appear more protected from the economy’s frenzy or gloom.

In the fintech industry, the space in which we invest globally, the pandemic was not a financial crisis for most companies. On paper at least, many startups prospered. Yet it was an emotional a crisis for a lot of people.  if not from founding and running a business, many felt intense and ongoing pressure from months of sheltering in place, being socially isolated, managing children who were home from school, caring for elder relatives, and trying to make sense of the turmoil in the world.

Founders, CEOs and leaders, in particular, experienced feeling ‘empathy-squeezed’ – where they were expected to be more compassionate at work while at the same time, they needed to shoulder ongoing stresses in their own homelives.

In circumstances no one could have imagined prior to Covid-19, we’ve seen entrepreneurs and their teams accomplish incredible feats. We’ve witnessed startups step up and iterate during these turbulent times to deliver products that meaningfully help individuals and small businesses. But it’s taken its toll. We’ve seen the exhaustion and pain many CEOs are carrying and as investors, we take founder burnout seriously.

Set Boundaries and Lead by Example

Founder burnout was a problem before this crisis, and since the pandemic, it’s become even more dire. Leaders who are at risk of burnout can create stressful work places. They are quicker to judge harshly, find it difficult to stop micro-managing, may lose their temper or inappropriately unload their insecurities on their employees.

All of these actions are understandable but they are not helpful. Leaders who take care of themselves can set an example – even in the most stressful times. Today’s employees crave authenticity and work-life balance. It’s okay to admit there are struggles. People admire leaders who communicate openly and possess good boundaries. For example, leaders who wait to message employees during work hours and not late at night or on weekends demonstrate respect. Over the long run, teams will go the extra mile for leaders who prioritize healthy limits.

We know that every leader needs to find what works for her, him or them. Some founders wake up early and get ahead of the day. Others regulate when they check email or Slack. Some put time with family and friends on the calendar.  And, as a company scales, it gets exponentially harder for founders to manage their time and their energy. Yet, it’s critical for powerful leadership.

Follow our Founder Wellness Blog Series

It’s topics like these – founder burnout and tips for effective leadership ­– that we want to explore in our blog series on founder wellness. We want to discuss hybrid work, leading with authenticity, CEO-to-CEO peer groups, the role of HR leads, and much more.  Being part of an early-stage company with visionary entrepreneurs, can be one of the most exciting times in any career. But today’s startup life can lead to stressful and unproductive workplaces.

At Flourish, we support founders as needed and don’t shy away from tough conversations. We want startup teams to be as healthy as possible so they can help others. Follow this series, and share your experiences with team leadership, wellness, finding purpose, and taking care of each other.