I had the opportunity to share a frank conversation with one of America’s brightest millennial leaders about burnout, a phenomenon which has now moved beyond the focus of occupational health and HR departments, to becoming a mainstream public health concern. Jason Shen has shared publicly about his experience of facing burnout in Fast Company, on LinkedIn—and importantly he’s shared his experience within his own company.
Jason took me on walk with him on a video call while he strolled through the Manhattan neighbourhood near his office on an early July day. The three-time start-up tech CEO and founder opened up about the factors which led to his recognising that he was over-stretched and over-stressed at work; the reasons why he thinks there is more burnout happening now than ever before and tips for other leaders and founders on how to address burnout.
Can you tell me a bit about your journey to becoming a three-time tech start-up founder by the age of 34?
I’m a first-generation Chinese American immigrant. My father studied for his PhD in education at Boston University and so my dad brought me and my mom over. My mom was a gymnastics instructor and so I got involved at a young age. I was a very active child in the classroom. It helped.
By the time I was fifteen years old, I’d made it onto the US national team and was eventually recruited to be on the Stanford University gymnastics team where we won the NCAA gymnastics team championships before I graduated.
After graduating, I joined an ad tech startup as an early employee and have been working in tech the past decade.
I founded my first company with roommates from Stanford. I know, it’s the cliché story! It was for a ride sharing platform called Ridejoy. We raised $1.2mm and ran it for two years. We had tens of thousands of customers on the West and East coasts. But we couldn’t raise enough money to continue and the company folded in 2013.
I did a stint as a presidential innovation fellow under the Obama Administration, tasked with helping the Smithsonian build a crowdwork network for transcription. I’m passionate about civic technology and still sit today on the board of Presidential Innovation Fellows Foundation.
I moved to New York City in 2014 and worked for software developer, Percolate and Etsy.com but I was itching to start another business. A colleague of mine from Etsy.com and I founded Headlight in 2017. It was a tech industry hiring platform offering a rigorous screening process of applicants. We ran the business for eighteen months before we sold it to Woven, a competitor in the space. During this time, I did a Ted Talk on the future of hiring, which was quite popular—it received 4mm views.
After that, around the end of 2018, I co-founded my current company, Midgame. It’s an e-sports analytics tool helping e-sports teams.
You’ve been firing on all cylinders the past decade. It’s not a surprise that this could have created conditions for prolonged stress. What are the factors that you believe led you to experience burnout?
For me it happened at the end of 2019 based upon a sequence of factors. Midgame had felt like an uphill climb for a whole year. In the spring we had gotten traction with one product, for e-sports teams, but ultimately found investors more interested in a different part of our business, the voice assistant experience, and we pivoted quickly to meet that interest. I got married in April and postponed our honeymoon 8 months to avoid being away from the business.
When fall rolled around, we had a working prototype for the new Midgame experience but it didn’t seem to be enough for investors. I was trying to close a small round of funding just to keep us afloat before I left for my honeymoon. Negotiations dragged into that vacation, making it hard to fully relax and recharge.
All those things set the stage for my burnout in the spring of 2020.
What kinds of signs did you recognise in yourself that looking back indicated you were struggling?
I think it started as we were planning for our next round of financing. My co-founder could sense that I was not as fired up about the business as I had been for the past few years. He asked me point blank, “What do you really want to do?” Because he could tell something was off and he wanted me to know we could consider other options.
Looking back, it was hard for me to imagine anything beyond 3-6 months. I felt dread about restarting investor conversations. It’s exhausting to be glued to your email, scheduling dozens of meetings back to back, explaining how games aren’t just mindless time wasters but the future of entertainment, and walking through all the twists and turns we had taken with Midgame.
At home it was harder to be joyful when the workday was over. I couldn’t enjoy hanging out with my wife. I had trouble sleeping and nothing seemed fun. My hobbies felt like a pointless distraction from this looming task in front of me.
When I’m acting different—tired and grumpy, or when I’m staring into space when my wife is talking and my mind is wandering to work, she knows that something’s off.
She likes to hide my phone from me, just as a game between us. When I get angry, versus being playful about it, she can tell when I’m overly stressed or at risk of burning out.
When you realised you’d hit a point of burnout, what did you do to get through it?
Step one was realising it was happening. It’s like how you can always diagnose other people’s problems better than your own. Having my wife and co-founder raise concerns made me take it seriously.
Step two was taking concrete steps to bring myself to a different place. I was dreading the fundraising which meant I wasn’t going to do it well, and through a series of conversations with my co-founder, we decided to pursue a new product direction in response to Covid-19 and drum up conversations around an acquisition. Those decisions proved fruitful and my burnout symptoms improved.
I realise that being an entrepreneur gave me a lot of decision-making latitude that someone else might not have. But plenty of founders complain about being trapped by their business and I think even as an employee you can shift your life in a way that improves things, whether it’s changing teams, rearranging your schedule to get a morning workout, or committing to not working on weekends.
As a CEO and founder of tech start-ups, this is a very brave decision to speak out. What made you decide to share publicly?
I’m an open person. I believe it’s the responsibility of leaders to make sure the people they work with see that they have an emotional life as well as a physical presence.
If leaders don’t speak out, they are setting an example that they don’t want to address stress or make it a priority to manage it in their own life. This sends a message that it doesn’t matter, that it’s not important. It’s about finding a balance between managing for it yourself and taking responsibility as a role model to others in the way you handle it.
I’ve been writing about burnout for a while as I’ve seen it affect others in my life. My former co-founder experienced burnout and lost time in his life as a result. It’s also affected some of my family members. So, when I went through a brief period of burnout, it felt right to share openly about it.
Is there anything you’ve learned from this experience which you’d like to share?
For me burnout isn’t about working hard. I love working hard. It’s an essential part of life.
It’s when you start feeling your hard work has no value; that you don’t feel valued and that your work isn’t making a contribution in the world—these thoughts and feelings indicators that you might be going through burnout.
When you’re a company founder, you need to believe in what you’re doing. In order to stay motivated, the work must be important to you; it must be meaningful.
It’s critical to take time to examine how you feel on a regular basis. To take your own personal culture pulse/benchmark. Also, to measure your mood over time. A tool I recommend is The Burnout Index which helps people working in tech. They’re trying to give people the tools so they can self-diagnose and monitor themselves when at risk of burnout.
The open lines of communication my wife and I make a point to have help a lot. We do a weekly check in where we talk about what we’re grateful for, hopeful for, and surface any questions or concerns we have for each other.
What advice would you give to other leaders about being resilient towards burnout?
- It helps to remind yourself that you’ve been in tough times before and you got through it.
- Make a clear divider between work and home. Plan fun things to do. Commit to them and protect this time.
- Re-frame tough things you’re going through and encourage others to do the same. Remind yourself that many of our fears never come to pass.
- Re-assert control of your own schedule taking time out for the things that support your wellbeing like physical activity, special time with friends and family, personal hobbies. Know that you need to do it for your wellbeing and resilience.
- Get enough sleep. It’s so critical. I track mine via an app, it helps me understand why some days I feel the impact more than others.
- Work is as much about meaning as it is about effort. Work should be an adventure. If work isn’t feeling meaningful, how do you change that part of your job? For example, for founders or senior leaders, make an active point to work more collaboratively with others if you’re feeling too siloed or try to start working direct with customers again.
What advice would you give to companies about burnout and supporting at-risk staff?
In terms of the current situation companies are in with Covid-19, it’s good to remember that people rise to challenges in crises. We’re going through a collective crisis. So, I think it’s important to:
- Find small milestones or victories to emphasise to staff, as often as possible
- Strike a balance between being realistic about the current state of things while creating hope for the future
- And above all, the company leaders must walk the talk. If companies are putting out communications out about managing stress and looking after our wellbeing during the crisis and the leadership isn’t modeling this, it’s empty and people see through it. For example, we’re seeing this happening with the racial movements. When brands put out statements in support of the movement, but don’t follow up, it means nothing.
We know that the rates of burnout amongst workers and business leaders are on the rise. As a young tech business leader, are there any specific factors that you think are contributing to this?
To be honest, I think it’s less about young people than it is about the society we live in. There’s a sense that ‘everyone can be successful’ and the younger generations, in particular, have seen many people their age rise rapidly and experience great success. Everyone wants a trophy.
For many of the overnight celebrities that seem to get plucked into the spotlight out of the blue, often times there’s a lot of hard work happening behind the scenes.
The technology that this generation consumes regularly in our ‘always on’ culture also makes it so easy to compare yourself to what President Teddy Roosevelt called “the thief of joy”. Most of us are aware of the psychological and societal harm of increasing income inequality, but there’s also a digital status inequality. Someone who has 10k followers may find it hard to feel good when they compare themselves to someone with 1mm followers. This can cause unnecessary stress and anxiety.
And when it comes to startups specifically, the reality is, most fail. Only a tiny fraction do really well. And many tech founders unfortunately put themselves at risk of burning out along the way. There’s a sense that with time comes progress naturally. But it’s not always true.
Not everyone’s going to earn the trophy and the sooner you can let go of that expectation, the sooner you can get relief from some of the anxiety and stress that comes with it. The stress that can lead to burnout. That’s not to say you can’t strive for greatness, but you shouldn’t beat yourself up if you don’t always get there.
In what ways has your company approached supporting workplace wellbeing, especially during the Covid-19 crisis?
My colleagues have taken mental health days and opened up about it with the entire team since the crisis started. We’ve realised we needed the days off when we started getting snippy with each other. For us it’s been really important to be open about this. We’ve supported each other along the way.
We started blocking out time to play games together remotely during the workday. For me, that was even more invigorating than taking a day off. We will play something social like Jackbox Games, or even a wacky mini golf game just so we can be together while having fun.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
I would remind people that they are inherently resilient. Research says most people will go through a traumatic event in their life and recover from it without long-term issues. We do make it through.
Be able to listen to yourself, your body. Pay attention to the signs when something isn’t right. Listen to what your body and your mind need. Don’t overthink it.
Find people you can talk to when you’re not well. It might not be something you want to post to the world, but make sure that people you trust know about it. Struggling alone is never the right decision, and the truth is, someone you know is probably right there with you.
About the author
Heather Kelly is the founder of Aura Wellbeing, a consultancy providing workplace wellness strategy, coaching and training services to employers. She’s also Content Director for Make a Difference Summit US and Online Editor for Make a Difference News. Heather led the development and operation of the Workplace Wellbeing Index, during her time working for the UK’s largest mental health charity, Mind. In her earlier career she worked as a photographer, a journalist and a senior manager in the insurance industry. She’s passionate about inspiring more empathy and awareness in workplaces toward normalising mental health and in her spare time Heather teaches photography to teens as part of a charity projects in London and Spain, she’s an avid runner and experimental chef for recipes promoting healthy minds.