How to Spot a Burnout & What to Do About It

Do you see your boss always rushing in and out of the office while sporting heavy eyebags? Is he or she less chatty than usual and constantly having lunch late, working at all hours of the day with a long to-do list and putting out daily crises all over the office.

Sounds normal for an entrepreneur or management? What if they are signs of a burnout?

It has been long accepted that these are common practices in the business space but, this might just be, in fact, counterproductive – say Antoinette Patterson, CEO of digital mental health platform Safe Space, and Yeo Chuen Chuen, multi-award-winning leadership coach and founder of ACESENCE. Why? Because the path to long-term success as a business owner involves constant mental health check-ins and a change in mindset to gain fresh perspectives.

We speak to both Antoinette and Chuen Chuen to find out more about their insights on stress, burnout and how to prevent it from happening in the first place.

Antoinette Patterson, CEO of digital mental health platform Safe Space

Yeo Chuen Chuen, multi-award-winning leadership coach and founder of ACESENCE

Q: How do burnt-out leaders affect a company and its employees?

YCC: Gallup’s research has found that managers account for 70% variance in the engagement and productivity of employees, so leaders have a huge impact on a company and its employees.

This applies to leaders at every level – not only the senior ones. Burnt-out leaders have adverse effects on:

  • Innovation
  • Employee engagement
  • Productivity
  • Profitability
  • Business resilience
  • Pipeline of ready leaders
  • Talent retention

The list goes on and on, and I must emphasise again and again the importance of having high-performing and positive leaders so companies will do well to put formal support systems in place because the price to pay for burnt out leaders is simply too high.

Q: What types of stress do startup founders go through when running a business, and how does this affect them?

Antoinette Patterson (AP): Based on the recently conducted study that Safe Space™ did in collaboration with ACE, we found that the top stressors amongst startup founders were the challenging business Environment (especially those most impacted by COVID), company cash flow issues, team dynamics, and long working hours.

Startup founders surveyed reported finding that maintaining close relationships had been difficult and frustrating for them, often as a result of becoming easily irritated as they get more stressed. Furthermore, nearly a quarter of respondents shared that they struggled with insomnia and establishing healthy sleep patterns.

The most common coping mechanisms that startup founders employ are exercise, practicing mindfulness, as well as relying on peer and family support.

Q: How can leaders prevent burnout from happening and get the support they need?

Yeo Chuen Chuen (YCC): Leaders need to first remember that they are humans, too! Too often I’ve met leaders in my line of work who didn’t give themselves any down time, or personal time, or even just time to step back. Their desire to achieve and huge sense of responsibility makes them successful and at the same time, can compel them to push themselves so hard – the schedule is almost like a punishment.

Sense of responsibility aside, it is important for leaders to exercise some self-compassion and give themselves some time to recharge and replenish their energy. Block out regular time in your calendar to kick start the process and this is beneficial because awareness is the key to any thoughtful change.

Sometimes it’s about being more intentional and mindful so that the leaders can keep the balance. It’s kind of like running faster and faster, without stopping and sometimes the best thing to do is to pause and re-evaluate your actions before deciding on the next steps. That’s where you can retain the strategic focus instead of being sucked into a bottomless pit.

Q: Why is it important to raise awareness on the priority that must be given to mental health care and what can startup founders do to implement better mental health practices for themselves and their workforce?

AP: With the pandemic, everyone needs to focus on mental health. Mental health has always been an underlying topic that was just not talked about due to stigma. These issues have been exacerbated by COVID-19, particularly for startup founders as the business environment becomes even more uncertain.

Many founders lack practical strategies for managing stress, and are perhaps unaware of how therapy is accessible online and therapists are increasingly offering more flexible hours for sessions. Furthermore, 59% of the respondents agreed or strongly agreed that running a startup has taken a toll on their mental health. Apart from startup founders, investors and other stakeholders who are invested in the success of these companies need to ensure that the startup founder’s mental health is prioritised. Managing the daily stress and challenges that startup life can bring, and finding sources of support quickly can make all the difference to the long-term growth of a business, and founders’ own mental wellness.

We urge startup founders to commit to implementing a practical and effective mental wellness policy. For example, something startup founders can do is to appoint a mental health advocate for the company. Recognise the importance of mental health on a personal level and for the benefit of the company.

Q: Who makes up the best support system for leaders as they face uncertainties/transition?

YCC: Most people rely on family and friends for support. In many cases, the unconditional positive regard from family and friends is helpful. Up to a certain point of seniority, however, it’s no longer enough. From my observations, senior leaders and executives need a different kind of support – strategic and psychological safety to discuss sensitive issues. This need has escalated due to the impact of the pandemic coupled with disruptions caused by automation. A lot has fallen on the shoulders of senior leaders as the volatility of the business landscape has increased. It’s kind of like the need for answers is high but clarity and certainty on the future has plummeted.

There are some senior executive networks that provide this type of support and are conducted in a group setting.

The demand for executive coaching has increased exponentially in the past year and I relate that with the benefits an executive coach can bring:
a. 100% confidentiality
b. Private setting in a 1-to-1 partnership
c. Psychological safety
d. Strategising and brainstorming without being influenced into thinking in a certain direction

Some leaders I know rely on mentors within the organisation as well. In my professional view, leveraging professional networks, executive coaching and mentoring is a powerful and beneficial combination.

Q: How does having an agile mindset able to prevent burnout in leaders and what is your approach in training leaders to successfully adopt this mindset?

YCC: What causes leaders to feel stuck and unable to progress? The mindset.

Any leadership training that doesn’t offer a paradigm shift would be futile. It’s like giving them a lot of skills but not increasing their motivation to use these skills. Thinking flexibly – with agility – helps to address that.

Being agile means that you are always looking out for what is working and rectifying what has ceased to work. It comprises a few stages: reality check, identifying what’s needed now, naming the gap and taking new actions.

The first two steps are the most important in my opinion. One of the guests on my Agile Leaders Conversations cited this piece of wisdom from one of his former bosses: for a leader to succeed, one needs to Accept, Adapt and Achieve. Leaders need to first accept the new reality in order to respond effectively.

Being stuck in a loop where your efforts do not yield results would cause fatigue and eventually, lead to burnout due to the lack of outcomes.

In my methodology, I use the Re4 Coaching Model to help leaders shift their mindset. The Re4 coaching model focuses you by using four basic principles:

● Reconstruct the Map to change your perception to find the truth;
● Refresh the Lens to identify and remove assumptions and bias;
● Renew the Identity and use your new perception and lens to create a new business persona that tackles change;
● Rebuild the Capabilities – Learn and practice new skills and actions for improved outcomes.

The first step- Reconstruct the Map- helps leaders recognise that ‘not changing’ is no longer a feasible option. Seeing and accepting reality with courage helps leaders prepare to change. That’s related to the Accepting phase mentioned above.

Reading and learning about the common leadership pitfalls from my book (8 paradoxes of leadership agility) is also one way I help leaders adopt a new mindset and leadership style that is more relevant for the current workforce. There’s an exercise portion in the book that leaders can do as part of their professional reflective practice.

Additionally, my overall overarching leadership agility framework (five inner voices) also helps leaders strengthen and deepen their practice.

More details can be found at

Q: How is Safe Space aiming to provide business leaders and the community to licensed therapists? Could you walk us through each tier and how will this ensure that even bootstrapped organisations with limited budgets can have access to mental health care?

AP: Safe Space™ has created a highly structured approach that helps users maintain their mental wellness and overcome their mental health challenges. Support and resources have been carefully organised into 3 tiers so that they help users along their journey, wherever they are.

Free tier: This is focused on educating users about proactive mental wellness and self-care. Users are presented with written content, tips, short videos and recommended exercises that they can access in their own time to help maintain a healthy and happy mental state.

Basic tier: Users are able to work directly with a professional in a safe and structured environment to help them address their personal mental health challenges. Support and education are provided via webinars, ebooks and workbooks focused on specific mental health challenges with the aim of helping alleviate those challenges.

Premium tier: Safe Space™ will work with organisations in this tier to create a bespoke programme for their employees with curated webinar topics. Users also have access to one-on-one therapy sessions where employees can work directly with a professional in a safe and structured environment to overcome those challenges.

When it comes to startup founders, we are a startup ourselves and we know first hand that cash flow is a primary concern due to effects of the COVID pandemic. Safe Space™ has come up with a no-frills 2021 Startup Employee Assistance Program (EAP) pack so that:
a. Startups can receive affordable mental wellness support from Safe Space.
b. Change the mental health mindset of their startup
c. Build happier and more productive teams
d. Get access to our ebook with therapist guidance.

Q: How does Safe Space work and how does the platform ensure that users receive the best therapy and mental health care that is most suited to them?

AP: We are a comprehensive B2B2C and B2C digital mental healthcare platform that connects individuals and employees to licensed clinical therapists in real-time while providing assistance in tracking and managing therapy usage, progress and related administrative documentation.

Our real-time matching algorithm evaluates aspects like an individual’s mental health needs, any physical or emotional issues, level of affordability, schedule availability, geographic location, and preferred therapist type, among others before connecting them to the most suitable therapist within seconds.

Safe Space™ addresses a gap in the industry solving the problem of Singaporeans not having a reliable, convenient way to access therapy, especially when they need it the most.

Safe Space™ also benefits therapists as the platform provides a convenient avenue for them to conduct their therapy sessions without having to set up a physical office.

The corporate dashboard allows employers and their Human Resources (HR) teams to manage and keep track of their employees’ therapy usage accordingly while maintaining the highest level of privacy.

Q: How is Safe Space aiming to create a mentally resilient ecosystem through its platform?

AP: Firstly, our key benefits include the fact that users will not have to deal with wait times as they are able to connect in real-time with professional help online and offline instantly.

Furthermore, our platform maintains a curated list of licensed therapists who are carefully vetted by a clinical supervisor. Therefore, users, especially startup owners and their teams will be able to get trained and have access to quality perspectives with informed tools and guidance to help them feel better.

Moreover, we understand that not everyone needs therapy yet. Therefore, to plan for the future, we provide both education and online to offline therapy. This way, users are able to learn about their mental health, safeguard their well-being by going online with our therapists or schedule a face-to-face meeting.

Our service is also affordable for a variety of budgets and through Safe Space, users could pay much less than they normally would. With startup owners often swamped with meetings and hectic schedules, being able to access help at their convenience is key. They would be able to access a therapist that suits their needs and availability.

Finally, we pride ourselves in the fact that our platform is discreet and secure, guaranteeing complete privacy and confidentiality so that users are able to stay anonymous during their sessions. All sessions are end-to-end encrypted to our secure server, that only you and your therapist can access.

With these safeguards, we are confident in our ability to create an ecosystem of mentally resilient users who will be better able at protecting themselves against the risk of burnout.

Startup founders, sign up to take the pledge today here and let’s build a more resilient ecosystem:

Images: Antoinette Patterson, Envato (header image), Yeo Chuen Chuen and Safe Space

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