Harry Gandhi has talked to hundreds of founders and served as an advisor to countless company leaders since 2017. He’s worked with two VC firms and is adviser in residence at the 1517 Fund. Through these roles, and his own personal experiences with burnout, Harry’s developed a unique perspective on the challenges founders and developers face in the workplace.
It’s not uncommon for founders to face an identity crisis, Harry says, caused in part by the tension between their private lives and their public identity, which often is directly associated with their work.
“That stress lies in the difference between who you claim to be, or who you externally want to be, versus who you are,” Harry says. “And the greater the difference, the greater the anxiety, the greater this tension brews.”
When your behavior departs from your ideals and values, it creates cognitive dissonance. If that psychological tension isn’t resolved, it can lead to persistent feelings of exhaustion and burnout.
Harry experienced his first bout with burnout in 2017 when he was in his early 20s, and had been working for four years as the founder of Medella Health.
“My identity was tied to my company at the time,” Harry says … and when he needed to shrink his team of 17 employees down to just four in a two-month span, that identity took a major hit.
Before, Harry prided himself in being a successful founder who provided meaningful employment to a large team of people.
“It was this tension between who I was externally or who I thought I was supposed to be, versus who I really was, that had strayed in different directions,” Harry says. “The longer you don’t deal with that weight, I think it leads to burnout.
Harry certainly isn’t alone in this thinking. After he published a Substack article in October — “How to Deal with (and Prevent) Burnout” — his social accounts were flooded with DMs from people who felt similarly, everyone from developers and founders in tech to folks from the finance industry as well.
Now, Harry hopes to continue sharing what he’s learned, so that workers in industries of all kinds can build healthier work-life experiences.
Spotting the red flags of burnout
Harry was familiar with the concept of burnout before he first experienced it himself. However, thinking about something in theory is much different than experiencing it firsthand.
“Practically going through burnout — it’s just different. You cannot think about it in such a rational way when you’re in the belly of the beast,” Harry says.
It’s important to start thinking about burnout before it starts to set in, if possible. To help people spot the red flags of burnout, Harry has identified three factors that may be contributing to extreme work-related fatigue.
The first factor is the COVID-19 pandemic, which left many people feeling isolated as they spent less time with friends and loved ones. A 2020 study found that loneliness among older adults nearly doubled in the aftermath of the pandemic. Similarly, U.S. adults were three times more likely to experience moderate or serious mental distress in April 2020 than before the pandemic.
The second factor is social media, which Harry says has coupled with the pandemic to create a culture of loneliness. A 2021 study found that people who reported high rates of social media use after the COVID-19 crisis were more likely to experience decreased mental and psychosocial health.
The third, and perhaps most important, factor is what Harry calls the “fetishization of the hustle culture.” Harry argues that unrealistic expectations among startup cultures, where you have to work crazy long hours even if you’re just doing busy work, are a long-term detriment to companies and employees.
“This sort of fetishization of productivity, ironically, leads to less productivity long-term. Short term, you might get a lot more things done, but in the long term, a lot of folks end up going through burnout,” Harry says.
Some people might tolerate working long hours if they feel their work has meaning and impact — after all, Nietzsche famously said, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”
However, workers who don’t feel their work has an impact are thrust into an identity crisis, which again paves the way for burnout.
“Whether you’re a developer or whether you’re in finance, when your work doesn’t see the light of day, you feel very absurd. You’ll make a decent amount of money doing that, but what have you really done for humanity?”
Breaking free from burnout
After Harry recognized he was experiencing burnout, he still struggled to know how to overcome it. Over time, Harry discovered that, in order to resolve his inner turmoil, he needed to go deep within himself.
“Self-awareness and self-reflection are really, really, important. That’s why a big part of the path to come out of things like burnout and anxiety are things like meditation, because they make you acutely aware of who you really are.”
Harry imagines his mind as a room where his thoughts are organized. He wants to keep this room as organized as possible. But when there are unresolved conflicts — say, a fight with a friend, or guilt over letting an employee go — clutter begins to pile up in his mental room.
Meditation offers Harry a way to internally survey how he’s feeling, notice what clutter has come up in his mind, and consider how he can tidy things up.
Practicing mindfulness has proven to be effective for people experiencing high occupational stress in other fields, too. Multiple studies have found meditation effectively decreases stress and burnout among nurses and teachers.
Besides meditation, Harry argues that companies can defend against burnout by embracing a culture of empathy, especially among company leadership.
“I think a lot of managers in general lack empathy, because they’re very objective-oriented, especially in the STEM, engineering-type fields.”
Trying to incorporate empathy within a well-established work culture can be difficult, but Harry suggests that bringing in someone external — like a therapist or advisor — can help ease the process.
He also recommends that companies invest in a “third place” where employees can interact and be social with one another outside of work and home. This doesn’t have to be a physical place, but could be a time where the team comes together and does an activity as a group.
By creating this third space, Harry believes employees will feel more connected to their colleagues and their work, effectively guarding them against burnout. A 2020 study backs up this reasoning, showing that workplaces with higher levels of coworker support are associated with reduced burnout.
Lastly, Harry’s involvement with the 1517 fund allows him to invest in college dropouts and founders with atypical backgrounds. By reducing the barriers these trailblazers face in the early stages of their companies, the fund hopes to prevent burnout among founders and their engineering teams.
Remember your worth, and be patient
As Harry healed from burnout, he developed a more nuanced view of himself. It’ll always be easiest to introduce himself at parties as a founder, but there are other roles that mean more to him now — like being a good boyfriend, a good son, a good friend.
That mental shift helps him retain his sense of identity, even when things don’t go the way he hopes. It’s also why Harry encourages people to remember their worth outside of work, and to fight for their wellbeing — no matter how long it takes.
As Harry wrote, “You’ll have to try different experiments — some will work, and some will not — the best thing you can do is be patient with yourself.”