A Burnout Recovery -> Optimal Performance Framework: Restful Work OS

Gabe Greenberg
Gabe Greenberg
Last updated 
I meet software developers and people working in tech every single week that are burned out. Covid has squeezed us into realizing that our mental health is not a luxury, it is a necessity. Our health is the foundation on which good work is performed. Yet in all the public discussion and the frustration and the tweet storms about burnout, one thing remains true. There is more agreement on the problem than there is on the solution. My mission is to the change this using both my lived experience and the science that points to a solution. 

The mission at G2i is to increase developer health. The physical, emotional, and mental health of the software developer. The way I see the current state of the tech industry is similar to the NFL in the 1970's. Back then it was pretty much here is a team doctor and some painkillers and you figure out the rest. The result is many players of that era had their bodies ravaged and concussions were an absolute epidemic. Fast forward to today's NFL and the amount of technology helping keep these players health is astounding. They have access to care that is extremely high ROI. I want to do this for the software engineer. The tech industry should continue to spend time on better developer experience through open source, tooling, etc. But it's time we also focus on the health of the person (and the brain) writing the code.

Always Injured

I'm a rock climber. It's a pretty big part of my identity and it's something I love. I always have a trip to some rock climbing destination planned or I'm a day away from training in my amazing climbing gym in Fort Lauderdale. Climbing comes naturally to me and it comes even more naturally to children. Even as babies they crawl up stairs and their feet reach their hands which is a technique in rock climbing. As toddlers they must climb up every couch or chair they want to sit on. It's part of their life and it only changes as they grow taller or their parents tell them to stop because they will get hurt. As natural as climbing is to kids and to many adults that fall in love with the sport, our bodies, specifically our fingers were not designed to withstand that much force in our finger joints. According to my finger doctor the best way to not get a finger injury is to pick a different sport. 

Climbers are constantly injured and the most climbing injury is yes, you guessed it, a finger injury. Specifically we'll injure the pulleys in our fingers that keep the tendons in place. First you start to feel pain in the pad of your finger and it doesn't go away. Then you push it too hard one session and before you know it you have a tear in the pulley or synovitis which can easily take 3-6 months of rehabbing in order to truly heal. The number one reason climbers do not advance in grade/difficulty of climbs and plateau is because they are dealing with constant injury due to relying on a part of their body that was not meant for the sport. This reminds me of software engineers or other knowledge workers in tech.

Humans were not designed to sit in front of a computer for 6 hours at a time solving complex problems. We were not designed to deal with multiple inboxes full of emails and DM's coming at us for every direction. Therefore, like rock climbers, tech workers are often self injured and burned out due to relying upon a part of our body (our brain) that was not built for this.

The good news is, when you deeply understand the anatomy behind the fingers you can start to understand more deeply how to heal them. When you understand how to heal/rehab your fingers you can start to understand how to prevent injury through very specific and disciplined warmups and training. Lastly, and most importantly. When you have finally gone through your 4th finger injury or your first or second experience with burnout, you will have a window to apply the things you've learned. We call this the "gift of desperation." 

Burnout Is Trauma

I don't pretend to be a brain expert, but I've been under the care of an MD that has opened my eyes to a world I never knew existed. It's the world that Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk uncovers in his book "The Body Keeps The Score." Essentially he writes that any trauma you experience is actually stored in the body, specifically the limbic system. When you experience trauma you are actually changing your brainwaves or re-wiring your limbic system. Burnout is trauma to your body and it causes limbic system dysfunction. This is not well understood and it's the reason why I believe that there is more discussion on the problem of burnout than solutions. It is the reason that organizations believe they can sprinkle a bit of yoga or healthy food as part of their "wellness programs" but it never gets to the heart of burnout prevention or recovery. Because they don't understand the problem to begin with. 

The good news is, our brains are highly neuroplastic. They are changeable and flexible so while they can be wired in a way that causes limbic system dysfunction they can also be re-wired causing the limbic system to function optimally again. 

Organizational vs Individual Burnout

Let's take a step back before we dig further into the solution. Burnout steps from both forces outside us that we cannot fully control (eg. the organization we work for) as well as individual forces that we are in control of (eg. our work cadence). Dr. Leah Weiss at Standford argues that "true wellness requires organization-level interventions." I couldn't agree more. At G2i, we believe this wholeheartedly and have started to build some of these interventions into our daily rhythms such as increasing async communication using Basecamp and Loom, working a 4 day/32 hour work week, checking in on mental/physical/emotional health on each 1:1, and teaching essentialism planning to our leaders. Despite all of these measures, our team members still struggle at times with some level of burnout. The difference is that we are able to detect it more quickly and take action rather then let it become a pattern that leads to limbic system dysfunction and true burnout which like a A2 pulley tear in your finger requires long term recovery to come back from. 

What I see on Twitter and other public places is, that when most people experience burnout they are largely focused on the organizational forces at work. This makes sense to me. They may be employed by a "workaholic organization" that encourages unhealthy work styles and expectations. So many of them quit their job and some take time off. This is the right decision and I support it as part of their burnout recovery. Yet, so many end up in new jobs at organizations that are just as unhealthy even though they don't appear to be during the interview process. That reminds me of Dr. Cat Hicks thoughts, "Trying to fix burnout by taking time off "until you're ready" and then going right back to the same environment is kind of like staying off your broken leg and then as soon as it's healed letting someone run over it with their car."

So we need to teach software engineers and others in tech to look for warning signs of a workaholic organization that they currently work for or during interview process and also the inverse, positive signs of a sustainable work culture (covered in Restful Work OS). I'm tempted to call it a "burnout free" culture but unfortunately that doesn't exist because we are still human and we have yet to cover the individual forces at work in burnout.

A Culture Of Overdoing

So let's get back to the individual side of the argument. Addiction to work or workaholism can be defined as "the process of overdoing that leads to a dependency on adrenaline." So while many would view a workaholic as someone that is working 80 hours per week, that is actually not accurate. A workaholic could be someone putting in 55 hour per week of high intensity work without margin in their schedule, going from meeting to meeting, to heads down work, with a lot of pressure put on themselves to perform well. This person might "time stuff" where they are putting a lot of activities or assignments in a set amount of time where it can't really fit. They constantly feel behind. They cannot rest well. In addition, they may spend an additional 10-15 hours just thinking about work and they have trouble disconnecting. Work is no longer just a slice of the pie, it's most of the pie. Their 55 hours of work plus their 10-15 hours thinking about it is actually 65-70 hours of work. This may be a better picture of a workaholic

Not all burned out people are struggling with workaholism, but some are. So we must be able to help each person struggling with burnout decide if they are also struggling with an addiction to work. This is not an easy process but it's absolutely worth going through. 

In the end, we have two layers of individual burnout we can treat. If we are able to treat them effectively, our program not only acts as burnout recovery process but also burnout prevention:
  • Changing our work habits
    • Person not struggling with work addiction --> Restful Work OS curriculum & community
    • Person struggling with work addiction --> Referred to 12 step work addiction recovery
  • Dealing with the stored trauma via the limbic system 

Changing Our Work Habits Through Restful Work

If we have work habits that lead to adrenalizing this is part of the way our brains get stuck in this fight/flight pattern in the first place leading to burnout. Our goal is to map out a new pathway and work style that we call Restful Work. Restful work is a workweek you look forward to, filled with joy and rest at an unhurried pace. It's a place where you do your best work, yet it's just one part of your life. The days comprising a restful workweek have a clear start and end, undisturbed personal time, and consistent, ample time for sleep. Restful work means we are better parents, partners, employees, and friends. Restful work leads to putting our health first and finding more often than not a place of deep contentment.

We'll be launching the Restful Work OS beta later this year which is a curriculum on how to build better work habits based on these four foundational principles:
  1. Slowing down is the foundation of restful work
  2. Work is one part of our life, but it's not the most important part
  3. Health is a glass ball that cannot be dropped
  4. Avoid artificial pressure and adrenalizing at all costs
This same curriculum will help tech workers decide if they are struggling with work addiction or not and refer them to 12 step recovery groups that can assist.

Treating Stored Burnout Trauma

As part of the Restful Work OS launch we'll cover how to treat stored burnout trauma that will help you re-wire your limbic system! We'll go in depth covering two ways of treating your limbic system dysfunction; Dynamic Neural Retraining System (DNRS) and Neurofeedback. We'll also directly offer treatment with Neurofeedback.

Dynamic Neural Retraining System
  • A drug free, neuroplasticity-based way to regulate an unconscious flight, fight, or fear response that has been triggered through various forms of trauma
  • What can cause trauma to the limbic system?
    • Almost any chronic physical or emotional stress
  • How can this type of trauma manifest?
    • Brain fog, fatigue, fibromialgia, hyper-sensitivity, chronic pain, chemical sensitivities, gut issues, mood swings, sleep issues, etc…
    • Feeling like your stuck in fight or flight mode
    • Questionnaire to assess
  • 5 pillars of the DNRS program
    • Recognizing limbic impairment
    • Interrupting patterns of limbic impairments (POPs).
    • Guided visualization
    • Incremental brain retraining
    • Elevating emotions during retraining
  • The DNRS program comes in the following formats
    • Instructional video, or online video streaming, or 5-day in-person training seminar
  • Research on the program?
    • 2 ongoing trials; one observational and one using functional MRI – results pending
  • Where can people learn more?


The Future Of Restful Work OS

While Restful Work OS will be launched as an interactive curriculum, it will eventually have a community/cohort based learning model offered to help support participants.

In addition, our goal will be to allow Restful Work OS to be the ultimate data warehouse for a person in tech to recover from burnout, prevent future burnout, and perform optimally. Imagine one data warehouse that includes the workers wearable inputs (eg. Oura ring, Apple Watch) that also brings data from their habit tracker, neurofeedback inputs, and self/manager reporting of performance at work.

Like Stripe building payment processing infrastructure to "advance the GDP of the Internet," the future of G2i is building developer health infrastructure to "advance the mental, physical, and emotional health of the software developer" (and eventually the tech worker). We'll make it easier for software developers to detect early warning signs of burnout and change work habits using Restful Work OS, pick better companies to join via our hiring marketplace, join a community of supportive developers to support their growth, and have immediate access to tools that make a deep impact on their health by re-wiring their brain compared to today's wellness programs that don't seem to understand the root problems tech workers are facing.