Surviving the startup jungle: thriving in a fast-paced work environment

May 29, 2023

7 mins

Surviving the startup jungle: thriving in a fast-paced work environment
Kaila Caldwell

Freelance writer and translator

Startups: you either love them or hate them. But one thing you can’t deny is that they continue to prove a driving force of innovation and growth. These fast-paced and dynamic organizations offer a wealth of opportunities for career advancement, creativity, and personal fulfillment. However, working in a startup can also be highly demanding and stressful, often requiring employees to operate in high-pressure situations with tight deadlines, limited resources, and constant change.

This kind of intense environment can ultimately lead to burnout or other mental health issues. Gallup’s 2022 State of the Global Workplace report, which captured how people feel about work and life in the past year, found that 44% of US employees experienced a lot of daily stress the previous day. The survey also found that while almost half of the world’s workers felt the burden of stress, working women in the US and Canada were among the most stressed employees globally. According to the American Psychological Association, experiencing chronic work stress is linked to numerous negative outcomes, including anxiety, depression, and physical health problems. So how are we supposed to survive in these fast-paced jobs? Is there a prevention?

The consequences of struggling with fast-paced environments: burnout

Employees must develop tools and effective coping strategies to address these challenges and build resilience in a fast-paced startup environment. Joseph Yeh has built up his resilience in fast-paced environments after over 20 years of recruiting and consulting for local and international startups, including alongside former Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer at her startup Sunshine. “Always being on at work was very natural for me. The idea of work-life balance, work separation, boundaries, the idea of being off at five o’clock never occurred to me,” says Yeh. It eventually caught up with him, burning out several times throughout his career. However, he understands the importance of having a sustainable job. “At the end of the day, your major client is yourself. You need to take care of yourself, right?”

Developing resilience requires a combination of self-honesty and transparent communication with your team. In addition, adopting practical habits and tools for managing workflow can help sustain this resilience over time. However, achieving success in a fast-paced startup environment is about more than just implementing basic time management strategies. It involves understanding the unique dynamics of startup culture and how your personality aligns with your employer. Only then will your tools and strategies allow you to have long-term resilience.

Why startups are so fast-paced

So why are startups so notorious for such hectic long hours? “They’re still looking for product fit,” explains John Ferneborg, a recruiter for tech startups with 29 years of experience and founder of TalentGroove, a business specializing in helping early-stage companies in the AI, Quantum, and Cybersecurity industries build and scale their workforce. “Their product is constantly changing and going in different directions, and you’re trying to beat the competition,” he explains. Picture yourself at a soccer game with the clock winding down, he describes. “There’s a lot of competitors with similar products, and you need to get your most competitive product to market the quickest.” Considering circumstances change rapidly in this environment, continually sharing expectations and building resilience is key. Communicate constantly with your manager and team about what is expected of you at any given phase.

Fueling motivation between you and your employer

We have seen a shift in recent trends, with more emphasis being placed on work-life balance and flexible schedules, which may seem at odds with the traditional startup ethos. As Ferneborg aptly notes, “I hear generalizations all the time that fast-paced work environments are bad. It’s kind of a shame because the shoe doesn’t always fit everybody. It will fit some better than others.” If you are someone who is deeply invested in building a startup, chances are you possess the personality and passion to thrive in this work environment and juggle multiple tasks while working long hours. Despite this, failing to align with the startup’s culture and values can quickly lead to burnout.

Passion and perseverance are key drivers for success in fast-paced startup environments, as Yeh and Ferneborg attest. For Yeh, knowledge is everything: “Fast-paced has always been my environment. I think partly because I love learning new things quickly.” Ferneborg finds motivation in working with passionate people with vast knowledge in their fields: “The learning is what really captures me. I quite frankly get motivated by working with people with so much passion and knowledge in quantum and AI technologies that it really changed how I view the world of physics and technology.” Keeping motivations and passions in mind is crucial for staying focused. Communicating any changes in your drivers promotes a supportive work environment that aligns with personal and professional growth.

Key habits and tools to thrive in a fast-paced work environment

Open communication with your employer, direct manager, and coworkers is essential for building and maintaining resilience in the midst of organized chaos. This involves being honest with yourself and your team and creating habits and tools to manage your workflow.

Self-awareness brings mutual understanding

Self-awareness involves comprehending your personal preferences and tendencies in the workplace, including the factors that enable you to thrive, your approach to receiving feedback, your methods of relationship-building, your communication style, and your metrics for success. For example, Yeh explains that some people thrive on instant feedback and gratification, while others just want it during annual reviews because constant feedback makes them feel uncomfortable. Or, you could prefer to talk shop over a video call, while others might like audio only or even written communication. Some people don’t want to speak up in a group environment but are better at one-on-one communication. Understanding these details about yourself is essential so you can effectively communicate them to your team.

According to Ferneborg, understanding oneself is essential. “As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gained a better sense of when I’m at my best and when I’m not,” he says. “This allows me to inform others about the best ways to contact me or schedule meetings.” Ferneborg emphasizes that communicating this information is crucial. “You need to learn what open and transparent communication means to you and define it for others to understand,” he explains. It’s also important to communicate your strengths and capabilities while staying aligned with your manager. “Establishing a relationship where you can support each other builds resilience,” adds Ferneborg.

Create a self-awareness checklist

Yeh offers a practical tip to help you organize and communicate your needs. Create a document detailing the best ways to work with you. “Once you reflect on how you work best, write it down,” advises Yeh. This document can be shared with new managers and colleagues to help them understand your work style. “As a recruiter, when I work with candidates, I ask them the details of our working relationship,” adds Yeh. The document should highlight the most effective ways to work with you and preferred methods of communication. This fosters a mutual understanding of each other’s work rhythms.

Being honest about your schedule

Ferneborg stresses the importance of defining your schedule early on to avoid taking on too much work and spreading yourself too thin. “I’ve fallen trap of sacrificing myself for the company’s greater good by taking on too many projects, then I burned out,” warns Ferneborg. It’s crucial to define your workload within your schedule and say “no” before you reach your limit, he advises. “Those who aren’t honest about their intended schedule can get caught in that trap because there’s ambiguity,” he adds. “Open and transparent communication is key.”

Everyone has different preferences regarding working hours, and finding the right balance that suits your lifestyle is necessary. If you’re an early bird, schedule your extra hours in the morning rather than at night, or vice versa. Or, if being home for dinner is a priority, consider scheduling meetings afterward. Yeh suggests prioritizing personal commitments, such as picking up your kids from school or designating weekends as entirely off-limits. “Defining what is important to you and the must-haves in your schedule and life will give you the proper habits to succeed,” Yeh emphasizes.

Create a schedule that works for you

According to Yeh, it’s pivotal to establish a schedule that suits you. Despite the long hours, knowing when you’re entirely off certain days or which evenings you’re unavailable will allow you to concentrate on what matters to you. Let your team know not to contact you during those critical times. Yeh and Ferneborg have global clients, meaning they may need to be accessible around the clock. They suggest setting up which nights you’ll work late and which mornings you’ll work early based on your personal requirements. “Being transparent about your schedule with everyone makes it easier for you,” Ferneborg explains.

Understanding the company’s workflow

Both experts emphasize the importance of understanding the company’s workflow and operational processes. For instance, if the company has scheduled annual, quarterly, and weekly reports or board meetings with investors, you must ensure that you align your schedule accordingly while maintaining previously established boundaries, advises Yeh. Understanding the company’s schedule and the frequency of changes enables you to plan yours effectively. In the event of any changes, make sure that your manager and colleagues inform you in advance so that you can adjust your schedule accordingly. “Because you’re not going to say no if there’s a board meeting coming up. You have to do your work,” explains Yeh.

Additional tips for building resilience

  • Build strong relationships with your manager and coworkers. A strong relationship comes with solid communication. Understanding the context of your communication between managers and coworkers will help you translate your needs into support, helping you be more resilient, explains Yeh.
  • Finding mentors can help. Yeh has four types of mentors he seeks. The “peer” mentor is a friend or close colleague working in a startup. The “devil’s advocate” mentor is someone who you respect but will also challenge you. The “godfather/godmother” mentor helps open doors for you. And the “life coach” mentor is there to see how you’re doing personally.
  • Get a work phone to cut out distractions. Yeh uses this technique by having one phone with alerts from work messages and another for personal use. This allows you to both focus when needed but also disconnect when required.
  • Learning to say no. This is difficult, and you need to be strategic about when to say no. It’s all about communicating your schedule and work style with your manager and coworkers because when you say no, you’ve already communicated why to them, and they should understand.

Don’t give up right away

It’s hard to find the right company, the right coworkers, and even the right environment for you to succeed in a fast-paced environment. If you’re newer to the industry or still haven’t found the right fit, Yeh suggests that you try to stick it out for at least six months or a year. Learn your work style and what schedule works best for your life. Build communication with your manager and colleagues to best express your needs so you can have the support you need to be resilient in any job.

Check out more content related to Mental Health Awareness Month 2023 here.

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

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