September 28, 2018
The Magento Community Manager and mental health advocate talks about the increasing problem of “burnout” in tech—and what we can do about it.
Hey, Sherrie. How did you first get involved with mental health advocacy?
I’ve always been that someone that my friends can talk to, for some reason. I’ve had close family members go through pretty intense mental health situations where I wished that I could do more, but I didn’t know what to do. Then I found out about Mental Health First Aid. They offer a course—like the Red Cross does for first aid—teaching you the things to do before the professionals get there. Mental Health First Aid teaches you the basics of different [mental health] conditions and how to identify them. You learn how to be there for people and not say the wrong thing...and how to play your role in de-stigmatizing mental health conditions.
What is the stigma?
Some people are afraid to talk about their situation or admit that they’re less than perfect. Some people are concerned that it will impact their employment. However, I think [the Magento] culture is a good environment…we have a mental health channel in our company’s slack, and a website, Magento Mental Health, built by Rebecca Brocton and David Manners.
Did Mental Health First Aid help you recognize signs of mental health issues in yourself?
Absolutely. I’ve never had professional help, but I probably should have along the way. There have been times in my life where I’ve suffered with depression and anxiety. I ended up doing a lot of research to find out what I can do about it. I read about it in every way shape or form.
How much of a problem is “burnout” in tech and eCommerce?
Specifically, in tech it’s a very big problem. I just gave a talk about how to avoid burnout as a community professional. When I did the research, I discovered there are 13.2 million Google results for “Burnout in tech”, a 72% percent increase in just a year. “Burnout” wasn’t really a term until the 1970s, when they first started talking about it.
How can we get involved in Mental Health Advocacy?
You can take part in the Open Sourcing Mental Issues survey, it’s running right now. They do it every year and compare the data year-over-year, and it makes such an impact. They also have handbooks with mental health guidelines for employees and employers. The whole point is to get everyone to open up and talk about mental health.
What exactly is “burnout”? Is it the blurring of work/life boundaries?
I like to use Barbara Larrivee’s definition which is that burnout is the reduction of motivation due to feelings of powerlessness. I think when we lose our autonomy, we feel like we have no power to get out of the situation.
What causes it?
Everyone is different. Part of it comes from overwork. Some people feel like they get bragging points if they can say “I was working till 11 pm last night.” It makes us feel like we’re legit. That’s just how the tech world is. It shouldn’t be that way. [Overwork] shouldn’t be celebrated.
We’re constantly connected today, and our personal cell phones are now a work hotline too. Is that a bad thing?
Obviously, we’re all different. I think when we talk about burnout or mental health in tech, we don’t look at the source of the problem. We all need to stop and discover what is the cause of the problem. With burnout you can assess the situation. What is causing you to feel like your power and your motivation is being taken away? What is making you feel drained?
What should you do if you’re feeling the effects of burnout?
One of the things that can help is creating boundaries. Make sure you’re setting and communicating your boundaries. It’s really important to take responsibility for our own emotions but not others. That’s a huge thing. No one else should set or keep boundaries for us. For example, when I’m on a plane, I don’t use the Wi-Fi and I don’t do work. I use that time to disconnect. As soon as I land I usually have 14 messages on various channels... “I’m here,” or “let’s meet up!” For me, there’s no other time to decompress apart from when I’m in the air. I also enjoy implementing things that are not work-related, things that force you to disconnect.
How do you disconnect?
For example, for the last year, I’ve been volunteering with a whale watching program. I go out on whale-watching boats and teach people about what they’re seeing, and it’s totally unrelated to my job. It’s great because I’m doing something with a totally different part of my brain. Many times, people don't realize they need something like this. It helps you re-prioritize things and allows you to take a step back from your problems.