In the summer of 2000, I was introduced to an educated Brooklyn-born Buddhist, who became a mentor. A year before, I left my excellent law firm job to join a promising dot-com search engine company, Alta Vista, as their second in-house lawyer. But by 2000 the dot com bubble had burst, Alta Vista was laying off staff, and a company called Google had surpassed my employer in queries. I was stressed.
To help me, my Buddhist mentor referred me to books on mindful meditation written by people like Jon Kabat-Zinn, a scientist, writer, and educator known for bringing mindfulness into mainstream medicine and society. From my mentor, I learned about the “monkey brain.” We talked about the fact that stress comes from concern about the past and the future, and I learned about the importance of staying present. He taught me how to meditate and broke it down to its most simple form of sitting in a quiet place with a straight back, setting a timer, and counting my breath. We discussed how to handle my “monkey brain” with thoughts that jumped all over the place, like a monkey swinging from one branch to another. This was twenty years ago. I was in my early thirties, had been in Silicon Valley for less than two years, was on my second job, and beginning to search for a third one. To say I was anxiety-ridden is an understatement. So, I put a lot of discipline into building a meditation practice, even when a close friend told me I should keep my meditation to myself because it was just “weird.”
Weird or not, I kept up with the meditation and incorporated breathing and counting into my workouts, walks, and downtime. Even on work trips, I found myself counting my breath on planes and in hotel lobbies. I read somewhere that if you meditate enough, you will change the shape of your prefrontal cortex and that you’d ultimately be a happier person. I was determined to reshape my brain.
Roll the clock forward to 2020, about 9 months into the pandemic. Extreme Networks’ executive team, in a very real and transparent way, started discussions about our employee mental health issues. We talked about employee burnout and experiences related to working from home during a pandemic. We learned that nearly a year into the pandemic, in the US, 45% of workers felt burned out and anti-anxiety medication prescriptions had risen by 35% -- 3 times the number in 2019. The CDC showed a 200% increase in self-reported behavioral health symptoms. Our Extreme employees were not exempt from these alarming trends.
Extreme was on notice that its employees were stressed. I was on notice that my team was likely suffering. Our executive leadership team strategized about how to help our employees. For my part, I reflected on what was going on globally and took inventory of everything I knew from conversations with my team. I understood why they would be stressed: Foremost, every employee was worried about their own health and that of their children and parents. Each was one degree away from someone who either had been hospitalized or had died due to COVID. Employees took time off for Zoom funerals regularly. Additionally, some employees had small children at home and were coping with school closures. Some decided to home school, which brought its own set of challenges. And many just did not have the space to work and made use of their kitchen tables, spare countertops, or even made room in closets to use as makeshift home offices. Employees were having a hard time setting boundaries between home life and work--many would get up early and work until late at night without any breaks. Vacations went out the window. Where would you go? Responsibilities at home increased with many bearing the burden of shopping for elderly family members and helping boomerang children interview for their first jobs on Zoom. The list goes on and on. For leaders to think that employees were not stressed was and is naïve.
As an experiment, during the summer of 2021, I put in place half-day Fridays every other week. When productivity did not wane and employees were grateful for the time, right before Labor Day we made it a permanent practice. I have read that some companies are putting in place 4-day work weeks. Now that’s a thought. One of our executives has an open session for his 1000+ employees where team members can drop in and ask any questions. How fun is that?
At the start of the pandemic, I increased the number of all-hands meetings and I introduced “Katy’s Challenges.” For one challenge, I asked team members to reach out to colleagues they had never met in person in different parts of the world and learn a fun fact to share with the rest of the group. Another challenge was to share stories and pet photos. I even challenged them to call execs in different departments to connect and learn something new.
When the executive team started discussing our employees’ mental health issues, I rolled out “Katy’s Challenge Number 9.” In a very transparent way, I shared my own experience of managing work stress through meditation, spin classes, walks, other forms of exercise, or even a simple downward dog or two or three right before an important presentation. I challenged the team to take 5-minute breaks between Zoom meetings and to add clear space on their calendars to do absolutely nothing. I encouraged them to cook. A boss once told me chopping vegetables was his outlet and I have made it mine. I told the team this challenge was a personal one and they didn’t have to share what they were doing with me or anyone else, but I encouraged them, strongly, to do the challenge 10 minutes a day for 30 consecutive days, hoping team members would positively change their prefrontal cortex.
About a week after I rolled out Katy’s Challenge Number 9, I called one of my direct reports in the Legal Department. When she didn’t pick up, I called again and then sent a Teams message. It was not like her not to pick up. Where was she? About 15 minutes later, she called back. I giggled and was more than a bit embarrassed when she shared that she was “out picking tomatoes and cucumbers from the garden for Katy’s Challenge Number 9.”
Twenty months into the pandemic and around the world employees are working harder than ever and companies are thriving. And yet the pandemic challenges are real and COVID-19, and its variants live on. It is hard to control our monkey brain when we continue to see virus spikes in certain pockets of the world, when employees continue working from their kitchen tables and on their beds, and when family members and friends continue to get sick and die. The uncertainty of going back to our offices and the policies around vaccinations are anxiety-provoking. As leaders there has never been a better time to be kind and gentle with our employees, to listen, to practice empathy, and more importantly, to give each of them the space to practice Katy’s Challenge Number 9.
As for me, twenty years after meeting my Buddhist mentor, I continue to set the timer on my iPhone for 10-minute meditation sessions. I exercise and walk as much as I can, and yes … I actually do a few downward dogs before important meetings.