I work in small startup company, during the sprints we have very stressful atmosphere, caused by short deadlines and underslept personnel. How can I handle or at least mitigate this situation as a manager ?

  • 87
    Why not do the obvious: more manageable amount of work? Sep 21 '20 at 10:43
  • Have you considered using something other than 2-week Scrum-style sprints? I know of organizations finding success with the Basecamp Shape Up method, which works in six-week cycles. Sep 21 '20 at 20:59
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    “We are trying to push platform into this huge world that will hopefully compete with many others” — is that huge world going to disappear if you push your (presumably self-imposed) deadlines back a bit so that people can sleep properly, and do their best work? Sep 22 '20 at 11:10

There is only one way to mitigate the "under-sleep" problem: allow your employees to have a healthy life, and to separate the job life from the private life.

Other than that, you need somebody who understands management to deal with the things. Based on the work needed, they will estimate the resources required: how many people, their required experience, computers, servers, salaries, other benefits...

It seems that employees are overworked by the management, which will lead to only one result: they will leave.

In some startups, the employees are engaged and do the overtime because they want. However, in these startups, there is no stress "due to the short deadlines".

If we talk about "short deadlines", then we speak about the desires of an unrealistic manager. Combined with "very stressful atmosphere", the picture is complete. The actual "management team" is a dictatorial and not connected to the reality. To them, people are not people, but just resources - just good for exploitation.

how to control stress levels?

Actually, you cannot directly control the stress levels. Stress is just a result, an outcome. Address all the root causes of the stress (e.g., the short deadlines), and stress will go away by itself.

  • 36
    +1, this is clearly an XY Problem. Attack the causes, not the effects! Sep 21 '20 at 19:23
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    @JoelEtherton: How do you control stress as an outcome directly, without touching the cause? Beat the people until the stress goes away? Drug them? Hypnotize them? You made me very curious.
    – virolino
    Sep 22 '20 at 13:14
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    @virolino In this particular case, "beatings will continue until stress levels are reduced"
    – Yuropoor
    Sep 22 '20 at 13:15
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    @JoelEtherton Isn't that exactly what the answerer wrote? "Actually, you cannot control the stress levels. Stress is just a result, an outcome. Address all the root causes of the stress (e.g., the short deadlines), and stress will go away by itself." (emphasis added). It's very unclear what you're disagreeing with. Sep 22 '20 at 13:33
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    @JoelEtherton: Form my point of view, "control the cause" and "control the result" are very different topics. Additionally, the tone of your message (as well as the letter) was that you contradict my answer, which only completes the picture. Otherwise, your comment would be pointless, the way I read it.
    – virolino
    Sep 22 '20 at 13:33

I work in small startup company, during the sprints we have very stressful atmosphere, caused by short deadlines and underslept personnel. How can I handle or at least mitigate this situation as a manager ?

You need to either better manage expectations of stakeholders, and thus reduce the workload that goes onto the team (by removing features, cutting corners, buying read-made solutions, ways to do that are endless and are a compromise), or you need to better explain the problem of not enough manpower to the stakeholders and get a budget for more people.

Otherwise if you will continue on the path you are now, where you are overpromising to the stakeholders and then pushing the team to the breaking point then the team will eventually burn out and leave, sometimes in the ambulance if it's as bad as you describe it.

  • 11
    Even though correct, the answer is dangerously over-simplified. It is quite obvious that the current management team does not have the skills / experience to actually do management. They seem to be more like "YES-sayers" to the clients and "order-givers" to the development team, while being titled "managers". When management is missing, adding more people to the team is actually counterproductive and an additional source of stress.
    – virolino
    Sep 21 '20 at 12:36
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    @virolino you are guessing that's the case though. And while it's a likely correct guess, unless op provides more details of how exactly their process works, that's as detailed as I can get without making some far-reaching assumptions. Sep 21 '20 at 12:41
  • I agree, a clear solution cannot be proposed based on the info in the question.
    – virolino
    Sep 21 '20 at 12:45
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    @virolino: "They seem to be more like "YES-sayers" to the clients and "order-givers" to the development team, while being titled "managers"". Excellent, concise description. Sep 22 '20 at 13:18
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    I often say that the job of a manager is "tanking" for the team, to use a gaming term. The managers hold back the expectations of the stakeholders and customers, buying more time and room for the team to get the job done.
    – Muz
    Sep 23 '20 at 4:34

Do not allow people to work for more than 40 hours a week.

Various studies have shown that people simply can not work efficiently for more than 40 hours a week over longer stretches of time. Overstraining this stress level results in lack of concentration which reduces the work output and increases the amount of mistakes made. The result is that the weekly output of a worker decreases when you have them work more than 40 hours.

It might sound counter-intuitive, but your company might be able to accomplish more by working less.

Being a startup has nothing to do with this. "Startup culture" does not mean overworking people until they burn out. This does not work in "corporate" and it does not work in startups either. If you can not accomplish your objectives with a regular work week, then that's a planning problem:

  • Negotiate realistic deadlines
  • Learn to say No to unrealistic stakeholder demands
  • Work smarter, not harder:
    • Optimize your internal processes to minimize time spent on bureaucracy or unproductive meetings. Identify and remove bottlenecks in your processes.
    • Prioritize tasks which give you the most benefit for the least amount of work
    • Make sure everyone has access to all the resources, tools and equipment they need to work as efficiently as possible.
  • 3
    And for all of these, they need to hire a real manager. The current management team is totally away from the subject. While they can still start learning what management really is, the time goes by and the project will fail.
    – virolino
    Sep 22 '20 at 13:23

Provide them with drugs.

Both sleep deprivation and high levels of stress are problems that can be solved (or at least mitigated) with drugs. Stimulants can be used to ward off the negative effects of sleep deprivation; a popular, legal one is caffeine; military organizations have occasionally used amphetamines to allow them to support a high operational tempo, but that isn't an option for any civilian organizations due to anti-drug laws. There are a wide variety of psychiatric medications that can reduce stress; however, many of them are potentially addictive, and aside from some herbal medications, they all require prescriptions from a doctor. You might also consider experimenting with providing them with nootropic "smart drug" supplements as a further performance improvement measure (and several of these are already combined with caffeine in energy drinks).

Obviously, this is a "solution" that won't address the root causes of these issues, and the company would be liable for any negative outcomes that the drugs might cause; consulting a doctor about potential interactions between the contents of any drug cocktails you're providing to your employees would probably be a wise decision to make, from a corporate liability standpoint. Consulting an employment lawyer about corporate liability for damage to the health of your employees would probably be wise, regardless.

However, you may be able to spin this in a positive way to improve morale, by positioning yourself as a trendy, supportive employer providing your employees a perk: "We're providing you with free energy drinks, coffee, chamomile tea, and anti-stress herbal supplements to help support your passion as we work together to deliver our products."

  • 7
    I... what? This reads as a funny answer to a serious problem, and while I appreciate the humor, this cannot be taken as a serious advice (unless OP workplace is a labor camp in some god forgotten place). Disregarding any type of medication (which is for actual health problems, not to drug oneself), this reads to me as "I know you must complete this 2 month project in 1 week, and you work 18 hours a day, but hey, here's your coffee, now you have no problem".
    – Yuropoor
    Sep 23 '20 at 6:28
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    I honestly hope this is a troll/comedy comment because otherwise it's possibly the worst advice I've seen in a long time. Sep 23 '20 at 6:54
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    @RichCampbell No, totally serious. I half expect that there's already companies doing this. That's why I suggested that the consult a doctor to make sure there's no drug interactions between anything they offer their employees - and that they should probably consult a lawyer regarding liability regarding the damage they're already doing to their employees' health.
    – nick012000
    Sep 23 '20 at 11:11
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    Caffeine and sugar are also addictive. Your employers will keep coming back for their "fix". People are criticizing this answer but what company does not provide free coffee (and why do they provide free coffee?). However, this answer is probably not useful to OP because OP's company is probably already providing as many drugs as they can get away with.
    – emory
    Sep 23 '20 at 12:48
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    @RichCampbell I don't think most people have heard about nootropics and how they can be better than just plain coffee/caffeine. This post mentions historical uses of using substances and warns about their dangers. Moreover it provides an improvement that doesn't need a company reorganisation. It's answering OP's question professionally. Saying it's a joke is not a good way to ask for improvement.
    – akaltar
    Sep 23 '20 at 21:35

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