The Everyday Process of Burnout Recovery

Susan Almon joins Ben to discuss the long, hard journey of recovering from burnout.

Follow Susan on Twitter (@susanalmon):

Resources mentioned:


Ben: Hello everyone. And welcome to The Hired Thought Podcast.  I get paid to think and others get paid to think, and so today, I’m going to talk with someone who gets paid to think, and her name is Susan.  Susan Almon is with us. We’re going to talk a little bit about how she came to be paid to think. And also some of the lessons she’s learned about a career in thinking for a living.  Susan, Tell us a little about yourself, and then also tell us how you got to be paid to think.

Susan: Hi Ben, thanks for inviting me here.  well, I’ve always been curious, wanting to know new things, how things work. And I was fortunate to start early in my career in a consulting company that really gave us ways to express our ideas, ways to collaborate. And I think I’ve always been interested in that way.

And then I think this is something I’ve never told you is one time on Twitter,  @FakeGrimlock tweeted about the Phoenix project book, that was like in 2013. So I looked at this book and I started to read it and I had to close it a few times because I thought I was going to have a stroke.

I was just, Oh my goodness, I’ve lived this, I’ve lived this. And from that book, I met some people on Twitter, like Kevin Behr. And I started interacting with Jabe Bloom, and I was meeting all these people on Twitter and it just expanded my world to all these people who would have conversations with me. So I was working with really good people, but I wanted to be in a bigger pool of thought maybe.

And by meeting with these people online and building relationships, I was able to really start to hear ideas that I’d never heard. “Okay. Is that a real word or did you make that up, Jabe?

But now it’s just so there’s so many ideas out there and so many opportunities to have conversations. And I spent a lot of time, a bunch of years in small consulting companies where I felt, I never knew what my next project was going to be. It might be a data conversion, or it might be a process change.

I was working with a startup. I wanted to help them  fill out a government loan application. And I ended up  leading them through a product definition. They’d never fully defined their product. They didn’t know what that meant. So I led them through, so I never knew what my next assignment was going to be.

So I kind of felt like I had to learn “all the things.” Which wasn’t healthy, but I always wanted to be prepared. And if I couldn’t learn all of everything, I could at least learn who the people were for every area of thought. I knew who the experts were, the people who had invented or created something.

But then I knew the people who could, curate it and explain it better. So, you know, kind of different levels of knowledge in, in that way. So that I have the whole world of thought at my, at my fingertips, you know, a lot of it through Twitter, through conversations. So I think that was, that was really helpful because I know that there’s so many helpful, friendly, kind, caring people out there that if I have a question, something that I need to figure out that goes beyond my knowledge, I can find somebody who can, who can help me.

Ben: It seems like relationships are really important to you and have kind of played this role of being the bedrock upon which you’ve built your career and your explorations, like going back to how you got into doing the consulting side of things and yeah.

Like how you, how you got those initial good experiences, what relationships sort of paved the way for you to be able to do that?

Susan: There was a lot of mentorship. There was a lot of people caring about and, informing and bringing up junior people. And that made all the difference. I was never treated as someone when I was new to something, I was never treated as someone who was inferior, it was explained. And we worked through things together. And I think that all the relationships were like that for me in my first company. And it was, it was so good

Ben: How did that come to be like, was it just that you got lucky as you, as you got the first job, and they just happened to have a culture like that?

Susan: Yes.

Ben: Wow. For sure. It makes me a little sad!

Susan: I applied to a bunch of companies and this is the one where I got hired and it was just a dream. I get such a good base in consulting. And we had our own methodology and it was a big, heavy one, but we were taught very early that we didn’t have to use all the, all the documents… so this would have been in the early nineties, we were taught to use only the ones we need. To combine them. If they were going to be small, each, each deliverable didn’t need to be its own whole deliverable. It was about the content and meeting the needs of the customer. So that prepared me for being agile, being a consultant, pulling the things that only the things that I need, not because it’s in the list, but because this is what this situation, this engagement at this client needs today.

Which can be very different from something I would do six months ago or six months in the future.

Ben: with that kind of initial experience, it’s, it’s kind of curious how you might build off of that as your career progressed. So what kind of opportunities presented themselves to you after those initial kind of learning years?

Susan: Well, I guess some leadership roles. And then, I was at companies that got sold, so I had some, some big changes and I took, I took a lot everything I had learned and some of the people that I had been with moved along as well, but it wasn’t the same environment in the new companies. Like it would be good for a while, or maybe at one place, there was a whole group of architects. So we would, we would meet regularly whether I was, I was there as a business architect. There were the, the technical people, the data architect, and we would all meet regularly and share ideas. And that was wonderful, but then they all left and that was just, that was probably 2015.

And that’s when I got more involved with meeting people on Twitter. I ended up going to Lean Agile Scotland. And that, that kind of gave me the out. I feel that I want to learn more and I wasn’t, I wasn’t in an environment where I, I had,  a team of people who wanted to learn with me. So I found it outside my company.

Ben: So that sounds like more, the typical kind of experience that many people working, say, in the enterprise have where the organization doesn’t have much in the way of team dynamics, much in the way of working together on something. And it’s more like individuals each pursuing their own agendas, each trying to survive each trying to just live their life and maybe get paid and go home.

And that dynamic is probably really shocking after you had such a great first experience. So you, I think, took the route that many people take with that, which is to try to find fulfillment elsewhere. Right. In other communities of people in perhaps in other hobbies or other kinds of activities outside of work.

What was it like to sort of experienced that splitting between your everyday life and this, these extra networks that you were trying to be a part of.

Susan: It was, consider it just layers.

You know, it’s like having a, an inside network and an outside network and I could draw on the outside network, drawn the inside network and kind of combine them all, you know, lots of, lots of loose threads that I can weave together to form the fabric. So I didn’t ever consider them to be  opposite or conflicting in any way.

It was just, it was up to me to pull, pull what I needed from, from both.

Ben: Hmm. That makes sense. One thing that I kind of started to think about with that is how. With the situations constantly changing. Yes. And you’re used to change and you’re used to sort of having to sort of meet new people and learn new skills and adjust to sometimes very abrupt changes, but sometimes the change can be slow and sometimes it might be hard to tell the difference between whether this changes significantly bad or just the regular kind of change.

And I was kind of wondering about,  one of the things that I think,  we could talk about and really help a lot of people by providing some, some sort of experiential descriptions of what it’s like is the topic of burnout and in particular, the sort of path to burnout.

Yeah. And I started to think about how slow change or, or perhaps change that seems fine or normal, but is in fact deeply toxic  or I don’t know how to describe, I don’t know what word to use there, but how would you describe that kind of experience? Like what, what words would you use?

Susan: There’s a really good HBR article on how your environment at work contributes to burnout because it, it, it’s not just… and it helps that it takes away the responsibility from the person. “Oh, you’re weak. So you’ve burnt out.” It’s not that. It’s often situational. If you’re an environment where actually you, you want to make change, you want to make things better, but you can’t, you’re not treated fairly or feel that you’re not treated fairly.

You’re not. There’s no room for you to grow. There’s no room for you to share ideas. So things like that where you, you’re not able to do the things you want to do, you know that you can make things better, but you don’t have any power to do that. You’re not supported in doing that. That can be a major contributor to burnout.

And if you’re someone who’s a high achieving. You want to do a good job? Maybe you’re a perfectionist, but I don’t think you have to be that, that, that word comes up a lot. And I always reject that, but you want to do a good job. And as a consultant, it’s, you know, my, my commitment was to my clients and I always wanted to do the best work.

And I pushed myself really hard to do that while raising kids and running a house and all those other things that, that take time and energy and. I think the, my, my outside network where I could share ideas and things, it alleviated some of the stress from my inside network, so that, that helped.

But at the end of the day, it didn’t make my day job better. And then,  I had some things happen. I was in a car crash. I had injuries. My father was sick, whole bunch of, of. Big emotional events that just kind of wore me out. You know, it took, it took the little bit that I had left and that, that was the first time I burnt out.

But I didn’t know what it was. I didn’t know, until a few years later when I understood what burnout was and I’d been up and down in the cycle in the times between them, you know, sort of getting better. And, you know, I left my job and I thought, okay, this will be great. But then it wasn’t. And I didn’t, I had no idea what, what to think or what to do.

And then one day in 2019, I was watching a DevOps conference talk.  Christina Maslack was speaking and she talked about burnout and she listed well burnout. You know, if you find you’re you’re negative and you find that you’re exhausted. And you find that you’re not able to do your work and things like that.

And I thought, Oh my goodness, that’s it, it has a name. Now I can do something about it. And that was so, so empowering too, to understand. No, it’s like, if you, if you, if you don’t have the words to describe something, you can’t do anything about it. You don’t understand it. You can’t fix it. You can’t avoid it.

You can’t do anything. And you it’s just such a big, a big deal.

Ben: There’s an interesting tie in here with,  Dr. Miranda Fricker’s Epistemic Injustice work where the, one of the modes of epistemic injustice is,  being deprived of ways to make sense of your experiences and to convey those experiences to others.

So when you have a name for something, or when you yourself can create the name, Yeah. Then that gives you that initial sort of ability to sort of create an anchor point to have those kinds of conversations.

Susan: Exactly.

Ben: And I’ve seen these patterns like across a couple of different contexts, like in workplace harassment or, burnout or, Autism, like, there are a lot of these different kinds of ways that people suddenly encounter these words and these bodies of material that, that suddenly helped them make sense of their own experiences.

And they’re like, Oh… Like a weight has been lifted. Everything makes sense. And there’s still work there…

Susan: Oh, for sure. But, but you have a place to start and you have words to take to your doctor, your therapist, your friend, that you can, you know, check Dr. Google. And at least start, start your quest.

Ben: Yeah. One of the biggest issues I had when, when I, in my experience as a burnout is the kind of internal mental game around, so how, how I judge myself based on whether or not I’m able to do the things that I used to be able to do.  and I’m kind of having a… I’m coming out of some experiences recently that look an awful lot, like burnout, except this time they were kind of planned.

It was like the typical thing where you, you panic about not having enough work for the year. And then you go get a bunch of work. And then a bunch of people say yes, and then suddenly you have to do it all. And I found myself like realizing, Oh, this isn’t sustainable. I can tell it’s not sustainable. And. It’s going to be really weird after that for a bit of time, because I’m going to feel completely incapable none of that sort of preparatory kind of anticipation of that thing happening prepared me for the actual thing happening because the instant I pulled my foot off the gas, everything came crashing down.

And I had no energy. I had no hope I had no belief that things would be fine. I kind of just like went, day-to-day just sort of, I don’t know, just kind of… wandering.

Susan: Yeah.

Ben: So for your experiences in, in burnout when you’re in the fog, yeah. How, how are you able to think about making sense of it? How, how can you even become oriented?

Beyond lucking into wandering into the right talk at DevOps days.

Susan: Yeah, it was actually, it was a recorded talk. So it was, you know, one of the million tents that I, I take that one to why?  I think it’s burnout the first time is a surprise and you don’t know what it is. And then maybe the second time it’s a surprise and it couldn’t be, I mean, I’m no expert.

I have a degree in computer science, not psychiatry or anything. It could be that because you were expecting it, you thought you could control it. And the, the strength of it, the severity of it may have surprised you because you thought, Oh yeah, I, I I’m good. I know what to expect. So I’m good. And maybe you underestimated what the impact would be that you weren’t any more able to.

To absorb all this extra stress and work and everything then you had been before.

Ben: Yeah. Yeah. I think overestimating my own capabilities is certainly like a thing I do sometimes. Like, it’ll be fine. And then you realize that it’s not going to be fine. And then, then you have to still get through it. But. I think there’s, there’s something here about the environment we’re in, that’s really important, which is like, have we created an environment or are we part of an environment that is regenerative or healing, I guess, or when, when I think about like how stable things can be, even though they’re tenuous, right.

You’re working really hard. But you’re in a structure that seems to be like making that something that you could do for a number of years and then a specific shark comes along and disrupts the system. And how quickly you recover, I think is a, basically a, an evaluation of how good that environment is at, at regenerating your ability to, do the work and to build yourself back up and in your ability to work.

But I’m not sure that people view organizations. In that way. I don’t think they did try to design them in that way. So I feel we have to take a significant amount of that control into our own hands. So beyond the relationships that you’ve built and the social kind of networks and engagements that you’ve been able to have to stay connected to people and to have people to talk to how have you changed your environment to preempt or to at least make recovery from burnout more?

Of an easy sort of deliberate process.

Susan: One of the big things that I’m currently working on was that I’m, I’m writing a talk on,  and submitting it to conferences about what to expect when you’re recovering from Burnett. Cause people don’t know, I didn’t know what to expect. And the, to talks that I’ve seen, talk about burnout mostly. The advice is big, you know, leave your job, take some time off and then, you know, get some rest and you’ll be okay, but that’s not true. That’s not enough. It may be. But for a lot of people, it’s just not enough.

If your brain’s not working, if your emotions are just dull. If you can’t do your normal things every day, if you’ve got that orange juice in the coffee brain all the time and not just, you know, on the odd time when you’re tired or distracted and hap, and a couple of days off, isn’t going to fix that. So one of the books I’m reading called , try softer.

it talks about defining what your window of tolerance is. It’s like, it talks about your fight or flight instinct. What,  what triggers it, understanding what the effect is and that for each of us, we need to define what our window of tolerance is and what triggers us to each of these reactions, because our reactions won’t necessarily be what they should be.

We may have, skewed beliefs. We may misunderstand or misinterpret people’s actions. we may have inappropriate reactions that cause us harm internally or cause us to, to fight or to flight or, you know, it may, it may trigger the wrong thing and we have to understand what those are.

And one of the things that. I stress in this talk that it’s still a work in progress. It gets better every week, as I learned more, but is knowing what your triggers are and knowing that it’s work to figure all this out. And it’s not likely anything you can do on your own without counseling. But my intent is to give people that help them set expectations.

And give them words and ideas that they can take to a professional or that they can look up instead of just feeling like a blob. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know where to start if you’re, if you’re, you know, after serious burnout, you’re so tired and so unable to do anything that you can’t take all this good advice.

So there’s a point where you have to, I guess, understand where you are, that this is to be expected. And that you have to do little things, little steps. And one of the first ones is self-compassion and it’s not saying, Oh, I’m so stupid. How did I let this happen? I’m so weak. What’s wrong with me? I’m never going to be smart.

I’m never going to be healthy that we all know is self-defeating, but you have to be able to get past that. Or you can’t in my view, you can’t do anything about it. And I, I turned to Esther Derby seven rules of change, and the second one. Is respect how things got to be, how they are. you know, in, in consulting, you don’t go in and say to your client, Oh my goodness, what a mess?

You, people are so stupid that I can help you. We would never say that we have to think what people were doing the best that they could the whole time. So using those rules of change on yourself, you can think, you know, what. I was doing the best I could. I didn’t mean for this to happen. It’s not my fault that this happened.

I need to accept myself. I need to love myself and I need to slowly, slowly move forward. So changing your mindset like that is, is pretty important.

I have a, I have a friend!

Ben: Oh, goodness. For those of you who can’t see, there’s now a cat participating in a podcast and a very cute one.

Susan: And that’s, that’s an important thing.

Like you have to have to have the foundation to be able to make the changes so that you can recover. And that’s part of what I want to explain to people. so they know. Well, you know, well, how come I’m not better? I’ve changed jobs. Shouldn’t I be okay. Well, no, the damage has been done. And then you pointed me to the book.

It keeps the score. And I haven’t read that yet. I got it.  yesterday from the library I had to wait my turn. So I’m going to read that next. But there’s so much that we don’t, we don’t understand. And that people, as you know, we’re not, we’re not psychologists, we’re not trained counselors. We don’t know these things, but as we learn more and we share it with others, then they can understand it.

And I think that’s so, so important again, to, to have words to say, Oh, okay. I thought it was just me. Well, no, it’s not you. This is to be expected. And I think that goes a long way to helping people have self-compassion no, you’re not weak. You’re you’re injured. Your brain is injured.

The damage was caused by whatever, whatever, but you have an injury. So compare yourself to an athlete you know, a marathon runner who has,  a serious muscle pull. The, the muscle can heal, but then they need rehabilitation. So to be fast runners again. So for anyone coming through burnout, you know, there’s, there’s a time for rest.

There’s a time for healing. And then there’s a time for rehabilitation to get your brain healthy again. To get back to your, your former self. You’ll be different, but you know, I want to be smart again. I want to be able to do my job. I want to be able to do the things that I used to be able to do, and that takes time and it takes work.

I think that’s something that’s missing in the messaging about burnout.

Ben:  yeah. the messaging around the big interventions, like just take time off or just to do this or just do that. Yeah, you’re right. I mean that while. That might work and that might help. And maybe that’s the most immediate thing for some people.

I feel it misses the point. It’s really missing the continuous everyday process of how do you work with yourself to do small things every day. Expressions of self-compassion. I think, you know, those are small behaviors and it doesn’t really, you don’t have to lift a big thing to do that. You can just maybe notice.

And the moment that you’re being judgmental of yourself and

Susan: reward small, small achievements. Oh, great. I was able to do that today, where I couldn’t do that last week. And do you know where I’m getting a lot of really good,  insight is from a whole lot of women on Twitter who have ADHD who have trouble focusing.

They’re hard on themselves. And, you know, as they figure things out, they’re tweeting about it and I’m thinking, Oh my goodness, this is excellent advice for anybody. And it’s just, it’s wonderful that I wasn’t looking for. You know, it’s just, I came across this community. A couple of tweets and other, Oh, so this morning I followed two more people, two more women with ADHD and they have the best ideas.

There’s one who, Renee, Renee Brooks, who’s written an ebook on cleaning with ADHD, you know, how do you, how do you do it anyway? So there’s, there’s help out there. But I mean that, that’s a rock that I would never have looked under for, for advice. So a lot of it is just, just coming up. And I found a new book,  Friday night, two days ago by Casey Watts.

And it’s called Debugging Your Brain. And I bought it right away and it is amazing. It’s less than a hundred pages, but it is so full of. Everything you need to know to understand how your brain works, the limbic system, the prefrontal cortex, what you might get through therapy when your emotions are a mess and you have inappropriate reactions to things and how to handle some of this.

It’s just, it’s wonderful. I’m going to start sharing about that book because it’s, it’s one that, you know, again, and it’s, it’s having words to understand things and the way that Casey lays it out. It’s really easy to understand. It’s not written for, for psychiatrist or psychologist. It’s written for us in, in software, you know, in technology, we can, we can relate more to,  to how he’s got it laid out.

And it’s just, it’s, it’s going to be a really, really helpful book for a lot of people.

Ben: Oh, that’s great. I love the concept and I’m really fascinated to sort of take a look at that. Yeah. Before we leave, I, there was an idea that you shared with me that I wanted to dig into a little bit because it’s something that is really fascinating to me.

I think it’s this idea of,  anticipation, right. Or being able to notice when things are headed in a certain direction.  you, you and I both have seen this thing that, that JB and I have played with called the anticipatory awareness. And it has a lot to do with telling stories about how,  you know, what signs you might see if a particularly  terrifying story might be starting.  and in that doing so you, you get triggered to take a closer look and to be more sensitive, to certain kinds of signs that the story would be continuing to play out. And that’s so that you can change your behavior and shift the direction, shift the course of events.

That’s a very fancy theoretical framework, but Susan, you’ve been doing your own thinking about anticipation and burnout. And I wanted to know. What is, how does that work? How do you anticipate burnout in order to avert it, avoid it or make it less likely?

Susan: I’m still working on that. And my, my goal is to create a, sort of a, a template or a canvas that people can fill out, but the way that I see it and what I’m trying to to create for myself is, understanding what my triggers are.

I know what type of work environment is safe and what is unsafe. I’m in a new place now. And I’m with the best team in the safest and friendly kind, caring, smart, smart people who it’s just, it’s wonderful. Wonderful. So I have to train myself. I remind myself all the time that this is a safe environment, so there’s a whole lot of.

Monitoring I think, and, and what I brought up was observability, you know, and I, I read which, and I’m still trying to figure that out, how, how to catch these feelings early. And I think it’s just being able to identify what the triggers are for burnout. I know that for me, it’s certain environmental issues.

 I’m sleeping a lot more now, which helps a lot, but some things that I have to undo from, from my burnout is. not giving people credit or not trusting people. And I have to adjust that. So it’s a lot of, a lot of monitoring and I have, I have problems with sugar and I have to monitor. I can always tell how I feel with just, it’s just this, this feeling, that I’ve, that I’ve got.

And I know, you know, right now, what would happen if I had too much sugar? Well, I would feel this way. And I always always know exactly what the reaction would be. So it’s a similar thing that I’m trying to create in my head. Like,  I don’t know, still trying to figure out what it’s going to look like, but it’s understanding what, what the triggers are and watching for those early.

And then if something does get triggered and I think, Oh, no, no, no, no, that’s not right. That’s not true. That’s not what that person meant. Or that’s not, what’s going to happen. That’s not going to happen. What are you thinking? So it’s still a bit of a jumble, but it’s becoming more and more clear.

So ask me in a month. I may have it figured out.

Ben: Fantastic. Yeah. How can people find you online if they want to reach out to you and connect with you?

Susan: Oh, they can ping me on Twitter @SusanAlmon.

Ben: Excellent.

Susan: That’s the place I am more than any other place.

Ben: Yeah, we’ll put a link to that in the show notes. And,  if you want, if you’re running a conference and you want to reach out to Susan to give the inaugural version of her talk on how to recover from burnout,  you can find her on Twitter. And thank you all for being here and listening to us.

And thank you, Susan, for sharing these experiences. We had another episode with Matt Stratton where he talked a bit about anxiety..

Susan: Oh yeah, Matt, let’s see, that, that, that is something I think of all the time. So I need to, I need to, to tell him, but again, I think I’ve said it a couple of times on Twitter, I’ve posted zebras at him because that’s, that’s exactly what it is.

It’s that response is my response appropriate. You know, you can, you, can you just shake it off like the zebra does, or is it something you really need to do something about. And it’s that awareness. So, yeah, that’s great.

Ben: Check out that episode. If you want to hear some, some additional thoughts on topics like this, but find Susan on Twitter, follow her. And I really am excited to find out what you discover about anticipating burnout in the future.

Susan: Thanks Ben, it’s been great! Take care.

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