I recently finished leading an awesome two-hour sales leadership team strategy session for a tech client that was equally inspirational and scary. I shared actionable insights about high-performing teams and helped them get clear on ways they each can optimizing how they work together – of course, that part was amazing. Then came the scary part: talking about burnout.
A topic that kept showing up was burnout. Now, let me be clear: they didn’t directly say “I’m burning out,” or “My team is burning out” – it was a subtle pull-through in the breakout rooms and group report outs. The conversation was about taking such pride in their work, their team results, supporting their customers, and all while making time for the people that they love outside of work.
At one point one of the respected overachieving leaders on the team said, “Right now, it doesn’t feel sustainable. My wife and kids give me a hard time about my hours. My wife is worried about me and my kids just want their Dad.”
Sound familiar? How do you get it all done? How do you as a leader in tech, as a partner, a parent, really, a human being – how do you not burn out and actually thrive in your work?
Chances are you’re reading this because that’s your life and work right now. Maybe it feels hopeless. Maybe burnout is your reality or about to become your reality and it’s scary. I’ve been there – I burnt out as a tech executive in Silicon Valley. I have been in the emergency room thinking I was having a heart attack – and all while I was sitting there with my laptop in hand working on final edits to a slide deck I was supposed to present the following day.
Thankfully, it was an allergic reaction to antibiotics that I took because I had been suffering from chronic bronchitis for months. Why bronchitis? My immune system was shot. My basic self-care was not on my priority list. Sleep, hydration, quiet time to reflect, and connection with others was non-existent. I was constantly suffering from self-doubt and in fight-or-flight mode.
Spoiler alert: if you’re working a slide deck while in the ER ruling out a heart attack, it’s a sign your boundaries are blurred and you probably think no one else is capable of what you do. That is a recipe for burnout, my friend.
Burnout is like a virus. It doesn’t just impact you – it has the dangerous potential of hurting everyone around you. It impacts your organization, the people you love, the people you lead, the customers you serve. It’s a serious deal, and if this COVID-19 nightmare taught us anything, it’s that we need to wake up as a tech industry, especially as leaders, and take care of our mental health and priorities and show our team members how to do the same for themselves.
If you’re burning out or already burned out, that doesn’t have to be a badge of shame. If you’re on the road to burnout, it also doesn’t have to be inevitable. That’s why I want to share three principles to help you manage your own self better to avoid burnout as a leader in tech. This will help you lead and love better to get your work and life headed in the right direction.
1. Start with yourself.
As much as you want to help everybody else, you have to start with yourself. I learned this the hard way. After 20+ years leading in tech, I guarantee that there’s no way for you to effectively, sustainably lead your team if you’re not okay. You can’t help anyone else if you’re the one in need of help. Take a look at your definition of ‘work-life balance’. How are you defining and setting your priorities? Not everything is important and very few opportunities are truly created equal. We as a society are conditioned to always look at how to improve, how to lead better, be optimized, and obsess with ROI and QOR – and the tech industry treats work addiction as some badge of honor. COVID-19 completely disrupted our timelines and we have to adjust our expectations.
Dude, it’s time to be honest with yourself. Grab a piece of paper and do this quick self-assessment: how energized are you when you’re working? Do you wake up rested and ready to rock in the morning? Are you eating, drinking, shopping online, doom scrolling, or numbing out in some way more than usual? Do you feel more angry and less patient? If yes, these are some of the symptoms you are on your way to burnout.
You need to be honest with how you’re feeling, even if you’re not ‘great with feelings’. I get it – not everyone in tech is emotive and touchy-feely. Be as honest with yourself as you can be right now and invite other people you trust to share their honest perspectives about you with you. You don’t necessarily even have to share how you’re doing with anyone – start with a post it note, a journal, a whiteboard or the notes app on your phone.
You also owe it to those you lead and love to check in and see how they’re doing. Here’s some easy and impactful questions to ask and open up a deeper conversation:
- How are you holding up?
- How are you feeling?
- What’s on your mind that you can’t stop thinking about?
- What’s one thing that I can help take off your mind?
Your team may not want to talk about their feelings, so it’s your responsibility to lead the way to the best extent possible. Being clear on how things are actually going is one of the best steps to avoiding burnout. It doesn’t happen though unless you reflect and create the space for honesty with yourself and those you lead.
2. Revisit your values and priorities.
You don’t have to wait for a new year or a new opportunity to hit the reset button on life and work. Resets can be micro and macro. Having awareness and clarity on how you want to feel become guideposts for decision making and the beginning of the reboot process. For me, I could have exited tech when I burned out, but I didn’t and I’m so glad I didn’t. When I was in the emergency room, I was way down the path toward quitting. Work was so exhausting and I was mad and resentful all the time.
My reboot started with agreeing to a medical leave to focus on my physical and mental health. Within three months I was clear on how I wanted to feel and what actions I could take back at work and at home to feel the way I wanted to feel. I realized I didn’t have to quit – I had to put myself on my priority list daily. You may not get the three-month medical leave like I did, for which I’m eternally grateful, but you need to figure out what to do and how to do it in the time that you do have.
Whether you’re working now or if your job is looking for a job, you have the opportunity to revisit your values and priorities. Every time you commit to something ask yourself if it’s in alignment with what you value for my family and your life. I’ve given my daughter a mental health day from distance learning. My husband and I now take very long lunch walks, not every day but when we can, to just reconnect. Being clear on what matters most and always asking what’s the best and right thing to do right now as you manage your day and your business is really important. Nowhere is that more important than when it directly involves the people you lead and love.
It’s also true with the people you lead. One way you can really help is asking your team members to create a list of priorities for their role and responsibilities for the next three months, and then, you together can validate or realign those priorities. They might believe something’s important that you don’t even care about right now for other reasons, but without clarity, how can you expect them to know that information? Perceived importance is not true importance.
VPs have told me that they don’t even have budgets or clarity of direction right now, but they’re still experienced to run their business. How do you plan without a target? I’ve had employees tell me they submitted expense reports, and then their reimbursement requests were denied without any conversation. That’s a mishap you can’t afford to repeat as a leader in tech. If at any point a team member is working on a project or initiative they believe is important and the rules or focus has changed, you owe it to them to reset expectations ASAP. No one wants to waste their time and effort to find out what they are working on isn’t important. That is a recipe for loss of trust and it’s demoralizing.
3. Rewrite your programming.
When your mental battery is drained, you know you are about to lose power. Why is it we recharge our phones or laptops faster than we recharge ourselves? You have a lot of processing power and your mental and emotional fortitude can drain too. Allow yourself to take a nap if you’re tired. Say “No” to more emails, calls, meetings, and tasks that don’t have to be done right now. That’s challenging at best when you’re running distance learning, working full-time, or looking for a job.
One of the best investments you could make right now is taking 15 minutes to just breathe, rest, and enjoy some peace and quiet. Resting your mind, allowing your body to exhale, and experiencing some grace to be human. Prioritize your own wellbeing, get rest, hydrate, eat good meals, get up and move – remember, you’re not just a glorified house plant.
While we did our two-hour Zoom session, I had the participants do a scavenger hunt to connect, which meant everyone getting out of their seats, walking, finding items, and hearing why they picked the object they picked as a way of creating a deeper connection and focus on the event at hand. The energy shifted right away – people started smiling, laughing, and looking at their screens more closely. Listen, energy rises when the body moves, there is laughter and curiosity.
Whether it’s you or one of your team members, the burnout is happening right now. Life is maxed out, stressed out, scared, confused, and it’s really hard to just keep ‘stuff’ together. Your organization is filled with employees having one of more of these feelings while working: stressed out, scared, overwhelmed or slow to complete key projects and believe me they are judging themselves for it. The best thing you can do is to reach out and ask, “How are you doing? How are you holding up? Let’s take a look at priorities and let’s align on what really matters and let’s get clear on how to give everybody a break, right?”
Ask yourself, “How can I create more space for those I lead and love?” That question will spark you to think of the micro actions you can take because here’s what I know about burnout: it happens over time.
A key area you may consider is when it comes to video-based meetings or Death by Zoom as it’s now being called. Video itself can be stressful for many. One way to help everyone you lead have a micro re-charge of their batteries is to be clear on expectations of when cameras need to be on and when they can be off. Tip: cameras-off expectations for some meetings will be a big relief for most on your team. It allows them to walk and talk while still being very productive. Part of this means not requiring everyone to be on video for every call. What if you allow people with advanced notice that they don’t have to be on video today so they can be in their pajamas and not worry about how they’re perceived? That’s resting. That’s less time getting ready.
This nonstop activity without rest or space to breathe isn’t serving anyone and it has a terrible price. There is a price to constant busyness and nonstop going. So, how might you give yourself some grace today? How might you connect even with one of your team members or loved ones and check in with them? It will make a difference and you’ll both be better for taking the time to see their humanity.
What I know to be true is that there is someone who’s likely in your mind now because of reading this article. Take a moment to share this article with them. Add a note from you about why they matter and what made you send this their way. Let them know you see them and you care about them.
If you are suffering from burnout as a leader in tech, there’s still time to avoid disaster. I want you to know there’s hope. I’ve helped hundreds of tech leaders find hope and reboot out of burnout. Take the first step by connecting with me at rebootwithlisa.com.
Some company cultures encourage and reward giving up your life for your work. They may say otherwise, but look at where the money flows. For those of us with a choice, it is hard to break away from that enticement and take a breath because we feed on the excitement and accomplishment.
What you are doing is needed, fantastic and amazing. It is a message that is needed. The hard thing is that people need some level of security to break the cycle. Unfortunately, security is defined differently for everyone, and their spouse may have a different definition.
Maybe you have this, but do you have an assessment (or know of one) that can help someone define what “enough” is or what “security” is. It is that clarity that allows people to take control.
It reminds me of Hamilton, the plan. Iliza talks about “It would be enough”, and for Alexander, it is never enough. I think he needed someone like you. Where were you around 1800 when he needed you? 🙂
Hi Dave, For me it was looking at things from the cost of my time and the return on my efforts My husband and a few trusted advisors in my life were the one’s that helped me get clear that what I was doing wasn’t working. I used The Desire Map process to identify the feelings I was chasing in the goals I was setting and the choices I was making and then we worked on our family values. From there we did a gap analysis to get clear on what “enough” and “security” is for us. This data combined with some therapy and coaching helped me get clear and into action. It’s a big part of why I do what i do now…helping others get the result they desire and be present for the moments that matter without burning out. What was the process and criteria you used to make your decision on “enough” and “security” in your life? I’d love to know. Lisa
Love this, Lisa! Such sage advice from a leader who’s been there. Thank you for sharing your experience and shifts you’ve made.
I especially love the “let’s figure out how to give everybody a break”. This is a marathon, not a sprint and being constantly “on” will not give us the resilience we’ll need to persevere in the long run.
We’re lucky to get more opportunities to remember our own learnings. For me, the past week without power or internet was a reminder to slow down and rest. What is your reminder to slow down and rest Susan?