How Losing a Loved One to Burnout Inspired Me to Rethink the Importance of Mindfulness in Tech

The Importance of Mindfulness and Mental Health in Technology

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Thanksgiving is a favorite holiday of mine, because it’s a time to slow down to celebrate gratitude in togetherness with family and friends.

Looking back four Thanksgivings ago, I was thrilled to share the first holiday with my then partner. In an effort to celebrate this special occasion, I decided I would cook everything from brining the turkey 48 hours ahead of time, having more sides than necessary including cranberry sauce, homemade gravy, sweet potato mash, macaroni and cheese, garlic sautéed mushrooms, stuffing, and roasted broccoli sprinkled with Gruyere flakes.

I didn’t know it at the time, but it would be the last Thanksgiving I would spend with him, and I haven’t cooked a Thanksgiving dinner since then.

Just three months later, and a few days after Valentine’s Day 2015, he decided to end his life.

Upon hearing the news, a dear coworker was deeply affected, and five days later, he decided to end his own life.

While there were many factors that contributed to both my partner, and coworker taking their own lives, the ones closest to them knew that burnout was a contributing factor in their decision making process.

For my partner, he had scaled startups through advisory and engineering work during the time of unicorn IPOs, and unheard of valuations. Working many long hours, he sacrificed self-care including getting the required amount of sleep for his career.  Right before his passing, he took a three month sabbatical to recuperate from years of working in high performance environments, but it was a bit too late to help fully address his burnout.

Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It occurs when an individual feels overwhelmed, emotionally drained, and unable to meet constant demands of life.   

It is pervasive, contiguous, and spreads like wildfire.  A recent survey conducted by Blind, an anonymous workplace application, asked respondents if they suffered from burnout, and of the approx. 11,500 responses (from leading tech firm employees), 57.16% answered, yes. Burnout also isn’t something that just affects the individual who is experiencing it, but it can have an emotional/mental effect on those around them.

I was deeply affected by these traumatic deaths.

I experienced the fragility of life, understood the meaning of resiliency, and from then on I never saw life the same way or connected with people the same way. I turned to my mindfulness practice, and running to help cope.

Mindfulness is a practice in bringing one’s attention to experiences occurring in the present moment, and meditation is a technique to help train your mind to assist in bringing about awareness. I was fortunate enough to receive meditation training from one of the world’s most renowned teachers, but mindfulness and meditation is available to anyone at any moment.  Running also helped me cope with me grief as it taught me to continually put one foot in front of the other, and to keep moving forward.

As I was living through the aftermath of these traumatic events it exposed the conversations we weren’t having in the tech industry around burnout. It also showed me the importance of having a support system (community), how powerful a daily mindfulness practice can be in managing whatever life decides to throw at you, and how sleep can aid in being more mindful. 

A year later after these events, my life was restored. I dedicated the 2016 Los Angeles Marathon on Valentine’s Day to the ones I lost just a year ago a non-profit that looks to empower homelessness through running, and providing essential resources and tools.

Los Angeles Marathon 2016 on February 14, 2016

Within the tech industry, when an organization is scaling or releasing a product to enter into the market before their competitors, conversations around employees mental health are generally not included in product roadmap or exit strategy discussions.

Burnout can be difficult to measure for several reasons, as it can vary from individuals, and each individual can interpret stimuli very differently. Also, burnout is generally not attributed to a single stimulus or moment/event rather compounded over time, so it might not just be one job, but it could happen over multiple jobs before the effects of burnout fully show itself.

Burnout is part of an overall conversation that is often missing, and needs to be highlighted more often in tech. This is especially important now, as a global society we are spending more time online, and more of the global workforce is transitioning into technology.

Mindfulness is a potential solution to help reduce burnout, and having a space/time dedicated for individuals to practice mindfulness like meditation pods or nap rooms could be helpful.  Another possible option is providing engaging programming where employees are encouraged to connect outside the topic like hosting a lunch where work isn’t discussed. While some may argue that offering options could potentially decrease productivity, and it might, if you’re measuring velocity in your sprints, but if we take a step back,  it could have a positive net effect by reducing churn/attrition in the long run.

We have so much we can do to continually advance mindfulness, and provide greater awareness around burnout in tech as it extends beyond just showing up to work, it can also impact  how we show up in each moment of our lives.  Having lived through traumatic moments it has impacted me as a leader, technologist, advocate, founder, and human.  As for this Thanksgiving,  I spent it in community serving homeless individuals who may not always have the luxury of choice in what they eat.

Preparing green beans for Thanksgiving Day Meal in Palo Alto, on November 20, 2018.

In 2019, I am looking forward to celebrating Thanksgiving with community.  

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