Stuart Hearn, CEO and Founder of Clear Review HR performance management software, considers why business owners need to focus on wellbeing – and include themselves in the equation
As founders, we are leaders. We like to think of ourselves as a cut apart, as having achieved something others can’t because we have launched a business. To be fair, there’s a degree of logic in this thinking. Anyone that has ever had an idea will have gone through all the stages of emotion associated with it. It begins with that initial well of excitement, a great burst of energy. Then reality sets in. A sense of being overwhelmed. More often than not, we give up.
Or we don’t. Those that persevere through this trough are the ones that become founders, business owners, published writers, artists. That’s what makes us special.
But in many other ways, we’re just like everyone else. We handle pressure as well, or as badly, as the next person. Internalising stress, focusing on what’s next, whether it’s hiring employee number one, securing seed funding, getting onto an incubator, securing more funding, more colleagues.
It is never ending, and neither is the responsibility. This can be both real and imagined. The former comes from knowing that you are accountable for the livelihoods of employees (and by extension their families), for the support investors may have provided, and for the experience customers receive. The latter comes from external sources – from seeing more successful founders talk about how they did it, seeing peers secure bigger rounds of funding, grow faster, from seeing competitors appear to be achieving more. We start to feel like it is our responsibility to be doing the same thing.
The danger is, this can bleed into the way we approach work and, by extension, the way we lead. We can become obsessed with working more, conflating time on the job with effort. We demand it of ourselves, and if we’re not careful, we demand it of our teams.
It is not healthy, and it can actually be bad for business. That relentless focus on quantity, rather than quality, of work, can have very serious ramifications for our ability to perform effectively.
How? Because as we work more, we run a greater risk of burning out, or becoming fatigued. A founder in this situation is less able to make clear decisions, is less likely to engage with employees positively, and is generally less likely to be a positive influence within the business. Secondly, they set an example to employees that working all hours is the best way to work, who in turn observe and replicate those behaviours. This can be a particular issue in start-ups that attract younger, ambitious and yet impressionable workers who want to get ahead but don’t have the working experience to challenge incorrect approaches.
So, then you have a situation where both founder and employees are heading towards burnout. In such a context, it is not hard to see how this could damage overall business performance.
There needs to be another way. We definitely need to be able to lead our teams by example, showing how it is possible to do work effectively without harming ourselves. A critical part of that is having a formal approach to wellness.
What is wellness? It’s one of those things that we hear a lot about, but the use of the term can become a bit intangible. The Global Wellness Institute defines it as “the active pursuit of activities, choices and lifestyles that lead to a state of holistic health.”
So, it is health, but it is both mental and physical health, and everything that contributes to that. In that context, work is a major factor in many people’s wellness. It can certainly be a positive force, providing focus, a sense of purpose, social interaction; it can also have a negative impact if we allow it to.
In fact, so important is wellness to business performance that the GWI estimates that “workforce unwellness (chronic disease, work-related injuries and illnesses, work-related stress, and employee disengagement) may cost the global economy 10–15 percent of economic output every year.”
What do these formal wellness approaches look like? It will vary from company to company, but they should be a way of offering employees access to a variety of programmes and resources that contribute to helping them reach that state of holistic health. So it could include elements of nutrition education, gym memberships, exercise classes, advice on stress management, or therapy. It may not be directly related to work-related issues, either; many people struggle with issues such as money and debt outside of work, but that stress follows them, so a debt or finance advice service could also be included, for example.
What is needed is that the company is not only seen to take wellness seriously but is truly committed. So that involves senior leaders, including founders, participating in some of the activities, and not dismissing some of the services provided as a luxury.
It also means leading by example. For wellness to be an integral part of business, and for said business to reap the benefits, founders need to move away from a work at all costs mindset. They need to re-evaluate their working patterns, adopt a more balanced lifestyle, and aim to be working less but, ultimately, more productively.
Burnout is not a badge of honour; it is a sign of failure. An inability to build a working pattern that delivers effective results within a limited period of time. Start-ups are the brainchild of their founders, and as leaders those entrepreneurs need to be able to inspire their teams, reassure investors and demonstrate to customers why their products and services are worth time and money. Incorporating wellness into the everyday fabric of company life is an important step to ensuring both founders and their teams are clear-eyed, focused and energetic.