Did you check your email or Slack before ‘starting work’ today? How likely is it that you’ll be tackling something work-related while sitting on the couch this evening?  

As a start-up leader, you are largely in control of when you work. You’re the only one who can make yourself work beyond the traditional 9 till 5, and there can be real upsides to questioning those age-old office norms. Ideally, you make intentional and informed choices about the benefits and consequences of changing it up to suit yourself. 

And as a leader, you ideally find yourself weighing up the implications not only for your own productivity and wellbeing, but for your team too. 

Right to disconnect 

Back in April, Victoria Police instituted a right to disconnect from work outside work hours. Officers now cannot be contacted during time off (outside exceptional circumstances). This change recognises the importance of physical and mental rest in sustaining their workforce and mitigating burnout. 

Your team’s burnout risk 

As a start-up leader, burnout risk is real for your team too. Sure, most will never face the external trauma of our front-line workers, but your staff are highly susceptible to internal pressures, driving them to hustle and keep hustling. Personality types drawn to the high-stakes, uncertain environment of startup life are likely to tick two major boxes for burnout: over work and lack of control.  

And so, they need time to really disconnect. To turn off their notifications without fear of letting someone down. 

Chances are, your business has progressive views around work-life balance, staff empowerment and office Mario Kart. You trust your staff to make grown-up decisions about their time. But office policies and practice can be two very different things.  

What encourages a committed team member to actually take leave or ignore an email at 7pm? And what are the chances that email came from you? 

Office norms 

When resources are tight and tasks seem infinite, overworking is standard, even celebrated. And your team is probably younger on average than most established workplaces. It’s likely your staff have fewer obligations outside the workplace (i.e. kids) and are more focused on doing whatever it takes to further their career. Plus, they probably enjoy their work and hanging out with their colleagues. This hyper-engagement can be valuable in the short term, but isn’t sustainable.  

While researchers debate the opposing forces of engagement and burnout, let’s get practical about this. You have unwritten office norms – behaviours that have become “the way it’s done here” – that dictate when it’s acceptable to log off or how fast you should respond to a message. As a leader, you are perfectly positioned to influence these. 

1. Talk about it:  

Have a frank chat about disconnecting at your next all-hands meeting. Openly discuss what should and should not constitute a good reason to work long hours, and how to find time in-lieu to catch-up. Make it clear that you’re serious about change. 

2. Set the example 

Be seen leaving the office, announcing the cool thing you’ll soon be immersed in that’s not work. 

3. Look after each other 

Show your team you notice and appreciate their work, and care about their wellbeing. Encourage them to look out for each other and raise any concerns sensitively. 

4. Give them an alternative 

Organise something social a bit earlier than they’d expect and avoid work-talk at all costs. Be interested in the families, friends, pets or hobbies that they’ll go home to. 

5. Track their progress 

Encourage your staff to track their work and non-work time when a high-stress time is looming, and then again when the wave has passed. Look up the total hours for different activities, as well as the distribution of work and personal time throughout each day. This can trigger reflection on what level of work-life integration feels right to them. Then if they need to chat about workload or expectations, they’ll have some quantitative evidence to work through. 

An integrated life allows us to work when we choose and take opportunities to prioritise personal activities, without the constraint of traditional office scheduling. Learn the level of integration that works best for you, but don’t overlook the cultural cues you’re giving your team. Everyone should feel the right to disconnect.