Tech Broke My Heart

Michelle Bakels
Michelle Bakels

Michelle Bakels has had experiences of stress and burnout in the tech industry. In this talk, Michelle uses those experiences to emphasize the importance of understanding and addressing health issues in tech-related fields. Stress, overworking, and burnout are common problems among developers, with an alarming 83% having experienced work-related burnout.

Michelle, alongside Gabe Greenberg at G2I, introduced the Developer Health Program, which aims to raise awareness and provide resources on prevalent health issues within the industry. The talk identified chronic stress leading to burnout as a significant concern and explored the negative impacts of an adrenalized work environment and workaholism on physical and mental health.

Contrary to the common belief that success in tech requires overworking, Michelle argued for the importance of rest, leisure, and effective time management. They recommended an Essentialism Plan to focus on high-priority tasks, promote clarity in planning, and prevent burnout. The talk concluded by emphasizing the significance of self-care, healthy sleep patterns, and mental well-being in the tech industry.

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So, about four years ago, I was sitting in my cardiologist's office just thinking like,

wow, I didn't think I would have a cardiologist for like 30 more years. And after wearing a heart monitor for a few weeks, they were able to see that I was constantly experiencing abnormal heart rates. So they diagnosed me with inappropriate sinus tachycardia, a.k.a. your heart rate is running

wild and we have no idea why. They say there's really nothing that they can do for me long-term, so to just figure out what's triggering my heart rate and avoid that thing. Okay, yeah, exactly, all right. So the thing is, is at this point, everything was triggering my heart to race, doing the

dishes, getting the mail, cleaning the house. But it wasn't always like this and it wasn't ever as bad as when I would go into work meetings. And this is really where it all started. So I was working for an amazing company on a project that I loved with incredible developers,

but we were exposed to some pretty toxic communication and bureaucracy that prevented any kind of like accountability or resolution. And after over a year of this, I began to notice my heart was kind of hurting, like my chest was hurting, followed by this weird cough. And I was like, that's suspicious.

And so, first it started happening when I would go into scrum ceremonies, like especially the retrospective. Yeah, so then it just like slowly started building to the point where it was happening during any activity at all. That's leading to the cardiologist.

So being honest with myself, avoiding the thing that was causing my heart to race meant possibly leaving my team and maybe my job. And eventually I did both. I went to another company that I thought would be better, actually ended up being way worse. So I was working really, really long hours. I had a super long commute.

When I got home, I felt like I didn't have a lot of margin for anything outside of like taking a shower and eating dinner and getting ready for bed. And then on the weekends, I found it really hard to disconnect. I felt like, oh, I should be writing a blog post right now or responding to some Slack messages or planning for the next week.

And then on top of that, when I was at work, I felt pretty disrespected. And so at this point, my heart palpitations had gotten to be so bad that at times I'd be completely unable to speak, like unable to talk, which really freaked out a lot of people around me.

So I decided I'll just stay in this job till the end of the year. And I think I only stayed for about three more weeks. But I began to have this kind of existential crisis, like I really wanted to work in tech and be a developer. And sure, the pay and benefits were better, but it felt like there was this unspoken price that I had to pay with my mental and physical health.

Everywhere I looked around me, the message was like, you've got to hustle, work harder, work longer, make sacrifices. I was extremely burnt out. And I didn't understand how people were really doing this for long periods of time without developing serious issues like mine. I didn't really see where I could have this path in tech where I could be successful and

healthy. So around this same time, I met the founder of G2I, Gabe Greenberg. And after having lunch in Miami, he was talking to me about his company. He's like, oh, I want to be the first developer marketplace that prioritizes the health of developers. And I was like, do it. Do it. I needed this.

Some of my friends needed this. So many people needed this. And actually, a few months later, I ended up joining Gabe at G2I. And we began shaping a program that we called Developer Health. So hi, my name is Michelle Bakels. I'm Program Director for Developer Health at G2I.

So we focus on initiatives that support the health of developers. Everything that we did would focus on informing and empowering developers to improve their lives and to exercise agency in a way that's specific to them.

Our goal for the program was to create resources, support, and awareness around health and tech. We drew a lot of inspiration from professional athletes. I'm a huge sports fan. Gabe is a huge sports fan. But professional athletes, they're undeniable.

They're undeniably exceptional at what they do. We can look at Serena Williams and know that she's operating at a level almost no one else in the world can. So what does it take to be undeniably exceptional at what you do? Consistent hard work, yes. But these professional athletes, they also have consistent rest, boundaries, schedules,

recovery, planning, clarity, purpose. And this is a lot. And we actually wrote about all of this in a guide that we are releasing for free next month called the Developer Health Operating System. But today, I'm going to focus in on one issue that I already mentioned.

It was an issue that caused a lot of stress in my life leading to a heart condition. It's something that we hear about a lot, but I really want to dig below the surface-level conversation here and get to kind of the heart of burnout. So burnout is a state of complete mental, physical, and emotional exhaustion.

A recent study found, oh, that was a nice chart, by the way. So anyway, a recent study found that 83% of developers have experienced burnout from work. Some of the top cited reasons for this is high workload, unclear goals and targets,

and inefficient processes. So the heart of burnout really comes from stress, right? Because all of these things can cause, like, stress that feels, like, impossible to manage or deal with. So digging into stress a little bit more, stress is a state of worry or mental tension that's caused by a difficult situation.

It's a natural human response that prompts us to address challenges or threats in our lives. And everyone experiences stress, and a little bit of stress is a really good thing. It helps us navigate our daily lives. But too much stress can begin to cause some serious issues.

So we understand stress by the way that it makes us feel, but digging in even a little deeper again on what stress is literally, stress is a release of a bunch of hormones via directive from the hypothalamus. So when your hypothalamus detects some threat, it will set off an alarm to signal the adrenal

glands to release a bunch of hormones, most commonly adrenaline and cortisol. So looking at adrenaline and cortisol, adrenaline increases your heart rate, blood pressure, energy, it contracts your blood vessels to send blood to your muscles, and it inhibits your pancreas from creating insulin, which we need to live.

And cortisol increases glucose in the bloodstream, slows down nonessential functions in fight or flight situations, and changes immune system responses. It also suppresses the digestive system, reproductive system, growth processes, and controls mood motivation and fear.

So some stress is necessary, stress is necessary, but it's meant to be temporary. Once a stress trigger passes, our hormone levels and body functions are meant to return back to normal, and where this can become an issue is when we can't find that normalcy again and health issues can develop from there.

We are not meant to feel stress for entire work days or work weeks. And for the record, if you do feel stress for weeks or months at a time, this is very relatable to me by the way, if we're feeling stress for weeks or months at a time, this is considered chronic stress, and this is the stress that I was feeling when I developed

my heart condition. So chronic stress can have some of the effects of anxiety, depression, digestive issues, heart disease, memory issues, and more. But let's take a look at stress outside of a response to external pressures. Revisiting adrenaline.

Adrenaline is, an adrenaline release happens when we experience excitement or fear. So a lot of people enjoy the feeling of an adrenaline rush, where they create the scenario for themselves in which they release adrenaline into the bloodstream. But even when we enjoy the feeling of an adrenaline rush, it doesn't change the fact that all

of the other things that happen when our body is undergoing stress are still occurring. So like increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, et cetera. So again, these things are meant to be temporary. Like when Cody the koala does a backflip, like that's good adrenaline rush. But when it's sustained for a long period of time, again, it can begin to cause some

issues. Another important thing to note about adrenaline is it's very closely related to dopamine. So adrenaline and dopamine are both principal neurotransmitters that mediate a variety of central nervous system functions, which is one of the reasons why burnout can be so insidious.

Because along the way, we can be the ones that are subconsciously putting pressure on ourselves to deliver under an impossible deadline or to release a huge feature in under a week or be even more competitive. We begin to adrenalize our work.

So we know from things like social media and alcohol and like even processed sugars that just because we enjoy something doesn't mean that it's necessarily that great for us. It's not hyperbolic to say that adrenalizing your work over time can create a chemical dependency.

And this is so well observed that over 50 years ago, psychologists began to formally recognize, study and treat workaholism or work addiction. So taking it a step further, workaholism is a physical addiction to adrenaline and stress

hormones and a process addiction to a compulsive activity. But being addicted to work sounds like a really good thing, right? Because we'll achieve more and we'll get really far in our careers. Except that is a bit of a myth because workaholics tend to be less effective than other workers.

They tend to have difficulty working as part of a team, trouble delegating work or trusting their coworkers. They tend to overcommit to work or have organizational difficulties. And they also tend to suffer from sleep deprivation, which impairs brain and cognitive function.

But if everybody in tech is working like this, then I have to work like this to keep up. Again, not everybody is really working like this. What the most successful in the book, what the most successful people do at work, it states of the general rule, the higher number of work hours reported, the more likely the person is to be overestimating. So if somebody says, oh, yeah, that's in the chart, that's okay.

So if somebody says that they work like 75 hours a week all the time, then they're likely to be overestimating by about 25 hours. The majority of people who say they work a lot work about 20 to 30% less than they say they do. And that's not to accuse anybody of lying. But another characteristic, yeah, I'm not going to be like, sorry, I don't believe you.

Another characteristic of people who suffer from work addiction is that they don't have a lot of clarity around time. So they don't track their time. They don't plan for their time. They don't measure how long a task takes. So our answer to these pressures, both internally and externally, is a philosophy that we call

restful work. So restful work is a work week we look forward to, filled with joy and rest at an unhurried pace. It's a place where we do our best work, yet it's just one part of our life. The days comprising of a restful work week have a clear start and end, undisturbed personal time, and consistent ample time for sleep.

Restful work means we are better parents, partners, friends, and employees, and it leads to putting our health first and finding a place of deep contentment. The foundation for restful work is slowing down because it reduces adrenaline. We learn a more sustainable way to work that actually makes us more productive and helps

us be even more ambitious. So if you want to achieve more in your goal, or you have big career goals, then it may help to actually prioritize rest and sleep and taking some time off to enjoy life outside of work. Looking at PTO really quickly, 46% of workers in the United States don't take all of their

PTO, but a study from Project Time Off found that only 34% of workers who used less than 10 days of their PTO received a raise or a bonus in a three-year period. Meanwhile, 65% of workers who used more than 10 days of PTO received a raise or a bonus.

So this is nearly double the chances of getting a raise or a bonus by actually taking more time off. And this is likely because getting sufficient rest and taking time off increases mood, memory, focus, emotion regulation, productivity, happiness, and creativity. Yeah, thanks, Mark. Mark said he agreed with that.

So there are other ways of slowing down besides taking time off. Some of them include prioritizing, substituting, underscheduling, and more. I'm going to touch on prioritizing today. So this is an excerpt from the book Essentialism about the word priority.

The word priority came into the English language in the 1400s. It was singular and it meant the very first or prior thing and stayed singular for the next 500 years. Only in the 1900s did we pluralize the term and start talking about priorities. Logically, we reasoned that by changing the word, we could bend reality and somehow now have multiple first things.

So looking back on the beginning of this talk, we were talking about burnout. We were talking about some of the top reasons for burnout. Two of them were high workload and unclear goals and targets. So taking from the learnings of the book Essentialism, I wanted to share a method of prioritizing

your work in order to achieve your goals and to manage your workload. And this is a method of planning your work that we call an essentialism plan. And this is a focus on the work that aligns with company principles, visions, OKR, or some guiding metric of ultimate importance. And these are the tenets of building an essentialism plan.

So first of all, everything here is offensive, meaning that it's work that moves the needle closer to achieving your goals, such as completing a feature, launching a campaign, or reviewing a design. This is opposed to defensive work, which is necessary but doesn't really get you closer to your goals, such as emailing, reoccurring meetings, or Slack messages.

You should definitely respond to your emails, but it doesn't belong on the essentialism plan. A few other things. The work here encapsulates a set amount of time. We focus on planning our work for two weeks at a time, but you can move that shorter or longer however works for you. This is not an ultimate to-do list.

This is a list of four to six of your highest priority items as related to your goals. You want to take about 15 to 30 minutes to create this thoughtfully, and once it's finished, you want it to be visible every day when you work. Again, this is also for your hell yeses, so not a primary to-do list.

Items here should address a bigger picture or scope, and you should be able to clearly see how it's going to help you achieve your goals. Last, everything here should be actionable. Every item will start with a term like launch, start, review, complete, support, draft. This is an example of one of my old essentialism plans.

I have some high-level focus areas that address some of our goals around building community and organizing React Miami and writing the developer health operating system. I have an item here for each thing that is something actionable that I want to get done in a two-week period.

Once I have this essentialism plan written out, I can create daily action plans. This is closer to a to-do list, but still it only focuses on about six or so of your top priority items. I like to take that little bulleted list and put it into a daily schedule that helps me

manage my time and have a lot more visibility around how I spend my time. You don't have to make it a schedule. If you just want to make it a bulleted list, that's fine too. It's whatever works for you. I have with me today some printouts of this essentialism plan.

If you guys want a copy to mess around with it and see how your work would fall here, feel free to see me. I have some copies. If you're joining us virtually, you can go to forward slash epic webconf and you can download a copy for yourself. I want to wrap up with a few last thoughts.

First of all, the tech industry is incredible. The advancements over history are nothing short of miraculous. Especially with the advancements of the modern web, the barrier to building has never been lower.

It is exhilarating to chase down an idea or to build some new solution or to just exercise your creativity. Just like the computers that we work with, we are only as good as our systems allow us to be. Whether you are leading a team or you're a solo builder or you're part of a team, we

build better when we feel better, when we have clear functional processes, when we know when to execute and when to pause. When I was feeling my worst states of burnout, I thought I could convince myself that I wasn't really that stressed. I thought it was just like a psychological exercise I had to go through, like you're

not really stressed, you're not really that tired. Or if you just push through this, just push through it. And then afterwards, it'll all be better. But now I have this little reminder in my chest that rest is more than a good feeling. It is necessary. It's not a luxury. It's not a reward for hard work.

It's part of doing hard work. Rest helps you grow, it helps you recover, and it helps your body operate the way that it's intended to. Mental health is physical health. Everything that happens in our minds, what excites us, what scares us, what calms us,

it's attached to changes in hormone levels, to blood flow, to nervous system behavior, to body functions. Nothing is ever all in your head.

So please, remember to always listen to your body before you listen to anyone or anything else. And if you put yourself first and you take care of yourself first, everything will find a way.

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