Start up culture not sustainable
Ouyang has been a good friend of mine for almost 10 years now, and I have always admired his cheery disposition and strong mind. The last few years, he decided to partner up to set up his own tech company, which has done extremely well in a short space of time. I thought all entrepreneurs are stressed out (I certainly am!) but every time I see him, he is so bubbly and full of energy. So, now he shares some secrets of how he keeps his team at work emotionally and mentally resilient, preventing them from burnout before it is too late.
President, Asia Innovations Group
Why do you care about workplace stress and burnout?
First off, I think there is an upside to stress because it gives us motivation. However, it is when we cannot cope with the stress that makes it a slippery slope to issues like depression and anxiety. So, releasing stress becomes important.
From the company perspective, having healthy employees means they have maximum productivity, which means I can ensure value for stakeholders with a strong bottom line. This in turn means a healthy company which gives the employees a stable environment in which to work.
What is specific to your tech start-up company that might make it challenging to prevent burnout?
Tech companies have a different kind of culture, especially in the initial years. We work hard and we work long hours because of the competitiveness of the industry. We have to walk the extra mile — maybe even 10 miles — and give extra effort. So, many from the outside looking in, think it is stressful, because this is not a 9 to 5 job, and we do not pretend it is.
In the first year, we had to work on Saturdays too, and most of the tech team did not leave the office until 9pm. But we realized it was not sustainable, and we changed that and forced a lot of tech team to go home earlier. But also, we understand they work in a different style, so if they stay late, we are opened to them arriving at the office later the next morning too!
Then how do you help your employees stay un-stressed out?
We have lots of benefits and perks such as reimbursing their gym card memberships, because we know that exercise helps the brain work better. However, we go deeper than that. For us, it is a mindset.
Many people start to feel overwhelmed at work because they do not see the meaning in their tasks, and they lose motivation. The “stress” becomes unbearable instead of an impetus. So, for us, it is important that they feel pride in their work. This is part of our company culture, that they know how their tasks at hand contribute to the bigger picture and mission of the company.
What have you found to be most effective in helping employees cope?
Proactiveness on management’s part. By the time employees come to talk to managers, it is too late — we have had cases where employees come and simply say they want to quit. When they do that, we know they have broken down and collapsed, and they are burnout. We have learnt over the years it is better to encourage an open discussion before they get to that point so that we can find a way to help them.
For instance, this particular colleague felt he was working so late that he could never see his children, but he did not share that with anyone. Once we found out that was the reason he wanted to quit, we encouraged him to leave the office earlier, and simply come in earlier to finish his work after he sends his kids to school, even if the rest of the office has not arrived. Then, he was happy again.
So, we now make ensure there is an open dialogue between employees and their managers, and managers have to initiate these conversations. We have also set up a mentor-mentee programme in-house, so that employees find more support. The mentor is not their usual managers so there is also less pressure from that side.
Apart from work, what do you think gives people in China pressure?
For China, I think actually work is not the most serious source of pressure — it is family. Most of our employees are born after 80s and 90s, they have young families, and also they have to take care of their parents, with no help from siblings because they are all single children. Parents work late, kids don’t have time with their parents. This makes people very tired.
So, we have redistributed workloads where possible, help people find flexible working hours — this is one great flexibility of a start-up! We give them autonomy and ownership of their work to decide.
Why do you think Chinese men are reluctant to talk about topics like depression or burnout?
Yes, I find it true in my experience. Women seem more apt in openly sharing their emotions and how they feel, or that they cannot cope. Chinese men perhaps, have more pride and high self-esteem. They want to find the solution themselves and deal with problems themselves. They do not ask for help.
Also, in China, it is not popular to see counselors. Some do not even know they have the option or that sharing and talking about their issues actually helps alleviate them and reduce the stress level.
We do need more education about these topics so the society is more aware of this and we can prevent cases of burnout.
Can you share what you do in your low times as an entrepreneur?
I think low times are a constant as an entrepreneur (laugh), especially in tech start-ups. I believe in myself and my ability to find a way out. This prevents me from going into emotional burnout or feeling like I am overwhelmed. And more importantly, I ask for help before it is too late, I think this is a key component.