Avoiding & Treating Burnout with Dr. Sherry Walling
Burnout, depression, and other mental health struggles are rampant in the Ops profession thanks to our long hours and intense job pressure, so I set out to talk to a professional clinical psychologist on the topic. Dr. Sherry Walling and I discuss what burnout is, how it happens, and what steps you can to avoid it or bring yourself (or a friend!) out of its clutch.
About the Guest
Dr. Sherry Walling is a clinical psychologist, entrepreneur, international speaker, yoga teacher, podcaster and best-selling author. She works with leaders and entrepreneurs around the world to help them tackle the many mental health and relationship challenges that go along with building a great business.
Her best-selling book, The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Keeping Your Sh*t Together, is a handbook for navigating life as an entrepreneur.
Married to a serial entrepreneur, Sherry combines her extensive experience helping people who have high-intensity jobs with her 18 years of personal experience in the trenches of the startup world. Sherry combines the insight and warmth of a therapist with the truth-telling mirth of someone who has been there.
When she’s not in the consulting room or hopping conferences; Sherry can be found on her paddleboard, in the yoga studio, or ushering her three kiddos through an art museum in some fabulous city.
Managing Founder Stress Guide
“How to Stay at the Top of Your Game” talk at BoS USA 2017
- Book recommendation: Play it Away by Charlie Hoehn
- Book recommendation: The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor
- Sherry’s “How to Stay at the Top of Your Game” talk at BoS USA 2017
- Managing Founder Stress Guide
Mike Julian: Running infrastructure at scale is hard, it's messy, it's complicated, and it has a tendency to go sideways in the middle of the night. Rather than talk about the idealized versions of things, we're going to talk about the rough edges. We're going to talk about what it's really like running infrastructure at scale. Welcome to the Real World DevOps podcast. I'm your host, Mike Julian, editor and analyst for Monitoring Weekly and author of O’Reilly's Practical Monitoring.
Mike Julian: This episode is sponsored by the lovely folks at InfluxData. If you're listening to this podcast, you're probably also interested in better monitoring tools — and that's where Influx comes in. Personally, I'm a huge fan of their products, and I often recommend them to my own clients. You're probably familiar with their time series database, InfluxDB, but you may not be as familiar with their other tools. Telegraph for metrics collection from systems, coronagraph for visualization and capacitor for real-time streaming. All of this is available as open source, and they also have a hosted commercial version too. You can check all of this out at influxdata.com.
Mike Julian: Hi Folks, I'm Mike Julian, your hosts for the Real World DevOps podcast. I'm here with Dr. Sherry Walling, clinical psychologist, author and fellow podcaster at ZenFounder.com. Welcome to the show, Sherry.
Sherry Walling: Hey, it's my pleasure Mike. After a couple of reschedules, I'm glad we finally got this to come together.
Mike Julian: It was a bit of work to make that happen, but I'm really excited about this episode. So Sherry, why don't you start off by just telling us a bit about who you are and what you do.
Sherry Walling: Yeah. So like you said, I'm a clinical psychologist and I have spent my professional life working with people who have high intensity jobs. That looks like a couple of different things over the course of my career. Sometimes it's with folks in the military returning from military service. I've worked a lot with physicians, who have high intensity work either in the ER or in surgery. Then I actually work a lot with software entrepreneurs and software folks. My connection to the developer world is largely through my husband, Rob Walling, who maybe some of your audience know of MicroConf and things like that. So I work with really smart people who are trying to do really hard things, and often have a lot of pressure in their work lives.
Mike Julian: Yeah, that's some awesome stuff. The reason I'm especially interested in talking to you is as DevOps engineers, we lead extraordinarily stressful lives. A day in the life of a operations engineer… we’re project driven, and yet it's often interrupt heavy. So we're never really finishing anything, thanks to putting out fires constantly. Just so many fires is all the time, everything is always awful, everything's just a tire fire everywhere we look. So we're responsible for keeping systems of multimillion dollar, sometimes multi billion dollar companies running and available, and on call is a standard part of the job. And sometimes this is even this is really bad, like the on call rotations of some companies might be 15 pages a night for a week or two weeks at a time, and it just gets insane. This is not just a few years or one job, this is like an entire career. So to say that the role of an Ops engineer is stressed, is kind of an understatement. So I'm really excited to talk to you about how can we manage the stress? Is there something we can do about it? How can we improve our lives?
Sherry Walling: Well, I'm really empathizing with the way that you're describing this, and there's a couple of things that you said that would lead me to believe that folks who are doing this kind of work are really at a pretty high risk for burnout. Whenever there's high work demand, so lots of things to do without having appropriately accomplishable goals, goals that have a tight timeline and clear successes — those three things tend to be a combination that really causes burnout in a lot of folks. So I can empathize with the amount of stress that folks are feeling, and certainly guessing that some of your listeners are really struggling at this point with stress related difficulties, or things like burnout.
Mike Julian: Yeah, absolutely. So why don't we talk, why don't we just start with burnout? There's so many different ways that I want to tackle this conversation, but why don't we just start with burnout? What is burnout?
Sherry Walling: Yeah, so burnout is a newly recognized clinical syndrome. It has its own diagnostic code. It is a real thing.
Mike Julian: That's fantastic. It's about time.
Sherry Walling: It is about time. It exists in ICD 10, which is the International Classification of Disorders 10. It's called something like “burnout estate of vital exhaustion,” is the technical title which I think is really lovely language that paints the picture of what this feels like. Vital exhaustion. So burnout is something that was researched by Christina Maslach, a psychologist at UC Berkeley. She spent her whole career, like 40-something years really developing this and researching it thoroughly. Burnout really has three components. It's a sense of first of all, emotional and physical exhaustion. So people are just tired, they're physically tired. They might have a cold that they just can't recover from. Their bodies are broken down and worn out. Then emotionally exhausted which can look like depression, like flat, epithetic, not a lot of umph for passion. So physical emotional exhaustion is number one. The second component of burnout is feeling detached or cynical. So this really is where you feel like the work that you were doing doesn't have a lot of value, and the people that you are serving or working with are just irritating the hell out of you. You don't care so much as maybe you used to about what it is you're trying to accomplish. You don't find it rewarding or meaningful. Then the third component that's used, so sort of technically diagnosed burnout is a lack of personal efficacy. So feeling like no matter how hard you work, or what accomplishments you may be able to brag about, it feels like you're not getting anything meaningful done. You're just not pushing the needle forward, or you're not able to push the boulder up the hill. So burnout is specific, and it is specific to how someone is doing in their mental health in relationship to their job. So you don't get burnt out from being in a crummy relationship with a girlfriend or boyfriend. You have other problems perhaps, but burnout is very specific to your job.
Mike Julian: Man, I'm just having flashbacks. Just so many jobs where I was checking the boxes on all three of those pretty hard. Is burnout inevitable? Is it just going to happen when we're having these stressful jobs?
Sherry Walling: Yeah, some of the epidemiological studies suggests that it's between 25 and 30% of adults experience burnout in a given year. So it's really common.
Mike Julian: Well, that sounds terrible.
Sherry Walling: A lot of people experience it, and that stat's from the US and then there's a similar study for the UK. It's not inevitable in the sense that there are some things that protects people from burnout, even in really high intensity jobs. So again, some of the folks that I've worked with over the years, some of them do incredibly difficult really hard stressful things, but they do okay. So it's not inevitable, but it depends a lot on how much control you have over your work environment, and then what you're doing in the other parts of your life to help protect yourself from burnout.
Mike Julian: That's a fantastic point. When I went through a super bad case of burnout some years ago, and I had realized that during the course of this, I found a book. I found a book, it's called, Play it Away by Charlie Hoehn. It's a fantastic book about his experiences of with burnout. One of the things that he really talked about was he had realized he stopped hanging out with friends. He had stopped doing hobbies, but all this stuff crept up on him. It wasn't an immediate thing. It wasn't like, “You know what? Screw my friends, I'm not going to talk to them anymore.” It was like over the span of say six months or a year, you realize looking back that you haven't had dinner with a friend in a while. You haven't had dinner with any friends in a while. So it comes up on you slowly. Is that part of your experience as well?
Sherry Walling: Yeah, I think that's very true. It's a slippery slope. Most of us start our work feeling pretty positive, or pretty ambitious about what we're going to get done and how we're going to contribute to the world. Then over time, some of that optimism and energy just gets eroded away. Hanging out with people, having strong social connections is one of the most important protective factors that helps prevent burnout. Some of the other ones are being able to celebrate successes, which I hear is hard in your community when you have all these projects, and there's not a point where it's like, okay it's done. But when you do have those projects that ship, when you are finished with something, taking the time to really celebrate that and let your brain on a neurological level of fuel, the positive chemicals that come along with the satisfaction of finishing something. People don't do that very often or do that very well, but it's really important.
Mike Julian: Yeah. I've seen someone, it's actually a whole bunch of people now, have a practice of every minor win. No matter how small it is, they celebrate with a cupcake to themselves. At first, I thought like I want to save that for something big and then I realized no, actually you can't. We don't often get big wins and we can't ever predict when they're going to come, so you celebrate the wins as you get them.
Sherry Walling: Yeah. There's all kinds of different ways that people can do that. Whether that's like, a lot of people do it with food or sweets or a special drink. Having a bottle of wine that you write a sticky note and you say like, “I will drink this bottle of wine or I'll open this wine when I finished this project, or when this thing launches” or something like that. Having those designations both for short term goals and bigger goals is helpful. You might have a cupcake a week, sort of on a weekly reward schedule, but then give yourself a bigger treat when something bigger is accomplished.
Mike Julian: Yeah, I love it. So we've talked about a couple of different ways to mitigate and detect when you might be burning out, or have already crossed that threshold. Are there any others?
Sherry Walling: One of the most important things that helps protect people from burnout is feeling attached to the meaningfulness of their work. Like really having a strong sense of I'm going to do a good job writing this email, or fixing this problem because it is ultimately meaningful to my customer, to my community, to my business, to my whatever. People define that in lots of different ways, but the bigger the gap between what you're doing on a daily basis and what you find meaningful, the more vulnerable you are to burnout.
Mike Julian: Yeah, that makes sense. It's hard to get excited about being a system administrator for ad networks.
Sherry Walling: I don't know, I mean is it an interesting problem to solve? Is it sort of like actually interesting?
Mike Julian: For me. Yeah for me, I don't think I could do it. It's just nowhere near my interest, and I think there's a lot of people that are listening that have the works that they're doing is not that interesting to them. Whether it's not intellectually challenging, or they don't like the company they actually work for, they don't agree with them from a philosophical standpoint; so the gap may be pretty big. What are some ways to deal with that?
Sherry Walling: You do have to listen to yourself to how tolerable it is. One thing is to make sure that you're really optimizing for meaning in other parts of your life. You do the 9:00 to 5:00, you collect the paycheck and that paycheck allows you to live the life that you want to live. So you have other parts of your life that you find deeply meaningful, we sort of offset the not super meaningful part of your 9:00 to 5:00. I don't love to leave people there for years on end. I don't think that's a recipe for a satisfying healthy life over the long run, but I think we all go through seasons where we're like, “I could take or leave this day job, but hey at least that I can afford my model train hobby, or the great vacation I'm taking with my husband or wife.”
Mike Julian: It sounds like that one might be, it's not a long-term strategy, but more of a short-term strategy to get your mind back on track, to even bring yourself closer back to being healthy, so that you can think about longer term solutions. In that situation, a long-term solution might be getting a new job.
Sherry Walling: Yeah, sure. I think one of the ways that we can reconnect with meaning is to notice what we're grateful for, especially if we're bummed out about what's happening at work. It can be a really helpful practice to at the end of each day or some point of your day, just jot down three to five things that you are grateful for, that you are happy about in your life. That sounds maybe like a little bit hippy dippy, or touchy feely, or something, but there's actually a tremendous body of research behind the psychological benefits of a simple practice like that.
Mike Julian: Yes. I had the pleasure of seeing Shawn Achor speak, I guess last year and I think he wrote the book, The Happiness [Advantage]. I think that was the name of it. And he talked about this body of research. He was basically going around to companies and saying, "Let me practice on your team.” What we're going to do is gratitude journals was one of the things he did. We're going to have everyone on your team every morning, they're going to write down three things they're grateful for. Then we're going to measure before this project and after this project, how they feel about the work they're doing, and we're just going to measure it by asking them, “How do you feel about your job? How do you feel about your life?” He says there were noticeable improvements despite the job not changing. Everywhere he went, he repeated this study and it just kept coming out the same way. What essentially the research is saying, you are happy when you think you're happy. Like you can choose to be happy.
Sherry Walling: That our emotions are largely a state of mind. I say that somewhat gently, because I do think that that can also lead to some frustration on the part of friends and family of those who are in burnout, or who are experiencing something like depression to say like, just pull yourself together, you can choose this because it's certainly not that straightforward.
Mike Julian: Yeah, absolutely. That is probably the hardest part of this. You're with a friend and they've just lost a loved one and all you have to say is choose to be happy. Yeah, that's not going to get anyone anywhere, like it's awful.
Sherry Walling: Yeah. I think the gratitude work is really important in protecting against burnout, and in part of the recovery from burnout, but when someone is really truly in the midst of burnout, there begin to be these neurological changes in their brain. So the amygdala, which is the fear center becomes overly active and really floods the system with cortisol.
Mike Julian: That's interesting.
Sherry Walling: So we can measure changes in the brain. The other part of that that happens that's really problematic is that the connections between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex, which is where we make all of our fancy human decisions and plans. Those connections begin to weaken, which means that the skills that we would use to talk ourselves through our feelings, or to even actively choose a different way of feeling, those resources become much less available to us just on a brain level when we're in the midst of burnout. We see neurons begin to die that connect those kinds of brain circuitry, that help us to choose our way of feeling.
Sherry Walling: So again, if you're sitting with somebody who's in burnout and you're like, “Can you just pull yourself together please? Like, oh my God, why are you choosing to be miserable?” It may be that they've gotten so far down this path that they're really impaired in their brain's ability to make a choice about how they feel. At that point, people really often do need to take a pretty significant rest so that the brain can begin to repair itself. That can also happen. It's not a death sentence for your neurological health. So to be burnt out, there's possibility to bounce back.
Mike Julian: That's exactly what happened to me. I was so far down the burnout hole that I snapped to the core one day, which is like it's not me. It was pretty bad. The guy nearly started to cry and my boss called me and he's like, "What did you do?" He's like, "You take the weekend off because we need to have a chat." I decided to, I was going to leave the company after the weekend I'm like I got to go, I got to leave. He's like, "So where are you going to go?" "Well, I'm going to a remote beach in Costa Rica." He's like, "Is that a euphemism for another company I'm not aware of?" Like, "No, no, it's actually a remote beach in Costa Rica." I stayed there for months. I just sat around doing nothing. Just the very idea of being on a computer, it made me nervous, it made me anxious.
Sherry Walling: Yeah, well you're perfectly representing what often needs to happen when people need to recover from burnout. It's usually a minimum of two weeks of really deep rest. Sounds like you were able to take more time than that, which is great and perfect. I hope everyone ... I wish we had sabbaticals, right? So I used to be in academic and every seven years, you apply for sabbatical. You don't just go lay on a beach somewhere, although you can, you work on a project. You're learning something, you're writing something, you're bringing new life into your academic or intellectual career. I wish that all careers had that, because I think all thought workers could really use that three to five months off to just reset.
Mike Julian: I completely agree. Yeah, I completely agree with you. That sounds fantastic. So we have two problems here. One is for those people that are so far deep down into this, and they can't take that time off. Then we have the people who are maybe not quite that far down, but they're feeling the effects of burnout. So it sounds like the solutions to these two are different solutions.
Sherry Walling: Rest is always helpful. Relationships are always helpful. Even if you can't do weeks of rest, you can do evenings where you're not working unless you're on call, or weekends when you're technology free. Obviously, unless you're on call, but taking clean breaks as much as you can. So rest is always helpful. Relationships are always helpful. Creating or connecting to as much meaning in your life is always helpful. Celebrating any rewards that are, or any positive things that are happening is always helpful. Setting clear goals for yourself is always helpful, even in someone who's burnt out. Maybe the goal is like, I'm going to read three non-technical books, or I'm going to have coffee with three friends in the next month. So you have that sense of here's what I'm setting out for myself, and here's what I'm chipping away at.
Mike Julian: Okay. Yeah, that makes a lot more sense. So it's not just like, nope, everyone has to go take four months off now. You really can have smaller things that you can do, no matter what your situation is. So for some people it might just be to set a strict work schedule. Like yes, you have been working for your company 60 plus-hour weeks, cut that down to 40 and like a strict 40. So say 5:00 or 6:00 PM every night, stop working.
Sherry Walling: I think it's tough in the field that you're in, because this around the clock or mostly around the clock expectation for work availability is really, really contraindicated for human mental health. I will say that of course, in the United States and to some extent in the UK, or I'm sorry in the EU, depression is the number one driver of disability in the US. Most people who are missing work or who are taking large chunks of time off work are because of depression, which of course overlays with burnout and other things. So this is a really deep problem.
Sherry Walling: I do think that those of us who have positions where we have some power to advocate for changes in our work environments, this is a worthy cause to take up because 60-hour work weeks of being on call over the weekend. That's fine for a short duration, but if that is your work life forever without significant break, that's almost always a recipe for really significant trouble.
Mike Julian: Let's look at from the perspective of a concerned friend or family member. If I have a friend who I know is burnt out but they don't agree, but I see all the signs, what can I do to help them?
Sherry Walling: I think it's hard when you're having a conversation with someone and they just flat out disagree. I think when we use language like, "Hey, I'm concerned about you. It seems like you're really carrying a lot right now.” Or “Wow, you've been working so many hours. How are you holding up?" I think when we use this more neutral language that expresses how we feel, but isn't finger wagging at someone-
Mike Julian: Not accusatory.
Sherry Walling: Yeah, or not pathologizing. Not saying like, “Wow, you seem really depressed. You look really tired.” Nobody wants to hear that. I think to some extent when we drop the seeds of like, "Hey, I've been just talking with a lot of folks lately who are really burnt out. I've certainly been really burned out. I see how hard you're working. I just worry about that for you." Those kinds of sentences, they normalize it. You're not being like wow, you're weak, you're lazy or whatever. You're also telling your story or sharing vulnerably, but like not in this way that's not invited. You're not lecturing. So I think the way that we approach the conversation is very important, and sometimes you're a squeaky wheel a little bit. Especially if someone just disagrees with you.
Mike Julian: Right. Could there be something like very simple steps that I could take of, so the suggestions on wording on how to approach a conversation would be super helpful. You've also mentioned that having friends, having hobbies, having relationships in general is also very helpful on this. So if I have a friend who is consistently bowing out of going to some event with me, going out for coffee in exchange for doing work, how can I handle that? How can I pull them out of that, pull them out of the hole?
Sherry Walling: I think consistently showing up and meeting people where they are. I think when someone is really in a bad state, maybe they're at their house and they're on their laptop all evening, maybe you just drop by, bring some guac and chips, and just sit with them. Maybe you're on your laptop too. It's not a deeply communicative interaction, but just feeling the presence of another person can be really helpful. Also suggesting things like let's just walk around the block. We don't have to have a two-hour hang out, like let's just walk around the block for a couple of minutes. I'll pop by and then I'll go and you can finish your work. So being a little bit pushy in a graceful way, and respecting that you ... I mean even me as a professional helper, I can't force people to do more than they are ready to do, period. You can show up, you can drop hints, you can make it easy, you could be available. You can give resources, but you have to wait for people where they are, which is really hard.
Mike Julian: Yeah, absolutely especially when it's someone you care about and watching what they're going through, it's hard to sit there and know that you can't cause them to be better. You can't make their situation better yourself, it's they have to do it. You can help, but sometimes all you can do is just watch and be there.
Sherry Walling: Yep, and hanging around, dropping by with a snack. Those are pretty powerful things. They don't feel like we're doing much, but they're pretty powerful. Again, when someone's feeling bad, sometimes a 10-minute conversation is all that's really tolerable.
Mike Julian: Yeah, absolutely. So let's talk about post-burnout. When I recovered from my own burnout, the thing that was on my mind was I want a stress free life. I was, it's like the extreme reaction to what I had just come out of. You know, sitting on a beach in Costa Rica is pretty stress free.
Sherry Walling: I don't know. There's some big iguanas I've seen there down in Manuel Antonio.
Mike Julian: That's true. They are huge.
Sherry Walling: That's a little stressful.
Mike Julian: It was a little stressful the first day I was there because you wake up and it's like 6:00 AM, and there's iguanas running across the tin roof, but you have no idea what they are because it's your first day there. So you’re like, what the hell is on the roof?
Sherry Walling: Thud, thud, thud, thud, thud, thud, thud.
Mike Julian: Is it going to eat me?
Sherry Walling: Maybe.
Mike Julian: That was a little stressful. So for me, when I came back from this and I thought I want a stress-free life, and I very quickly realized that's actually kind of a bad thing. I got really bored. That led me to this question of is all stress bad? What's your experiences of that? Is there a balance? Is there such thing as good stress?
Sherry Walling: Absolutely.
Mike Julian: Okay. So what does that mean? What is the difference between good stress and bad stress? How do I tell the difference?
Sherry Walling: Well is going to sound so geeky, I'm sorry. I'd like to quote the Yerkes-Dodson principal. So there's this old school Psychology 101 study, looking at the relationship between stress and performance. It's called the Yerkes-Dodson principle and it's a beautiful inverted U. So it says that as stress rises, performance also rises, but when stress becomes past the tipping point or past the midpoint, then performance begins to drop. You can picture that inverted U in your head maybe. Stress is simply a measure of… Physiologically, it's a measure of activation. So stress feels very much like excitement. Very much like passion. It's the same part of our bodies that are like, “We're awake, we're wired.” So stress is motivating. Stress helps us feel keyed up, and awake, and focused. So like your identifying, no stress means we're really not fully awake, or functioning at any level of intellectual or physiological stimulation. Like we're just existing, but the magic is finding the point at which your stress helps you, and really being wise about the point at which your stress becomes too much, and it starts to inhibit your ability to do a complicated task or be a kind person.
Mike Julian: Yeah. When I came back from my sabbatical, I took a job that was very low stress. It was very intentional. I took a job that was slightly lower paying but had much, much lower stress levels; but I wasn't really doing anything interesting. I sat around basically doing absolutely nothing of interest to me for like four to six months. I realized like, I'm really bored. So I realized I didn't have a big project. I didn't have anything I was working towards. I didn't have anything pushing me to do anything really. So for me, I decided to write a book. You want to talk about stress, like there's one. To me that was a good sort of stress, because it pushed me along. Now at the end of writing a book, as I know you've done too, you start to tip into the bad stress a little bit.
Sherry Walling: Yeah, for sure especially the marketing part for me. I was like, I don't know how to do this.
Mike Julian: No, it's awful. You've spoken before about this idea of acute versus chronic stress. I can maybe guess about that, but why don't you tell us, what does all that mean? What is acute stress? What is chronic stress?
Sherry Walling: Yeah. I think before diving into the differences of those, we have to tell the truth about the fact that we are, our emotional mental life is very integrated into our bodies. So we don't really have these dichotomies between emotional health and physical health, or mental health and physical health. It's just all one system. So when we're talking about stress, we are talking about how the body responds to elevated stimulus, which sounds not very sexy, but we have these amazing bodies that are hardwired to protect us in the event of stress. You can think of the fight or flight. How do you, when you're threatened, your heart rate elevates, your breathing becomes faster. It moves into your chest, your muscles become tense. You're ready to get some shit done, or run for your life. Either way.
Mike Julian: I mean, you know, whichever.
Sherry Walling: So that is the perfect use of acute stress. Something is threatening, something is in your face, something is elevated and your body needs to live in a different space for a short period of time to respond. When that process goes on too long, when we live at a constant state of elevated stimulus, when the demands that we experience in our lives are beyond what we can meet, then we move into chronic stress. Frankly, it tears apart our bodies because we're just not meant to live in that elevated place. So our muscles are sore. We get heart disease, our breathing is never calm. We never relax, our bodies don't learn to relax. So again, acute stress is the perfect physiological response to something that's threatening, and that can even be an existential threat, like an angry boss or a project that's coming up. It's not always a tiger. It's something that we need to gear up for and be all in on — highly focused, pretty adrenaline fueled, usually moving pretty quickly. It's great, that's acute stress is how our bodies are meant to react. Again, when there's a project due every day or the boss is mad every day, and we're always living in that place, is when we begin to experience a number of physical and mental health problems.
Mike Julian: Yeah, I remember towards the end of my couple of jobs ago of the burnout job, I was waking up in the middle of the night thinking that my pager was going off and it never was, but I would still wake up multiple times a night, and just like bolting awake, sitting up, grabbing my phone and thinking that it had just gone off from a page. This still actually went on for months afterward. It's the getting a page, getting that on call alarm sounds like acute stress, but because that happened so often for me, it actually became chronic stress.
Sherry Walling: Yeah, absolutely. Our bodies need to relax. I mean that's part of this whole conversation about burnout and stress, is really allowing ourselves safe, quiet spaces where we can re-establish a low baseline heart rate, where our breathing can calm down, or our muscles can relax and where our mind can be calm and sort of unbothered, I guess.
Mike Julian: Yeah. I had the pleasure of seeing you speak at a conference a while back, and one of the things you did in your talk was I thought it was pretty interesting. You had us go through a breathing exercise right there in the conference. I can't even remember which one you did, but I've seen you write about them before as well. What's your favorite breathing exercise to have people just to relax themselves?
Sherry Walling: I think the simplest one that I often begin as an introduction point is I just call it four by four breath. It's where you try to breathe in for four seconds, and then exhale for four seconds. So you're slowing down your breathing and then you're moving your breath both slow and low, so down into your belly button. So if I'm doing this in an event, I'll have people put their hand, their palm over their belly button and see if they can move their hand, or even watch their hand move when they inhale. So it's like picturing your belly getting filled with air like a balloon. Then when you exhale, your hand goes back towards your spine because the balloon is deflating. So low, slow breaths is one of the best tools that we have to counteract the stress response in real time. There's a ton of science behind why it works, but it's not just like a yoga thing or a meditation thing, or like a weird Sherry thing. There's a tremendous amount of research to support that technique is a great one to use.
Mike Julian: Yeah and I can definitely say that it really does work. It is incredible how such a simple thing affects you so profoundly.
Sherry Walling: Yeah. People can, I love that tool because you can do it in a meeting. You could do it without people knowing you're doing it, it just looks like you're breathing slowly.
Mike Julian: I was reading an article you wrote for Stripe Atlas website a while back, where you mentioned that you've actually done this onstage while giving a talk, and people don't notice. That's incredible to me, I'm totally going to do that.
Sherry Walling: Yeah. Like you're doing an intervention on your own self.
Mike Julian: Right, it's great.
Sherry Walling: Yeah. It's pretty powerful and it's something that people need to practice. Taking four breaths sounds real simple, but really slowing and lowering, slowering. Really doing those two things and being able to get there pretty quickly is an important part of this skill. So when someone is trying to work on this, I just recommend people do it three times a day, after you eat, before you eat, when you brush your teeth, whatever anchoring event will help you remember to do it regularly for a period of time, until the skill becomes muscle memory or a little bit more hardwired.
Mike Julian: Yeah, that's great advice. So on that note, I like to ask all my guests to give us something actionable that people can start on today or this week. So for us, if I think I'm experiencing burnout, or I'm trying to avoid it, or I'm in the deepest, darkest hole I can find already, what can I do? What advice would you give?
Sherry Walling: The way that you described that, the deepest, darkest hole. I mean honestly I would look for a mental health professional. I think sometimes mental health professionals, therapists, counselors, get a bad rap or there's a lot of stigma perhaps about seeing them, or they can be inconvenient or whatever, but I do think that if you are feeling like you are at the bottom of the hole, and you're not sure how to get out or you don't feel like you can go lay on the beach in Costa Rica, you need some ideas that are really specific to your situation, I'd get in touch with a therapist. There are increasingly people who will see people via Zoom, or via something that makes it easy for your life. You don't necessarily have to go to an office.
Sherry Walling: The other thing that I would do is really to write about how you're feeling. Good old fashioned journaling can be very therapeutic. Certainly in addition to some of the other skills that we've already talked about, like adding a deep breathing practice, adding a gratitude list at the beginning or end of your day. Those are really simple things, they don't need to take a lot of time. They're free, they're not expensive, but they can really the needle in terms of you feeling a little bit more in control over what's happening inside of you.
Mike Julian: All right then. Yeah, that's fantastic advice. So Sherry, this has been an absolute pleasure talking with you today. This has been great. I love everything you've said.
Sherry Walling: My pleasure. Thank you.
Mike Julian: Thank you so much for joining us. Where can people find out more about you and your work?
Sherry Walling: Yeah, so I live online largely at zenfounder.com. So my podcast is called ZenFounder, and we talk about lots of topics like this. Work, family life, mental health kinds of issues. I also have a book called The Entrepreneur's Guide to Keeping Your Shit Together, which I'm told is relevant for people who are not only entrepreneurs, but anybody who's really doing high-intensity job.
Mike Julian: I've read the book, it is wonderful book.
Sherry Walling: Thank you. I have a guide to stress that Stripe put out, that you can put in the show notes so that's free and available, and I think a helpful tool. So I love doing this. I love that I get to do this and so I also work one-on-one with people. If people want to reach out to me about some consulting work or doing a talk at your company or whatever, this is my jam. So happy to help.
Mike Julian: All right, well, thank you. Thanks for all you listeners. Thanks for listening to the Real World DevOps Podcast. If you want to stay up to date on the latest episodes, you can find this at realworlddevops.com and on iTunes, Google Play, or wherever it is you get your podcasts. I'll see you in the next episode.
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