Stress in High-Growth Startups: What HR Can Do to Detect and Mitigate Stress

We all know that high-growth startups can be stressful places to work. Fortunately, there’s a lot that HR professionals and startup leaders can do to help promote a healthy work environment. Here are my top four recommendations for how startups should approach the issue during the hiring process and after.

1. Acknowledge stress levels and work culture during recruitment process.

Since startups can be high-stress workplaces, this should be discussed with candidates during the hiring process. For many startup companies fast-paced and slightly high work loads are part of what makes the culture thrive. It can foster a strong sense of ownership if the team is well engaged and recognized. In that case, you need to be honest and really transparent about the work culture when recruiting new employees. You can still be transparent about these qualities and speak in positive language, such as  “you’ll have ownership over your work here,” or “It is an exciting and fast paced culture.”

A lot of people really love this kind of environment and thrive in it, but some people do not. You need to know your culture and be able to communicate that during the recruiting process.

2. Help to define your company’s core values and hire candidates that activate those values and fit your mission.

As an HR consultant, I end up talking to my clients a lot about who they are hiring. In addition to discussing questions around candidates skills and experience, it is equally important to understand what work behaviors and values does the candidate exhibit. Leaders need to know their own company’s DNA and identify their personal expectations of what successful behavior looks like in an employee. This can’t be arbitrary, based only on a gut feeling, or articulated as a generic statement such as “we work hard and play hard.” In addition to skills and experience, there are more data points required to select candidates who will succeed at a company. I can’t stress enough helping leadership identifying what behaviors and work ethic/styles they most value in an employee. Help the ceo or leader be clear about their own behavior, core values, and work style and make sure you’re hiring strategically and specifically to match or compliment leadership and existing employees styles.  

Subcultures will develop within your company and that’s okay. If you’ve successfully identified a through line of core values that people share regardless of their job function or department you will be far more likely to have effective communication and collaboration across the organization which ultimately leads to lower stress and feelings of unhappiness and frustration. Identifying, hiring for, and recognizing employees for exhibiting or activating qualities like strong attention to detail and work ethic, problem solving ability, and systems or design thinking skills can do a lot to create a unified workforce that can soldier through tough times together.

3. Proactively identify stress in individuals and teams.

Identifying stress in the workplace is primarily about noticing change. HR professionals can help managers to understand what the individuals on their team’s baseline behavior and what their best work looks like. Then, hr and managers can be on notice to identify when there is a change in behavior or the quality of work declines. Maybe some team members start making silly mistakes because of stress.

Not all employees are comfortable talking to their managers about stress, so it may not be apparent whether the stress is from the workplace or external circumstances. But managers can and should make themselves available to help employees work through stress and problem solve workplace solutions to stress.

4. Use data and KPIs to monitor stress levels as you grow..

If you only have 20 employees or fewer you should be able to feel the stress when you walk into the room. But if you’re a larger company you should be using a more data-driven way to assess employee stress. As you grow, be conscious that you won’t always be able to look around the room and notice when there’s a stress problem. There are plenty of surveys or tools you can use to gather feedback on stress and employee engagement. I always recommend companies implement some form of a quantitative tool to measure engagement and employee satisfaction after reaching a certain headcount size.

When it comes to evaluating team stress, HR professionals should see a red flag when a team isn’t meeting its goals and KPIs. The key is to look at the change from when the team is operating at peak performance versus what they look like when stressed. You will see some kind of reduction in quality. Using those metrics and other qualitative surveys you can make smart interventions to help employees manage stress and feel healthy at work.

Stress, can have a positive or negative impact on a business and culture. It is also a very common part of high-growth startup life, and that’s not always a bad thing. Many individuals and company can thrive off of good stress. But HR needs to be actively monitoring stress levels and be prepared to step in if and when intervention is needed.

Nancy Noto is the Founder and a consultant at NPN Consulting, a firm focused on HR and people development for startup and growth stage companies. Previously, Nancy held HR leadership roles at Xaxis, Mic and AppNexus.