With her Code Burnout podcast and site, web developer Ehi Aimiuwu has created a safe place for those in STEM, particularly people of color, to talk with others about how to stay sane in an industry that glorifies the 24/7 hustle.
By S.C. Stuart
While Silicon Valley is busy investing in tech-related wellness apps and wearables for the general market, nearly 40 percent of its employees are struggling with mental health issues. Yet few will talk about it publicly.
Last year, entrepreneur and content strategist Ehi Aimiuwu decided she had to speak out and started Code Burnout, a site and podcast, which returned for season two on August 5. Her goal is to get people in tech—particularly people of color working in STEM fields—to stop hiding the hurt and start sharing solutions.
It’s based on her own experience working at i.c.stars, the biz-tech training hub for low-income young adults, followed by four intense years at social-impact software giant ThoughtWorks. By that point, she was a mom of five and, seeking more flexibility, she decided to go it alone in June 2016. Aimiuwu now runs her own web development company, Geek Empowered, in addition to managing Code Burnout.
We spoke to Aimiuwu for tips on keeping mentally fit when your life is spent glued to a screen. Here are edited and condensed excerpts of our conversation.
PCMag: Ehi, you do a disclaimer at the beginning of each Code Burnout podcast about not being a medical professional, but it’s clear there’s a lot of strength to be gained from listening to others in the same situation.
Ehi Aimiuwu: That’s right—I’m not, and it is. But I always suggest people seek help from medical professionals. My goal with Code Burnout is to have a safe space to talk about this stuff and to persuade companies to make room for mental health. I want people in high-pressure work situations to know that they are not alone.
Code Burnout reposts a lot of great work-related memes, like this one: Use your sick and vacation days if you have them. Capitalism will survive without you, and the guilt you feel about it isn’t real. Not easy in tech, right?
Well, the reality is, you have to do what works for you to keep your job. I felt that particular message was more for those who feel guilty for taking breaks. When I was sick I still came into work. When my kids needed something, I would leave early from work, but once I was done with my tasks at home, I went back to managing email and the work I missed. My first two years of work, I never wanted to take vacation days or sick days; I would feel guilty as if I was making the team fall behind if I missed a day. Even when all the teams were at home or traveling for the winter break, I was in an empty office. I truly believed I was being a good employee.
It’s hard in full-time employment to take adequate breaks, but worse for freelancers.
When I first started as a freelancer I thought I was supposed to be available at all hours. So if a client emailed me at 2 a.m. with an ‘emergency,’ I would get up and work on it right away.
Is there a solution?
It wasn’t until my friend told me about Service Level Agreements [SLA] that I finally set boundaries. We need to be able to look into the agencies to create better contracts, or if you’re independent, create [an SLA] to make better arrangements and create expectations of when you’re available to work.
That’s useful. Based on your own experience, what are your other top tips for staying sane in the workplace?
1. Get your support system together. Someone at work, someone outside, and a professional-people you truly trust.
2. Understand your triggers. Especially for those who have had trauma in their lives. Sometimes there are situations, people, or even certain tones and words that can be very triggering. Understand your emotions and what’s going on.
3. It’s perfectly okay to take a breather. Tech is super fast-paced. You always have to be on top of things; you don’t want to fall behind or create any blockers. Learn to pause. It’s better to be awkward and walk away for a bit or say: ‘I’m not sure, let me come back to it,’ than to struggle through it to make you seem like you know what you’re doing and you got it together.
When I interviewed Kristian Ranta, CEO of Meru Health, we talked about how many companies are just paying lip service to mental health.
My mission is to give people the resources to get through it all while also reaching the people at the top. Companies are losing ‘good people’ and good candidates to other companies and wondering why. They know they need to keep their numbers up when it comes to hiring people of color and women, but often they don’t know how to create an inclusive culture where people feel welcome. Retention is a big problem for companies due to their culture. I’d like Code Burnout to help.
On Code Burnout episode 2, you interview Khristan Yates, QA Analyst and Certified Scrum Master, who’s worked at both Motorola and Bio-Rad Laboratories. She talks about the dangers of ‘self-policing,’ when you know something’s wrong on a project.
I was also a [Quality Assurance Analyst], and this one was big for me, because your entire role is to bring bad news or see the bad news coming. But everything depends on how the person receiving the bad news actually takes the bad news. My advice is: Understand the bigger impact of what you say or do. Sometimes you may be on a project that is simply that—a project. But sometimes you are in something more political, if you know what I mean.
What’s your advice for avoiding those stressors?
At the beginning of a project, spend a good week watching people and how they work. Understand how information flows through people. For example, when the crap hits the fan, who gets blamed? What’s the process? Who will be offended if you correct them? Are they offended by the information or the person? For example, I’ve witnessed people get upset because they sensed that a person who was younger than them knew more about them in a particular topic. All of this comes into play with how you learn to communicate with a team.
A lot of people suffer from imposter syndrome in the workplace. How do you suggest they turn off the negative voices in their head?
I counteract my thoughts immediately. At first, it felt super awkward; now it’s automatic. If I say, ‘I’m stupid,’ I counteract it with ‘No, I’m smart, I did XYZ.’ I also heard someone say, ‘Imposter syndrome is a sign that you’re growing in your career.’
What’s really worked for me is knowing I understood my subject but through my lens, through my experiences. I’m the only expert when it comes to my experiences. And no one can question me on my experiences.
When I was an executive in NYC, I often snuck out to the mall to play a swift game of old-school Time Crisis. What are your stress outlets?
I’m struggling with this. I’ve done a bunch of different things to help me switch off in my life. I had a period of homelessness at one point and, during that time, I learned to crochet. It took my mind off things and helped me focus. I love to paint; it clears my spirit. But I have five children, and kids and paint—I’m asking for chaos. I still have a lot of African fabrics, and sometimes I get the itch to make more things, to sew. I guess I’m on the hunt for a new de-stressor.
Rahul Sharma from Funkadesi does sessions where you speak to a group in a professional setting but you’re playing a drum. I could do that—not a drum set, but an African or Brazilian drum maybe. If it’s in my spirit, I gotta do it. That’s how my life works.
I’ve written about AI-based tools for managing stress. Do you have any go-to apps yourself?
I used to have apps but, for me, there’s always a problem with them—they’re all on my phone! There’s no way I’m relaxing while holding my phone, listening to my phone, knowing my phone is in the room. I will just start working again.
Good point. I tested some sleep tech which required me to leave my phone in another room or a virtual town would be razed to the ground. Embarrassingly hard to do.
I relate. I have to be tech-free to clear my anxiety. I have to leave my desk. I have to step outside. I have to be reminded that there’s a world outside of the internet.
What advice would you give to someone starting out in tech about building in good mental health traits from day one?
Keep learning. You’re good enough to get through the door, but you need to place yourself in a position of continuously learning your craft. Have your go-to resources in your back pocket. When my friends and I started our job, we had a Google Doc that we constantly updated, everything from testing strategy techniques to what questions to ask before starting a project.
Final thoughts from Code Burnout for people walking into a potentially high-stress job on day one?
Know that this opportunity was given to you because you deserved it. You are worthy. You’re also equal and deserve all things. If you’re black, or female, or have less education than others at this new employer, don’t settle for less—you have the experience and the skills. That’s why they hired you. You know how to get the job done. Also—at a later date—recognize when it’s time to go, for your own sanity. Loyalty is great, but don’t suffer for it.
Originally published at https://www.pcmag.com on August 7, 2019.