Image source: The Globe and Mail
It seems like every day a new story emerges about burnout — the symptoms, the struggles, and the seeming inevitability that it will happen to all of us. But why is burnout not treated like something we can — and should — proactively take steps to avoid? Why is burnout such a popular unhealthy habit we all seem willing to succumb to?
Eva Wong, co-founder and Chief Operating Officer of the Toronto-based fintech company, Borrowell, is no stranger to burnout. Having experienced it early on in her entrepreneurial journey, she's developed a proactive approach to not only reduce burnout for herself, but to prevent it across her company.
Speaking with Eva, we explored her experiences with burnout, how it changed her thinking, and how other leaders can develop a similar approach.
A Story of Self-Care Debt
As co-founder of a fast-growing financial lending company, Eva compares burnout to debt — calling it self-care debt. Founders, entrepreneurs, and people consistently working long hours are especially susceptible, she explains. "When you're working really hard, it's difficult to take a step back and realize you're not in a good place," Eva says. "In my experience, it creeps up on you. It's a series of gradual changes that are made over a period of time until they become new habits, which can be hard to break. One day you realize you're not sleeping, you're low energy, and you've gained 10 pounds!"
For Eva, these bad habits, like not getting enough sleep, are the foundation of a burnout cycle that will compound your self-care debt. "It comes as a pretty direct result of not getting enough sleep. It might start as a cold that takes too long to recover," she says, drawing from her personal experience. "And then it spirals — I'm tired, so I'm not as productive, so I stay up late, and the cycle repeats itself."
Eva says that getting out of the cycle of self-care debt requires finding balance — which is unique for everyone. "Every person needs to define balance for themselves," she explains. "For me, it's about two things —the amount of time I spend working versus personal time, and the ability to be focused and present where I am."
For example, Eva maximizes her time with family and friends by focusing on them, and not on her phone or on work — a strategy that might make a lot of founders flinch. But Eva says this practice lends positively to her overall productivity and happiness. "It makes me more efficient with work, and it makes personal time more enjoyable too."
Eva also has a specific set of tactics that keep her in balance. Instead of committing to nightly work events and working on weekends, she sets basic boundaries and sticks to them. "I limit weeknights out to a maximum of three a week, and I average much less. And I don't typically work weekends during the day."
The Role of Leaders
I ask Eva what she thinks of hustle-obsessed CEO's like Elon Musk, who are vocal against work-life balance and have a history of burning out. She points to influential executives like Sheryl Sandberg — and that we need more leaders like her to set an example. "It was so groundbreaking when Sheryl Sandberg said she went home at 5:30," Eva recalls. "We need other successful role models who don't spend 100% of their waking hours on work, but in our culture I think it's hard to step out and say that."
That's why Eva thinks it's important for founders and leaders to set this kind of example for their teams, and to ultimately create a more positive work culture for everyone. "Work-life balance is important because we'll not only lead happier lives, we'll also grow more successful businesses," she explains. "Time away from the business to rest, learn something new, connect with people who are different from us — all that can inspire us and help us return to work excited to tackle the problems that need to be solved."
The bottom line, she argues, is that most of us aren't super-human. "Burning out your team and dealing with high turnover is not going to result in a successful business."
Setting Goals for Success
To proactively work against self-care debt, Eva's mantra is simple. "Be thoughtful about the life you want to lead," she says. "The same way we set goals for our business, we should set goals for our lives. If you believe you're key to the success of your company, then you need to invest in yourself and make sure you're in top shape — physically, mentally and emotionally."
Eva Wong is Co-Founder and Chief Operating Officer at Borrowell, a Canadian fintech company that helps consumers make great decisions about credit. Eva's career has spanned both the private and not-for-profit sectors, including leadership roles at The OTF Group (a Monitor spin-off), Maple Leaf Foods, UNDP and Oliver Wyman (formerly Mercer Management Consulting). She was named to the 2017 Women in FinTech Powerlist and was a finalist for Fintech Woman of the Year at LendIt, the world’s biggest show in lending and fintech. Eva was named one of 20 Canadian tech start-up founders to follow by Twitter Canada, was featured as one of 9 Canadian Women Changing The Game by Elle Canada and on Flare's #HowIMadeIt list of Canadian women with cool jobs. Eva holds degrees from Harvard University and Queen’s School of Business.