How to Prevent Burnout in Startup Support Teams

Navigating the challenges of burnout in startup environments requires empathy, strategy, and a proactive stance. This essential toolkit empowers founders and managers to safeguard their support teams against the risks of burnout.

How to Prevent Burnout in Startup Support Teams
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Employee burnout is a serious problem in startups since they are high-pressure environments. Unfortunately, it’s support teams that experience it the most at startups.
This is a short guide and toolkit for founders, managers, and team members to understand and combat burnout among support agents.
30-second Summary
  • High Stress → Burnouts
  • Business Impact: Burnout affects customer service quality, cost of hiring and training new employees is significant
  • Root Causes: Lack of meaningful work and relationships, feeling undervalued and overworked
  • Early Signs: drop in response rates, a slump in customer satisfaction scores (CSAT), and a noticeable shift in the emotional tone of customer interactions
  • Reversing Burnout: acknowledge, empathize, alleviate workload
  • Preventive Measures: Fostering meaningful work and relationships; Sharing company vision, recognition, regular personal goal reviews, and team interactions

What causes burnout?

Burnout is caused by a sustained lack of motivation. Workplace motivation fundamentally comes from feeling like you’re doing meaningful work and building meaningful relationships. Credit to Ray Dalio for this framework.
Startups are inherently demanding: you’ve got limited resources while trying to establish product-market fit, build a new category, or disrupt an existing market. As such, most startups operate at break-neck speed, more out of necessity than choice. That’s why there’s a tendency for teams to be overworked.
For customer support teams, there’s an added layer of stress. They are at the front lines, spending all day talking to the lifeblood of the company - customers - dealing mostly with complaints. Meanwhile, support teams are usually seen as cost centers, so they are run on skeleton crews and often with minimal tooling, both of which are only added on a “we needed this yesterday” basis. To add insult to injury, support teams often feel like they have little to no leverage or voice on their team to get their product and engineering-related requests completed.
All this combined leads to customer support having the highest turnover of roles in any startup.

Early warning signs

While the signs that someone is getting burned out aren’t unique to support agents, it’s easier to spot once you know what to look for:
  • an agent slows down in their response rate
  • they’re less enthusiastic about their work, which oftentimes manifests as a slump in their CSAT scores
  • the emotions in their responses shift from being positive and energetic to being neutral or disgruntled; empathy levels lower
You should track these metrics not only on a team level but on an individual level as well. When you see multiple of these items flagging, it’s time for an urgent intervention. And while metrics give a good idea of how an agent is faring, you’ll want to rely on your intuition from 1:1’s to ascertain a clearer picture.
I’d like to mention that you’re better off looking at trends as opposed to absolute numbers.

How to reverse burnout

Once an employee has already started to burn out, it’s often too late to turn things around. However, there are a few things you should try.
First, get your burned-out agent to verbalize their pain points. The best place to do this is in a 1:1 meeting with them. This is where you play the role of a support agent, bringing in a lot of empathy, patience, and desire to find a resolution.
Be direct in recognizing that they’re burned out. Ask them to share their feelings and main demotivators. It’s super important to focus on giving them space to talk rather than interrupting or justifying the status quo (regardless of the accuracy of their statements). Just recognizing their pain points alone is often enough to get over the hump of discouragement.
Once they’ve aired their feelings, you’ve got a laundry list of things to focus on improving or talking through with them. Some of the things they mention will likely be out of your hands (eg, “It feels like we’re not growing fast enough as a company”), but others likely will be in your power (eg, “I’m working way too much”).
After you’ve talked through their challenges and had time to work through possible solutions together, it’s helpful to give them some amount of time off. Whether it’s a few hours, a day, or a week, time off to cool down and think about the path forward can be incredibly helpful.

How to prevent burnout

It’s far more preferable to take proactive measures than to turn around a runaway train. We’ll frame these measures in terms of meaningful work and meaningful relationships.

Meaningful work

Employees should feel like
You can help them by
To make this happen, we need
They’re making the world a better place
presenting a clear company vision and an understanding of how they’re contributing to it
OKRs, a well-communicated roadmap
They’re doing their work well
acknowledging good work and providing indicators of their growth, improvement
Best-in-class tooling, frequent training, and a review of learnings
They’re growing
helping them set and review their personal goals regularly
Frequent 1:1’s, Quarterly personal goals and milestones

Meaningful relationships

Employees should feel like
You can help them by
To make this happen, we need
They’re valued by their peers
encouraging team members to praise each other when someone goes above and beyond the call of duty
A #celebrations channel in Slack, an effort to seed this practice
They know their peers
setting up regular interactions between teammates where they can talk openly about their work and get to know each other
in-person interactions (if possible); happy hours, game time, etc

Does it matter?

For a lot of folks, the emotional motivations for wanting teammates to stick around and be happy are sufficient to want to think about burnout. But if that’s not your cup of tea, there are obvious and rational reasons to keep your teammates around:
  • hiring is a pain and takes a long time
  • even after you’ve hired someone, training them and getting them up to speed takes time
  • and even after that, there’s always a non-zero chance the new person will leave (or not be a good fit)
When you’re running on a lean team, these interruptions mean you’ll have more tickets per agent which means slower responses and more stressed agents, thus poorer responses; this effect spirals and can quickly get you to a very bad place
TL; DR: Always keep a close eye on burnout and be proactive about preventing it. Have systems in place to identify it early.
Have any other tips on how to keep your teammates around? Let us know in the comments!

As a parting gift, I have a song for you. While I wrote the phrase ‘runaway train’ a few paragraphs earlier, I couldn’t help but have that song play in my head.
It’s far more preferable to take proactive measures than to turn around a runaway train
Somehow the lyrics of the song ‘Runaway Train’ by the aptly named Soul Asylum hint toward that helpless feeling of burnout.

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Jon O’Bryan

Written by

Jon O’Bryan

CEO, Atlas Inc