Burnout Is Real. Here’s How These Leading Industry Women Recognize and Avoid It.

Quinten Dol
August 6, 2020
how to avoid burnout
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Intense competition, long hours, lofty goals and peers drawn from the ranks of the world’s brightest minds make San Francisco one of the most exhilarating places to build a technology career. But the high bar can combine with external stressors — like the high cost of living or, say, a global pandemic — to make it a tough place to work in the long run. For women in leadership, a dearth of female colleagues can compound that stress and, ultimately, lead to burnout.

So how do you recognize early warning signs that you might be burning out and take action to avoid it? And as a manager, what proactive steps can steer employees away from exhaustion and a loss of motivation?

For Harness Senior Director of Channels Melissa Larson, it comes down to an honest acknowledgement: “I’m a creature of habit, prone to taking on too much,” she said. “I’m also a perfectionist and highly self-critical, so you could say I’m very prone to burnout.”

Throughout her career, Larson has developed a checklist of self-care habits, and consciously makes time to run herself through them.

Meanwhile, AlphaSights’ Manager of Consulting Accounts Julia Castle says that as interactions with colleagues have been restricted to video conferencing, she is learning to recognize possible signals of burnout in their voices.

“Humans are much more apt to recognize distress audibly than visually,” she says.

Here, leaders from three San Francisco tech companies discuss burnout and how to manage it in themselves and colleagues. 

 

Meg Makalou
VP of People

During her career leading people and HR teams throughout the Bay Area, Meg Makalou has learned to recognize the signs of burnout. Now at life sciences R&D software company Benchling, Makalou says it’s important for managers and HR professionals to take a tailored approach to a burnt-out employee, rather than simply offering time off and hoping that will fix things. 

 

How do you understand and recognize the signs of burnout in yourself or others? What are they?

Some telltale signs for me include when an otherwise high-performing person starts missing deadlines, becomes less thorough in their work or starts to forget things. These signs can also be coupled with the person saying that they are exhausted or having trouble sleeping. I generally try to keep my eyes and ears out for changes in behavior or mood that indicate that a person is struggling, as I know that is one of the ways burnout has shown up for me in the past.

 

What is the most important proactive step someone can take to manage stress and prevent burnout, and why?

I think managing stress and burnout has become particularly challenging at this time when many of us are sheltering in place and the boundaries between work and home are blurred.  The number one thing I would recommend to managers and employees is to build their skills around maintaining open communication on the topics of stress management and work-life balance. I think it’s important for this to be a regular part of any check-in, so that early signs are addressed before they become severe. The stress of burnout and reduced performance at work should not be combined with the burden of trying to find a way to bring it up with your manager.  

 

Many times, the source of burnout is multifaceted and involves a combination of work and personal elements.”

When you do recognize signs of stress or burnout, what do you do to address it?

When I see the signs of burnout in an employee, I start with doing a lot of listening to build my understanding of the different factors that are contributing to the situation before moving to solutions. Many times, the source of burnout is multifaceted and involves a combination of work and personal elements. Understanding those elements as much as possible will help build more appropriate remedies. Depending on the situation I may load balance work, adjust deadlines or offer time off combined with options for a different work schedule that takes into consideration any at-home stressors. It’s important to build solutions that are holistic and built on an understanding of each person’s unique situation, versus just offering time off and hoping that a vacation will return the employee back to work recharged.

 

Melissa Larson
Senior Director of Channels

Melissa Larson describes herself as a perfectionist who is prone to taking on too much work and, therefore, “very prone to burnout.” Throughout her career, Larson has learned to check in on herself regularly to make sure she is taking care of herself and is appropriately stimulated at work. She currently serves as Senior Director of Channels for continuous delivery automation company Harness

 

First off, how do you understand and recognize the signs of burnout in yourself or others? What are they?

Energy. Over the last few years my wife and mentor in all things life helped me begin a mindfulness practice that made me much more self-aware. I was actually dialed in to myself and, importantly, paying attention. I quickly realized that my leading indicator for burnout is the energy I bring to my work and life. Am I excited to get my work day started? Am I equally excited to end my work day and enjoy our family?

As I became more in tune with myself, it made it easier for me to tune into my colleagues’ energy and understand how I can help contribute to burnout anti-patterns — impact, human connection, challenges, recognition, all the many different things that motivate us differently as individuals.

 

...am I exercising, eating well, hydrating, practicing mindfulness and being present with my family and friends?”

What is the most important proactive step someone can take to manage stress and prevent burnout, and why?

A combination of three things has helped me over the past 20 years of working in highly disruptive markets: intention, sustainability and self-care. Early in my career I focused on preventing burnout in myself by prioritizing the time required to be organized and intentional about my work. Later, working at a very innovative application development firm helped me adopt sustainable work practices to maximize my efficiency. Most recently I’ve focused on improving my self-care practice — as well as increasing my commitment to having one.

 

When you do recognize signs of stress or burnout, what do you do to address it?

I’m a creature of habit, prone to taking on too much. I’m also a perfectionist and highly self-critical, so you could say I’m very prone to burnout. My process for prevention is therefore pretty strict.

I regularly check my self-care habits — am I exercising, eating well, hydrating, practicing mindfulness and being present with my family and friends? If the answer is “yes,” then I look at my work. Do I have a clear set of priorities that correlate to a desired outcome that I can see progress against? If the answer is “yes” again, am I intellectually challenged by the work I am doing? If not, I prioritize time for research to explore and learn new things.

 

Julia Castle
Manager of Consulting Accounts

Throughout her career, Julia Castle has learned to recognize signs of burnout in herself and colleagues — and is now learning how to do so in remote employees, too. The Manager of Consulting Accounts at professional services firm AlphaSights says one of the biggest hurdles to addressing burnout is acknowledging its existence in the first place. 

 

How do you understand and recognize the signs of burnout in yourself or others? What are they?

My own signs of burnout tend to be sleeping in, exhaustion, apathy and procrastination. When recognizing the signs of burnout in others, I find it easier to do so in person. I take note of unusual habits: They start showing up late when they are usually early or on time. They leave earlier or later than usual. They have a distressed appearance for several days. They have a grumpy or exhausted demeanor. They repeatedly mention they are sleeping poorly or are tired. They slip in performance or miss deadlines. They have appetite changes and either take more or less breaks than usual. While we are in a remote setting, I focus on the tone of their voice — humans are much more apt to recognize distress audibly than visually.   

 

...people avoid talking about feelings of burnout because they think it means that they’re not resilient...”

What is the most important proactive step someone can take to manage stress and prevent burnout, and why?

Acknowledging it and talking about it with your manager. Something I often see is that people avoid talking about feelings of burnout because they think it means that they’re not resilient or that they can’t handle the job — but that simply isn’t true. Burnout is personal, and it’s really easy to fall into the trap of “I’ll just suck it up and wait until the weekend.” That doesn’t work all the time, and the results can be really serious — like becoming sick or needing to take off with a mental health day. Sometimes, burnout signals that there’s something bigger going on. You might have too much on your plate, or something isn’t right in your workflow or personal life that might need serious reworking. By acknowledging it and bringing it up with your manager, you’ll be able to talk through solutions. Believe me, your manager has definitely “been there, done that” and can work with you to move toward a more healthy and balanced day and lifestyle.

 

When you do recognize signs of stress or burnout, what do you do to address it?

Whether it’s a peer, mentor or trainee, I address burnout by asking questions, providing feedback and then working toward solutions. I ask questions about how they are feeling, what’s going on for them in their work and personal lives, and how their week or day has been. Once I get more detail, I proceed to let them know that I’ve seen X, Y or Z in their behavior. I then talk with the individual about why they’re feeling that way and work toward solutions like getting help from peers, taking time to sign off early and practice self-care, saying “no” to something, letting things go and so on. I think a really important piece here is that you make the person who is burned out feel heard, noticed and understood.

 

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