Dr Sherry Walling on How To Stay At The Top Of Your Game

Dr Sherry Walling is a licensed clinical psychologist with a PhD in Psychology and MA in Psychology & Theology. She has been working with entrepreneurs for over 10 years – ever since her husband launched his first startup. At BoS USA 2017, Sherry gave an important talk about how to avoid burnout as a founder.

Find Sherry’s talk video, slides, transcript, hangout, and more from Sherry below.

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Mark Littlewood: Now clap! Cause that was great!

Sherry Walling: Thank you! I must say it was a great personal accomplishment to have made it down the stairs without falling. That was my fantasy last night as I was trying to sleep. I was like I was gonna be the person that falls. I didn’t fall and that’s good. Hi! This is the last thing you’re gonna do today and then we’ll eat guacamole. It was fabulous!

So when I was 19, I emptied my entire bank account and bought one plane ticket to West Africa, to Ghana and I had never been out of the country before and I had never a passport and in the spirit of go big or go home I went there for a year. It turns out it was an amazing experience! I got to do all of these incredibly things. Eat strange, exciting foods, I got to dance in village drum circles, I got to dine with an Ashanti queen mother, I got to visit places so remote, they’d never see a ghostly blue eyed person before and they were a little alarmed. So this happened about before FB and Instagram but if I would have had access to these things, I would have had a lot of likes and a lot of followers because it was a pretty spectacular experience. But I also have to tell you the truth, it was a really hard year. This picture was taken a couple days before x-mas and I think in 1998 and I’ve been to Ghana for 6 months and it was x-mas, I was lonely and missing my family. I was here on the border of Ghana and Burkina Faso which is desert and hard to get to. In a few minutes after this photo was taken, that monkey up there, it bit me. And so I spent the next week lying awake, wondering first of all how I could possibly get rabies shots in the middle of the desert. Second, if I was gonna get a flesh eating virus that will become like a pandemic and take out civilization and it would be my fault. And then turn it into a B-grade movie.

So I tell you this story about this time in my life, because I want you to think I’m interesting, but also as we heard in Jason’s talk this morning, sometimes burnout happens in the midst of an amazing adventure or in the midst of success. And part of what I was doing in Ghana was working with street kids who had come from other parts of Africa to work in the capital. And it’s hard work, anyone who worked remotely in anything similar to social services know that you’re working really hard for desperate situations, often with bureaucracies and lines and complicated systems that you feel are working against you. And right around the monkey time, I began to feel like there is nothing that can be done and I was cynical, tired and exhausted and in burnout, yet I was also having one of the most amazing times in my life.

What I want you to hear really clearly and Jason and I didn’t coordinate our talks, I promise. Burnout is not a problem of the weak or the whiny. And it doesn’t just happen when things are going badly. Some of the – most burnt out founders I’ve worked with have been incredibly successful and the victims of their own success. It’s driven them past the point of things they were good at and they began to hate their jobs and feel unhappy and uncomfortable. No one starts with burnout, it creeps in slowly and can happen to any of us.

My work, I’m a clinical psychologist, I have a PhD in psychology and my work falls in 2 categories. One is people call me when things go really badly. When there’s a crisis on the team, there’s a dramatic loss, they have a dramatic loss and founders need the help and support and then secondly, I try to use what I know about mental health, about psychological well being to prevent bad things from happening. And this talk falls under the 2nd category. This is a burnout prevention talk.

And I feel like it’s really important – I’m grateful to be here, because you all – the people of the software world, you make your living with your mind, you’re thought workers. So your ability to focus, to problem solve and be creative and think clearly and communicate and get along with others, all those happen in your mind and the success of your work and business is based on it. So this is an incredibly important conversation and I might say the real threats to your business, to your success aren’t your competitors, they aren’t market forces. They live inside your head, or your team. When we do work that is hard, that challenges us, when we go on grand adventures, we go all in, when we double down the stakes in the company, we take a risk and the risk isn’t only financial, it’s to our emotional, psychological wellbeing. And that’s OK, I think most of us wouldn’t choose it in a different way just because I got tired, and unhappy I wouldn’t take back the decision to go back there, most of you because you’ve done something challenging, wouldn’t undo that just because it’s hard. So I’m never gonna say don’t do it. But we have to be honest about what we’re risking and be aware when burnout starts to creep in so that we know what’s happening and I will give you some ideas about what to do about it.

There’s a lot of discussion about burnout – you’ve probably sent articles, maybe someone sent you a post and said maybe think about this. I’m really grateful this conversation is happening in the tech and start-up world. My job today, as I see it, is to paint as full of a picture as I can of what burnout is, based on psychological science, social science research, my 10 years as a clinical psychologist and my 17 years as a start-up spouse, which is its own kind of expertise.

So 3 things we’re gonna do. Number 1 I will help you identify burnout in yourself and your team. Number 2, I will give you 7 strategies to prevent burnout in yourself and in your team, number 3, a quick discussion of what to do if you’re already fried, how to recover. Number 4, eat guacamole, but that’s not on my slide. So there’s been so much research about this topic of burnout, largely led by a woman at UC Berkley, she was looking at this topic for 40 years and there’s so much support that it has its own diagnostic category. It has a code and the term is burnout, state of vital exhaustion. I’m kind of struck by this, it’s a bit more descriptive than usually diagnostic categories are. Kind of paints a picture of what this feels like. So we’re talking about 3 combinations of symptom clusters or 3 things. The first one is physical and emotional exhaustion. You’re tired, really tired. This is like starting the day tired. Low motivation, feeling sluggish, hard to focus, feeling like it’s hard to muster any spark or energy around your topic or around the work that you’re doing. And for those of us who are a little less aware of our emotional experience, you might notice this by having a cough that lingers for 6-7-8 weeks and seems like your body can’t fight it. Your resources are down. The second component is cynicism and detachment. This is where you’re finding yourself getting really snappy with your customers. You used to be motivated by them, now you don’t really like them. You’re tired and have no energy to be kind. You might be unhappy with your team and do things that are atypical cause you feel like you can’t muster the energy. Detachment in your work, this might look like mistakes, feeling like your head isn’t in the game, like you’re going through the motions. The third one is ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment. No matter how hard you’re working, you feel like you’re not able to make meaningful traction in the work that you’re doing so you begin to feel like it doesn’t matter. I can work all day and all night, and it doesn’t really move the needle on my to do list. So these three form this cluster of what burnout is.

Burnout is not the same as clinical depression, it’s not just lack of sleep or long hours or an off day or two. It’s the seed of prolonged exhaustion, it’s no longer caring or having energy to care. One author who wrote about it described it as a force that asphyxiates people’s ambitions, idealism and sense of self-worth. So it’s not very fun.

I am talking to you and if this isn’t something that you experienced, someone on your team or in your family will. This is something you need to know about. If you feel sleepy, go stand in the back and do a little dance. We’ll get to the guacamole soon. The reason this is important for you to know is because burnout makes us suck at work. It’s toxic to creativity, productivity and complex problem solving and interpersonal relationships. If you’re like we don’t care about the stuff, we’re the heads down ship, get stuff done, you can’t do that well in burnout. It’s also quite common. One research study that looked at a representative sample found about 28% of them had symptoms of burnout. Another study in the UK put that number at about 30% so you can see the law of numbers. If it’s not you, it will be someone on your team that’s likely to battle with this at some point or that founder in pain that Jason talked about earlier.

Burnout has the power to change the structure, and the function of our brains. It actually changes the size, and the function of several different structures within our brains that’s important for memory, for reward and the sense of control and also learning – anybody grow up in the 80s under the Reagan administration? There were these commercials they played when I was watching Saturday morning cartoons and they would have a frying pan and it would turn it on and break and egg and see this sizzle. And it was this is your brain in drugs! Just say no! this is your brain on burnout, it’s sort of on fire. I’m a neuroscience geek so just indulge me for a minute. Compared to matched controls, so when we look at people of very similar age, ses, things like that, people who report high levels of burnout have an overactive amygdala and it copes with fear and anxiety and negative emotions. So it’s the centre of our alarm system in our brain. It’s very important, especially when chased by a tiger it’s a bit less important if you are working in software. Not only was it very active, but the connections that connected it to the medial prefrontal cortex which is the executive part of our brain, the part of our brain that helps us think through negative emotions, where we say ok Sherry, it’s not that likely that you will fall down the stairs. If you do, maybe people will just think you’re cool like Jenifer Lawrence at the Oscars. So that part of my brain that’s talking through my fear, there’s connections between that and burnout.

So what this looks like is you have impairment in the medium prefrontal cortex so you’re not good at talking yourself down from your anxiety then you got further activation and you get more anxious, burnt out and negative emotion and what happens over time you guys, is there’s this wear and tear on your neurons such that your cortex begins to finn. So cortical finning is pretty normal, part of the aging process. People in burnout are experiencing it faster than those matched controls I talked about. So the summary is that burnout is really hard on your brain. It does pretty significant damage to the parts of our brains that are most important in the work that we do. If the brain on drug slides aren’t scaring you, one study looking at 8000 workers looked at the relation between burnout and heart disease and found that 20% top people who scored with burnout are 79% more likely to have heart disease. So we can talk about the mechanism of that, I will walk you after over guacamole. The bottom line is burnout can derail your work and it can also be deadly. So it’s pretty important that we figure out how to treat ourselves well and our teams well to avoid burnout from happening in the first place.

So this mass body of research that I was referencing points to 6 counts of burnout. Not enough social support, lack of clear goals, too much work, few observable or rewarded successes, limited control over your work and a mismatch between what you think is important of your workday and the demands of our work day. So quite simply, I’d like to reverse engineer these and think with you these are the causes, how do we do the opposite and help infuse our teams with the resources to prevent this from happening in the first place?

So 7 ways to prevent burnout in yourself and your team. Number one, fight isolation. We are deeply social species, we need to be around other people, we don’t all have to be extroverts or social butterflies, you don’t need 10000 followers on Twitter, but you do need connections at work and outside of it. You need teams that function well together. In distributed teams it can be tough cause you never see each other. Many people thought about it and I want to tell you how important it is. Whatever your context, those can help make connections between team mates. People need meaningful connections to work well. We also need meaningful connections outside of work, as Nathalie talked about earlier in her talk, people are at work so that they can have a life. So how do you on your teams or your personal lives support the wellbeing of relationships outside of work. Maybe that’s flexible schedule, maybe it’s an awareness that people are having dinner with their spouse so let’s make sure we don’t slack people at 7 at night when they’re with their families. If you are going to go through something very hard, like the worst possible thing you can imagine, whether that’s the traumatic loss of a child, of a spouse, of a parent, the worst thing that we can experience as humans – the number one thing that you will want in the event of a tragedy is relationships. You don’t need a lot, just a couple people to bring you sandwiches in the hospital waiting room, that is the thing that is the biggest driver of resilience. So you need people, that will protect you from being burnt out. Number two, let your people focus, let yourself focus. Can we talk about slack? I kind of appreciated the joke earlier about how slack is a great tool for not getting things done. I know this is anti-thetical to what I just said about how people need to communicate, but when we are interrupted in the midst of thought work, things we were planning, that causes this cognitive fragmentation – it’s not just the interruption, I hear the notification, I look and check. That’s not the time lost. All of the time lost that goes into diverting attention away and the time it takes to get in the flow of what you were doing. So disruptions and interruptions are super hard on people’s brains – and they do create this load that contributes to burnout, you’re just fatiguing your people’s minds. So I really love deep work – if you haven’t had a chance to pick it up, it’s worth a read. It can help people focus well – but this is something that you have to value. Don’t interrupt your developers. It’s dumb to throw a lot of time and energy into someone and then interrupt them all the time. They cannot work well that way. So helping people stay connected to their work by not interrupting them is an important way to prevent burnout in your team. Number three, manage the workload. The bosses might not find this popular, but we have to think about ways to give people reasonable workloads where there are plans – here’s the tasks I have assigned, I know it’s not that clean, but we have to think about how we can help people have realistic workloads, how we ourselves can take ourselves the same. Sometimes that means saying these words that are uncomfortable for us like no, I can’t come to that conference or speak at that, I can’t get that delivered. Maybe it’s saying later. Yes, I will absolutely do that, but it’s gonna be 4-6 weeks out. We live in such fear of failure that we’re afraid to set any boundaries around what is feasible for our work lives. Sometimes it means saying help. Hoe many people on your team said I need some help with this. Are you creating cultures in your teams and even in your own mind and heart, where it’s ok to say these words, to have a realistic grasp of your workload. Number four, control what you can. Give people meaningful choices over the kinds of projects they’re involved in, maybe around their schedule, about the areas where they want to grow. And for you, wield your control well. I assume you’re at this conference because you either have power or someone values you or someone wanted you out of the office for a few weeks. Use your power and value to optimize for your sweet spot – this is what Jason walked us through this morning. Where does joy overlap with skill and needs? That should be your job description, I don’t care if you’re the CEO. And if it’s not, use your power better and hire for the things you don’t like and aren’t good at. That will sustain you much longer in your job. For the long term. Optimize for your sweet spot, let people work in their sweet spot as much as you have the power to do so. Number five, have clear goals. The KPIs and NPS scores are just metrics, they go up and down. They give you feedback and that’s good, but they aren’t goals. They are identifiable, accomplishable tasks. Hopefully that have a short timeline. It feels good to our brains to accomplish a goal. So if you have a large project that you’re working on, have them push something to production every 2-4 weeks. Make time points shorter, give people the little dopamine rush that comes with that was on my list, I did it and move on. Make things smaller and measurable so people can actually see the benefit of their work. Those other metrics are fine, but you see they aren’t satisfying. They go up and down. You make a little progress, you lose some progress. Clear goals are observable tasks that you can say done. It feels satisfying to our brains. When those goals are met, celebrate them! Not because we need rewards or sticker charts to do our work well but because when you see someone else’s hard work or your own, that breeds motivation. It also breeds connection and loyalty and a sense of belonging and that people trust you because you’ve seen their work and you’ve celebrated successes and you can do this in your own mind and life. This is my friend, Phil. We went wine tasting, he bought some lovely bottles of wine and each one has a sticky note with a goal. The first one was to launch a product, the second was a revenue goal and the third was a sale and the fourth was his birthday. That’s just a given but every time he met one of these goals, he took a sticky note off, popped the cork and drank and celebrated it. Not a big deal, not like a paid vacation to Rio, just a marker. This is gong, it’s in the lead pages – it’s a software company in MN. Every time someone ships something, they ring the gong. It’s not like I said about focus, but their gong goes off when good things happen and everyone has this moment like we’re doing things here. The next one I will show you. My husband is the founder of Drip, he sold it to the people with the gong and we were talking how we would celebrate the sale of the company and he was like I was thinking I’d have a couple tailor shirts made. I was like I think I will be in charge of this. So the first thing I did, – we needed to book a trip to Mexico to make it through emotionally. The second thing is we bought a new car and Rob and I both come from families with limited means. I have owned 4 cars – 2 Honda civics and 2 Toyota Prius. So you can see how we roll. This is the Porsche we bought, it’s a family car. It’s beautiful! We got it used, it’s way less than all your Teslas but I was so giddy about it and it was like a marker for all the hard work that went into building that company and every time I get in, I’m really thankful for Rob’s hard work that I got a Porsche. He got his tailored shirts too, so everyone is winning. The last one and the most important one and hardest to do to be honest, we have to stay connected to the meaning of our work. And that means we have to figure out how what we do makes life better for our customers, for our employees, for ourselves. We have to get back to the why or to Natalie’s question earlier, why are we doing this? Without meaning, without feeling like all of the hard work is for a reason, it’s quite easy to slip into burnout. We can do hard things and work really hard for a good reason, but without a meaning behind it, most of us won’t last that long. So keeping the meaning at the forefront, reminding yourself daily and you team this is why we’re doing this and why this is important and why this piece of software matters. If you’re leading a team, realizing that the thing that you’re doing may be investing in the wellbeing of people, not of the software product, but you’re making people’s lives better by leading well and that matters and is really important. I loved how Seth ended his talk. You are the cutting edge of what we’re becoming. Really struck me, because it’s sort of the meaning that we hold collectively in this room, you are the kings and queens of the internet, you are the edge of what we’re becoming and you will determine how technology is used well, if it’s used ethically or for good or bad. You’re like Spiderman. So if nothing else, your little piece of the software world has meaning in that you bear the responsibility to be someone in this field who understands the magic of technology. So those are our strategies. How not to burnout, how do avoid it, fight isolation, focus, manage the workload, control what you can, have clear goals, celebrate success, make meaning, remind yourself of meaning.

Some of you may be saying this is great, but it’s a bit too late, because I’m already fried and falling apart. I want to again tell you that burnout is something you can recover from. Many people in this room have been there and are still here, have come out the other side. So all of those scary brain studies I told you about earlier, a couple of studies have looked at the reverse, how does the brain recover from burnout when the brain is at rest? It takes about 4 weeks for the brain to begin to bounce back, to build those connections for the amygdala to calm down. But it’s not enough. And this is where I think this is important, founders will say to me I went on vacation, I should be better. I took a break, but I don’t feel better. So what’s helpful but not quite enough – the two things that are essential in recovering from burnout are things I’ve said. It’s coming back to this meaning why am I doing this? What are my dreams right now? Meaning, it’s a moving target so we can have something that’s meaningful at one point but then things shift, we have to reorganize our priorities and ask ourselves this question all the time. What’s driving me? What’s my why? We can’t just say one and done, we have to return to the question over and over, especially in the season of burnout. Then you ask what’s the one thing I have any spark or energy about? What will get me out of bed today? And start by doing that and build from there. The other essential thing that you need to recover if you’re in the midst of burnout it’s the relationships again. They protect us, they also heal us. So find someone to connect with, and that’s a mastermind group, another founder, your spouse, a psychologist. We are not that scary, I promise! It’s ok if you talk to us, it’s also very private and protected so nobody will know that you’re not feeling well.

Think my time in Africa taught me that there are 100s of ways to live. That my existence as a California college student was just one little blip on the map. There are lots of ways to be happy and to live and that’s something that’s been important for me to come back to because I’m not really stuck. I do have choices about how I live. We all do. I think the point is the best adventures, the best companies and jobs begin to suck if we lose ourselves. If we lose our ability to be the very best version of our minds and our ambition and idealism and sense of self-worth. This is worth fighting for, for yourself and your team because that’s the master company, the master product, the masterpiece of software. How it is that you craft and you make your life. No one can do that for you, there’s not a seminar for that, you bear the responsibility to make a life that’s meaningful and that you enjoy. That’s what I got! If this talk was interesting or helpful to you, I’m coming out with my first book and I will give it to you for free. So there’s the website, there’s the code, it’s not gonna be up there forever so act now or fast. Who is in marketing? I don’t know.

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Mark Littlewood: Few lights on! So we’re not gonna be ages with the questions here, I know you’re around for the rest of the event so if people want to talk about this stuff separately, but then the other side is because everyone is talking to Sherry doesn’t mean they’re burnout.

Sherry Walling: That’s true! Sometimes people tell me happy stories!

Mark Littlewood: Questions! Mark!

Audience Member: First of all, fantastic talk! Thank you very much! Do you think that part of the problem we have is unrealistic expectation and how do you think we should manage that, when we’re trying to build the next Facebook or Google?

Sherry Walling: Well, if I can summarize the happiness literature, the thing that makes us more happy is low expectations. So I do think that – that’s true of marriage too by the way. Yes, I think that’s the answer. We have big dreams and big ambitions and sometimes that can feel like big pressure and big expectations. I mean, you can sort of hear a little in my story, I’m a big go big or go home kind of person, I like to go all in but the amount of contingency plan we have four ourselves, psychologically the way in which we know that we’re gonna be ok if we’re not the next Facebook, that’s the more nuanced piece, if that makes sense.

Mark Littlewood: Thank you!

Audience Member: So I’m guessing I’m not the only one with this question but they’re afraid to ask it so I will ask it. You talked a lot about the neurology of burnout and how it’s not the same as a mental disorder, it’s situational. However, many people, myself included, do have mental disorders and I do have a hyperactive amygdala and anxiety and panic disorder and that makes me more susceptible to burnout. Is there anything that I or other people with mental issues can do when we are more prone to reach burnout or can do so faster than the typical person?

Sherry Walling: You’re right, that’s an incredibly important question. There are high rates of anxiety, depression, other kind of challenges in the founder community. And I think it’s the situation of just know that about yourself, know your early warning signs, they will be specific to you. You might find yourself if you’re awake for 3 nights in a row, you know my anxiety needle is moving a bit too far on one side and I need to be proactive to take steps to protect myself. You need to know what your self-care plan is. If you’re prone to anxiety or other depression or other mental illnesses, it’s not a rule out, like you won’t be a good leader. It means you have another thing you have to watch carefully. Track those metrics.

Mark Littlewood: Thank you for that question cause it was incredibly brave! It’s an important question and it’s very hard sometimes for people to say those things. Thank you! Powerful! We’re all humans and yeah –

Audience Member: Effects are XR. That’s the mental drug I take to keep myself balanced but that’s just part of it. Drugs aren’t the answer for everybody, but I need them. So you talked about rest and I was gonna ask what qualifies as rest because I do vacation but I’m relaxed in the last day because I was wound up. The one piece for me, when I’m on my bicycle and I’m out there and I’m at mile 20, I’m zoned out, I solve business problems and meditate. How important is that to that mental health? The exercise and vacation value?

Sherry Walling: I have a whole other talk about this, but the bottom line is that 30 minutes of movement 4 times a week helps sustain your brain and without doing that, you’re susceptible to all kind of physical and mental problems. Another overall wellness strategy is having regular movement, you don’t have to do CrossFit, you just need to move regularly 30 minutes at a time, 3 times a week, that’s the minimum viable effort to helping keep your brain strong and well.

Mark Littlewood: Thank you! John!

Audience Member: Thank you for your presentation! I heard you and other speakers talk about founders, but we’re not all here. At least not the people I’ve talked to at the last session. So I took a photo of your slide that said burnout is caused by and several of these points are interesting to me. Lack of clear meaningful goals, few observable or rewarded successes, limited control over work and a mismatch between what we think is important – these affect me on a daily basis as a non-founder, how can you address this for those who aren’t the managers or founders of our organization?

Sherry Walling: I appreciate it – people have many roles here and I wanted it to make it applicable to more people. You do have more control than you think and some may be in the ways you conceptualize your work. If someone else may choose the project that you’re working on, it’s you that has control over how you divide that project, who set goals for yourself and say I would like to finish this by Tuesday. The control we have determines how we think about and chunk of work that can help, we also do have choice about to some extent where we choose to work and if consistently, over and over for years, the things you’re asked to do don’t align with what your like, it’s probably not the right job for you. You do have more control than you realize and you have to look for ways to celebrate your own successes, get your own wine bottles or what makes you and honours the hard work that you’ve done. It doesn’t have to be from someone else, you can do that in your mind.

Mark Littlewood: Magic Mike!

Audience Member: Thanks for the nice presentation! I have a follow-up question. So you said that if you don’t like what you’re doing for a long time, quit it. I’ve tried to do that 3 times and it haunts me, the same job comes back to me again and again. So I don’t know what to do.

Sherry Walling: Sometimes that happens when we’re good at what we do. We get promoted. So we love code and we end up managing.

Audience Member: I changed two companies and internal jobs –

Sherry Walling: Have you considered medicine or barista?

Audience Member: My question was I work from home and I know a lot of people do. How do we make sure when we have – we’re on the verge of burning out, to keep our working life separately? We don’t bring all the work issues to family –

Sherry Walling: Yeah, there’s not a way to make those perfectly separate and one of the ways I thought about more is work life integration. How do we flow between these different parts of our lives. It’s messy when we work at home – I do and have kids running in and out and it’s just messy. I do think there are ways that we can craft mental breaks or shifts – when I was growing up, I also watched Mister Rogers and he would come home from work and he would take off his shoes and suit coat and put on a sweater and slippers. It was a ritual and the ritual marked done with work, now I’m home. I think rituals are important as we’re making shifts between different parts of our lives. If you have a suit coat that you wear in your home office and then you put on your cardigan or some other ritual that signals to you and your family this is work mode and now I’m available. Something that’s even physical that you do on a regular basis that helps you know the difference. There’s lots of things I can say, but the things where you make a list of all the things you’re still thinking about, that need to be done tomorrow. You can write it down and let it go, these shifts where you’re keeping all your thoughts and you will allow some cognitive brain space for playing Nintendo or whatever is coming next with your family and your personal relationships.

Mark Littlewood: Thank you!

Audience Member: Thanks, Sherry! If you notice somebody who you think might have some sort of burnout, whether it’s an employee, co-founder, family member, how might you engage them? What do you do to coach them? Do you treat them to a movie and say get out of the office?

Sherry Walling: Yeah, I think it’s a delicate conversation especially if you’re the boss but I think an important lead in is hey, I’m a little bit worried about you – I felt concerned about you and wanted to check in. you’re not saying to someone I’m concerned, here’s what you’ve done wrong in the last 4 weeks and maybe you have a burnout or something. The tone and approach really needs to be compassionate and open. I do think it is hard, as a manager to walk someone through a mental health crisis. In a lot of ways it’s about making really great resources available, whether you have good connections with therapists in town or people you can refer to and say hey, we want to make sure you’re doing well. If you need some extra resources, I know this person and I know they are a reasonable human being and competent and well trained – see them for a couple sessions and see how it goes. Giving people choices is a part of restoring someone’s ability to choose for themselves and get a sense of connection to their work. Rather than you saying here’s what I’m seeing, my diagnosis and what you need to do. Ask what they need, say you’re worried.

Mark Littlewood: I got one here.

Audience Member: I have two questions. One is quick and the other one I hope is also quick. First one and more important one is I definitely have an employee who is on the verge of burnout and I have used several of the strategies you’ve given. Is it ever appropriate to actually mandate some of the things that you suggest would be strategies for ourselves for them? Two is do you watch Billions?

Sherry Walling: Yes! I feel like there’s more conversation there, but we can talk about it later. Mandate is a tough word, gets into you can control how people work to some extent within your organization but you can’t make people take a leave unless they have to usually to choose that. So mandate is tough, it’s probably a good question for some other long term people in here who have lots of big teams for a long time. I would say mandate is tough and probably counterproductive unless they’re struggling so much that you need to take them, move them or do something different for the short term for a little while to protect your team and the rest of the business. We can also talk about that more 1-1. Sounds like a specific situation.

Mark Littlewood: That was 2 questions I think and we’re gonna say it’s done. I’m curious about the Billions thing. So come and talk to Sherry in a while. Sherry, what a fabulous way to end day one! Thank you!

Sherry Walling: Thank you!

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Dr Sherry Walling.

Sherry Walling
Sherry Walling

Ever wondered how you and your team could get more done? Sherry shares tips in “How to Stay at the Top of Your Game Without Burning Out, Becoming Boring or Needing to Live in Your Mom’s Basement.”

Dr. Sherry Walling is a licensed psychologist and the co-host of the ZenFounder podcast. She helps high-performing professionals maximize their potential while also maintaining life satisfaction and personal fulfillment. She regularly consults about the “tough stuff”- interpersonal conflict, burnout, depression, anxiety, existential angst, major transitions, and personal imbalance.

Sherry is a graduate of UC Davis and Fuller School of Psychology. She has a PhD in clinical psychology and two master’s degrees. In addition, she completed residential fellowships in prevention research at Yale University School of Medicine and trauma research and the National Center for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, Boston University School of Medicine.

Married to serial tech entrepreneur, Rob Walling, Sherry has a unique combination of psychological expertise and 17 years of experience in the trenches of the start-up world. She loves bringing these two worlds together on the podcast, in her consulting work, and as a speaker.

When she’s not in the consulting room or chatting it up on skype; Sherry can be found on her paddleboard, building sandcastles on the beach, or dragging her two young sons through an art museum.

More From Sherry.

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