Managing Burnout In the Death Spiral of San Francisco

We are responsible for our own health and well-being. No one is coming to rescue us but ourselves. 

Ocean SF Share the Love Sweatshirt — Available at Ocean SF 

I live in a city where walking down the street can feel like a death threat. Yesterday I had to step into traffic to avoid two people who were screaming at each other on the sidewalk. I don’t know why they were screaming and I no longer care. San Francisco has been given over to the homeless, the addicted, and the mentally ill. Or, let’s just say the highly unpredictable. As the San Francisco Chronicle reminds us the numbers do not support our sense of fear, and CNN echoes their sentiments. When people say they would rather quit their jobs than return to the office I can completely understand their position. San Francisco is a stressful place to work right now as leaders and managers we must acknowledge this regardless of what the papers are reporting.

Nevertheless, San Francisco is still full of opportunity and it is possible to thrive here. I am excited to speak at the Women of Silicon Valley conference tomorrow, but today I wanted to share what I wrote in 2021 about burnout. As I feel this story is very important to keep in mind as we move through this stressful year as leaders and contributors.

In 2021 I had never worked so hard in my life. I had two kids in college and five jobs. I taught leadership classes at UC Berkeley and six leadership classes for girls in my community, I ran Ocean SF, hired and managed seven interns, and so on. I literally worked from 5:30 a.m. in the morning until 10:00 p.m. at night. This is even beyond sunrise to sunset.

By the end of the year, I was literally exhausted, but even then I couldn’t stop. I threw Christmas parties, slept 4 or 5 hours per night, graded dozens of college papers, and closed out the year by skiing five days in a row with my kids in Lake Tahoe. Not surprisingly, I awoke one morning and could not get out of bed. I had slept for an unheard of 12 hours. My body was aching, my head was pounding and chills ran through my body, and no I did not have Covid.

On top of this, a snowstorm was raging outside my window, and my power had gone out. I listened to one click-click after another as I tried each light switch hoping for illumination. The ski resorts were closed. It was a whiteout. It was also my wedding anniversary. Or, it should have been. My late husband and I had eloped to Lake Tahoe. It was his idea, but I made the travel arrangements to North Lake Tahoe. We packed and drove holding hands past the open Martis Valley where our second home would eventually be built. We were married in our ski jackets and jeans outside under the stars. We hired a witness and put our bottle of champagne in the snow to cool while we took our vows. Nothing could have been more romantic. After that, Lake Tahoe would continue to be the scene of many of our happiest memories.

Without power I spent the day reading, taking cold medicine, and snoozing. I had not had a day to do this in all of 2021. As the storm raged on I made hot tea and sat by the fire watching the snow fall.

Later, as evening fell my two daughters and I lit candles and talked by the fire. Our phones were dead and we looked at each other in the dim light. They always want me to tell them funny stories they’ve not heard before. On these occasions, I go back to the farm where my sister and I grew up. We would name the sheep we bottle-fed and raised after our babysitters. Our favorite was the especially tame and gentle Shirley. Eventually, Shirley ended up in the freezer, but we didn’t know that then. We were told that Shirley had eloped and was now happily married living on another farm. I drank a warm cup of tea and went to bed at 8:00 p.m., dreaming of the farm I grew up on and the elopement of Shirley and myself.

In a few days, I was feeling much better, the clouds cleared, power was restored and I skied another three days in a row with the kids. As the days unfolded and I recovered I did sleep in and I stopped to rest along the way before coming home to start my very busy January.

This experience made me wonder why I wouldn’t tuck myself into bed at 8:00 p.m. and stop and rest when I am simply tired and not ill. I took my own advice because 2022 was just as hectic as 2021. I rented out both of my houses and moved to San Francisco and took on even more responsibility. I taught two classes at UC Berkley, including Business Negotiating, and worked at Nordstrom part-time in San Francisco Center to gain the retail experience I need to run my own company and open my own retail store for Ocean SF. 2023 has been even more intense professionally. I renovated my house, and joined two boards in addition to teaching, running Ocean SF, seeking investors, and coaching and advising for Haas. However, I now prioritize my health and take time for myself. I eat amazingly well, I exercise, I stop and rest when I am tired. I have even called in sick which I have never done in my life. I worked for Bank of America and didn’t take a sick day for four years! If I was sick I went to work and stayed in my office. Now, I make myself a cappuccino in the afternoon with steamed milk and brown sugar. I read books I love, I listen to classical music and I go to bed early. 

One of the things I teach my leadership students interns, and those I coach is that we have a personal responsibility to our own trajectory in our career and life, and this is especially true in how we manage burnout. I know that feeling of pushing myself beyond what I thought possible and how good that can sometimes feel. However, it is not sustainable, and going the extra mile until we drop is not especially useful — to anyone and least of all to ourselves.

Burnout is the number one problem for employers today and often it can be difficult to come back from. It is also contagious harming everyone around us making it especially important for leaders to model wellness for their employees. I was forced to slow down, but now I voluntarily care for myself in a way that honors the natural need for my body to rest and rejuvenate. I’m lucky my illness was temporary as others are not so lucky. Our health is our first million and without it, nothing else really matters.

Honoring our minds, heart, and body should be priority number one because we can not give to others when our own cup is empty. 

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