‘Workplace has become terrain of insecurity and exhaustion’, read the headline in a recent edition of The Irish Times.
Not the lightest of lunchtime reads, granted, but given my role as writer with Clinch, a recruitment marketing platform that helps companies attract and hire great talent, the employee-focused piece had piqued my interest.
Una Mullally, who authored the piece, noted that in Ireland, ‘a competitive relationship with work has developed. People talk up the number of hours they put in. Even though theres nothing cool about being overworked and exhausted, reaching burnout is something of a badge of honour’.
Ive been working in tech for over a year now. Its an industry that is saturated with this way of thinking, and nowhere is the propensity for overworking more prevalent than in startups. Its hardly surprising. Small teams, with employees wearing multiple hats in order to ‘do all the things’, often following the lead of young and inexperienced founders who eat, sleep, and breathe their business: its a recipe that doesnt so much invite burnout, as guarantees it.
It may not happen in the first year, or the second, but you can bet your Series A on it happening at some point down the line if bad habits remain unchanged. More immediately, overworking leads to a poor employer brand how the company in question is perceived as an employer by employees past, present, and potential. That reputation, once damaged by the association with overworking, ultimately affects the companys ability to attract and retain top tech talent.
Exhausted employees are neither productive nor engaged. Those who know their value will look for an out, seeking a better opportunity elsewhere, and likely painting their previous employer in a less than flattering light to anyone who asks why did you leave? I know of one individual who left her position at a high-profile Dublin startup for the simple reason that she wanted to leave the office at 5:30 each day to get home to her kids. A simple ask, and one that will be familiar to many, no doubt.
It wasnt that the company wouldnt allow her to do this, either. She left of her own free will, after realising that her preference for a 9-5 day and a healthy work-life balance clashed with the cultural practices of that particular company.
Finding that youre not a culture fit is one thing, and doesnt necessarily mean that the culture in question is a poor one. Alarm bells ring, however, when, after completing seven to eight hours solid graft, youre leaving at 5:30 each day and feeling uncomfortable doing so, because everyone else around you is clocking up 10 hour days. The fact that those extra two hours aren’t reflected in any additional productivity, seem to be besides the point.
So, just to recap: overworking leads to disengaged employees, decreased productivity, a poor employer brand, and a weakened ability to retain and attract the best team members. Why, then, arent we doing more to put a stop to it? Why has overworking become so much a part of startup life that burnout has emerged as an actual culture in itself within the startup scene?
As Dublin continues its journey to becoming one of the great startup capitals of the world, it would be wise for those of us in the startup scene to exercise some caution, and not fall into the trap of operating under the false belief that overwork is ‘an an essential precondition of high performance and effectiveness in the workplace‘.
Shawn Achor is the NY Times bestselling author of The Happiness Advantage and Before Happiness. In an article for the Harvard Business Review, Achor reports that ‘every business outcome shows improvement when the brain is positive’. He shares insights from researchers whose studies reveal that ‘happy employees have, on average, 31% higher productivity; their sales are 37% higher; their creativity is three times higher’. In light of this research, perhaps a culture of happiness is what Dublin startups need to prioritise, as opposed to overwork.
Wouldnt that be something – if together, we could put Dublin on the map as a startup capital thats not only synonymous with success, but one that redefines the prerequisites for success, too?
An industry-wide culture of happiness is possible, and it starts at a leadership level. Company culture is shaped by the beliefs, behaviours, and actions of the founders, CEOs, and those at the highest level of office. Employee burnout is a surefire sign of a negative company culture, one that happens when our higher-ups set a poor standard for how we should think about and go about doing our jobs.
Dublin-based founder, investor, and advisor to startups Eamon Leonard once told me that, ‘Every founder should give enough of a sh*t to ensure that their employees have a quality of life’. I have to agree. In my role with Clinch, Ive had the good fortune to get to know, and see the positive impact of, many founders who live up to that responsibility on a daily basis here in Dublin.
These are the leaders who realise that happiness in the workplace comes from maintaining a healthy work/life balance and understanding that you are defined by more than the job you do or the company you work for. They know that by embracing these beliefs, living them, and encouraging their employees to do the same, theyre not just promoting a culture of happiness, theyre building a better business, too. Now its up to the rest of Dublins startup leaders to do the same.