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From burnt out to flourishing, how to achieve well-being at the workplace – Interview with Madeleine Evans, founder and CEO of Levell

Madeleine Evans is an expert in workplace well-being, and the founder and CEO of Levell, a startup that creates well-being management tools for people, companies, and teams. Levell’s mission is to eliminate burnout by putting well-being right alongside performance, ‘on the priority list’ for people and companies.

At this year’s EU-Startup’s Summit, Madeleine gave an excellent presentation about founder and employee well-being – which you can check out here.

According to Levell’s own research carried out with Streetbees, as many as 60% of employees in the US and UK are experiencing stress and exhaustion in the workplace, with up to 20% suffering from anxiety, depression, and severe burnout. While it’s a truism that hard work pays off, burnout doesn’t. Instead it carries high costs for startup founders and employees – resulting in errors, poor decision-making, lower quality relationships with clients, and overall reduced productivity, performance, and growth.

In this interview, Madeleine outlines the factors that lead to job burnout, what it means to be well, and what we can do to achieve well-being in the workplace and ‘flourish’ as startup founders and employees.

What’s your background, and what led you to found Levell?

I started my career in private equity, working first as an associate in a large-cap fund, and then leading business & product development in one of our portfolio companies. As part of that process, I was exposed to, also fell victim to, the difficulties of managing work, life and well-being as a highly motivated employee in a high-pressure services workplace.

In October 2017, I had the opportunity to join Zinc VC as an entrepreneur-in-residence, in a selective class of 50 entrepreneurs and technologists, to build startups to tackle womens’ mental and emotional health issues. I jumped at it! I dove deep into the research on work-related mental health, and specifically stress and burnout. I not only recognized the symptoms in myself, but I realised that the drivers of these issues are clear – just not widely applied or even known about. This was an opportunity for me.

What does it mean to be mentally healthy, and why is it important for companies?

Mental health is, in the definition of the WHO and the UK and US governments – a state of well-being (psychological and emotional, as opposed to just physical).

So mental health and well-being are intrinsically interlinked.

The WHO defines mental health by four outcomes: a state in well-being which you can cope with the stressors of life, to work productively and fruitfully, have the ability to realize your full potential, and contribute to your community. So mental health really is completely holistic – covering a state of well-being in multiple domains.

What services does Levell offer, and how does it help to reduce stress and improve mental health at the workplace?

Levell offers a platform where employees can track their stress, motivation, energy, and mood; report on any blockers, such as ineffective company policies or interpersonal issues; and offer ideas for improvement. Data remains anonymous, but management can monitor aggregate findings on the organization dashboard to gain insights and address issues that are bringing down well-being.

Based on aggregate data, company leadership, and even HR, are better placed to make organizational, work, and benefits changes. Right now they are making changes based only on information on the financial or P&L impact – if they are using data at all in these decisions. With Levell, they get completely new and unique insights about the connection between work and well-being, in real-time, safely, and directly from employees.

What are some of the differences you’ve observed between mental health factors for startup founders versus employees?

The single biggest issue driving work-related stress, and burnout, is low job control in the workplace. This is typically more of a problem for full-time employees in large, hierarchical, and top-down organizations, than it is for those who run their own businesses or for small nimble organizations and their employees. We saw an indication of this in our survey with Streetbees, where we polled a significant sample of the UK & US workforce: versus full-time employed respondents, self-employed respondents were less likely to report feeling burnt out.

That said, for venture-backed founders on a wild and exponential growth path, who have tenuous relationships with their board, job control can feel like a luxury. You’re getting bombarded by questions and ideas from your investors, you have no idea what you’re doing, and it seems basically impossible to get clear market feedback.

So the extent to which your job is a mental health risk depends very much on your job design, and ‘work’ or ‘organizational’ environment, rather than whether you are an employee or founder per se.

Your survey with Streetbees found that over 60% of workers are suffering from some sort of stress or exhaustion, and you also mentioned that government and other sources have found that around 20% of workers suffer from anxiety or depression. What accounts for this state of affairs, and what does it mean for companies?

The key issues driving chronic stress & exhaustion have to do with an imbalance between an employees’ perceived & actual resources, and their work and demands in the workplace. To some extent, stress arises from feelings of threat, conflicts, and/or values mis-alignments as well. Stress and burnout are precursors to work-related anxiety, which can also morph into generalized anxiety, and work-related or generalized depression. Not to mention the impact on our physical health. 

With such high levels of emotional (and/or physical) exhaustion and psychological stress, without rest, employees simply cannot be at their best in the workplace: more errors, more irritability, greater decision fatigue; leading to lower quality relationships and client interactions; and reduced business productivity, performance and growth.

What are the main factors contributing to stress in today’s workplace?

Profs. Goh, Zenios and Pfeffer did a fantastic analysis of the causes of work-related stress in the workplace, using US survey data, and one of the authors, Dr. Jeffrey Pfeffer, wrote a more non-academic book on the findings, Dying for a Paycheck (highly recommended read!).

They found the main contributing factors to high reported work-related stress were: unemployment, lack of health insurance, exposure to shift work, long working hours, job insecurity, work-family conflict, low job control, high job demands, low social support at work, and low organizational justice.

These map closely to the work of Dr. Christina Maslach, whose mismatch theory of burnout highlights six work-related factors which have been found to contribute materially to risk of burnout: workload, community, control, fairness, values alignment, and reward.

Boil it down, and you get a prescription for the types of workplaces, and working patterns, which are helpful, and NOT helpful, for having an energized, productive, and highly creative workforce:

  1. high job control (including flexible work);
  2. strong community & support (leading to access to help with demands, and/or extra resource);
  3. a manageable level & pattern of workload;
  4. organizational fairness;
  5. strong person-work-organizational values alignment;
  6. limited exogenous sources of job, or job-related insecurity (e.g. no employment, no health insurance, and/or variable shift work – equally, although not directly included in Goh et al’s work, this would include no physical safety issues or bullying); and
  7. sufficient balance of effort vs. reward.

This provides a pretty awesome prescription for anyone in, or entering the workforce. It’s like an audit you can do on your job, and future employers. Will this job be a source of unnecessary risk of stress and burnout, or will it be nourishing, motivating, and all-around great?

What can we do to reduce stress in the workplace, and how can Levell help?

Clearly, there are all kinds of stress-related products, services, and interventions available – and the competition is growing. I like to split the market into quadrants: on one axis, you have solutions to educate & support employees (bottom-up) vs. solutions to inform & empower leaders (top-down). On the other axis, you have interventions that reduce symptoms (enabling better short-term, in the moment stress coping) vs. solutions that address root causes (enabling users to take a more long-term, problem-solving approach).

Levell’s solution is unique in that it takes a problem-solving approach – helping identify the root causes of stress, as well as exhaustion, low mood, and disengagement, and that it supports the entire organization at all levels. Employees can engage in using Levell to understand themselves better, and take action; leadership can identify common themes across many employees; and we enable data-driven communication between.

What do startup founders and employees need to do in order to ‘flourish’?

The OECD’s working group on measuring well-being produced a report, For Good Measure, which identifies three theories (or dimensions) of subjective well-being: whether you are satisfied with your life & legacy (evaluative theory); whether you feel like you have meaning & purpose (eudamonic theory); and how (physically, mentally, emotionally) you feel every day (the hedonic approach).

I define flourishing as being truly able to reach one’s full potential across all these three areas, or dimensions, of health and wellbeing.

Here are the core strategies I recommend, which I also highlighted in my talk on Founder Mental Health at the 2019 EU Startup Summit in Barcelona:

  1. Set your baseline. Identify a metric for well-being, and measure it. I like to use Levell’s mood, stress, energy, and motivation measures. You might want to use one integrated measure, or a measure of life satisfaction, or even degree of daily anxiety and general perceived health.
  2. Identify major stresses in your life and neutralize them. This means tracking your specific daily stressors, and tackling the most frequent ones with a structured and problem-solving approach.
  3. Invest in work & life situations that reduce risk of burnout. Here, this means finding situations with high job control, community, a good balance of work & resource, sufficient reward, organizational fairness, and values alignment.
  4. Seek out flourishing. Here, this gets bespoke. What is it that keeps you feeling happy, healthy, calm, cool, connected, motivated, joyful, creative, productive, spiritual? Take time to reflect, and identify 1-2 things that really deliver on these sensations for you. Then plan your life and schedule, so you have time to regularly get these in.
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Mary Loritz
Mary Loritz
Mary served as Head of Content at EU-Startups.com from November 2018 until November 2019. She is an experienced journalist and researcher covering tech and business topics.

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