fear and toxicity in the workplace healthy workplace Oct 21, 2019

I was sitting with a colleague last weekend and pulled my copy of Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point off the shelf because I wanted to read her his definition of a Maven. I opened the book and out fell one of my old business cards. Timing in life is everything, yes? The card flooded me with many memories of reading this book and starting my own business called Creative Maven.  

Here’s the passage I read: "The one thing that a Maven is not is a persuader. Alpert’s motivation is to educate and to help. He’s not the kind of person who wants to twist your arm. As we talked, in fact, there were several key moments when he seemed to probe me for information, to find out what I knew, so he could add it to his own formidable database. To be a Maven is to be a teacher. But it is also, even more emphatically, to be a student. Mavens are really information brokers, sharing and trading what they know." 

I started reading The Tipping Point the same time I decided to go on my own, parting ways with a business colleague – the one from that old business card. Now, a lucky 13 years later, I’ve made countless vats of lemonade out of those lemons, and that colleague and I are on good terms. We even pass business to each other, proving time really does heal most wounds. 

Creative Maven has been many things over the years. For almost a decade it was an event production/logistics company for many Microsoft events and teams, and for a time it lay dormant while I was an executive for another Microsoft Partner. For the past six years we have been working with companies on marketing strategy, focusing on company narratives, website design, event marketing strategy, and more recently working with individuals on personal brand and development through workshops, one on one coaching, and online classes. Many people know I am also the CMO and Co-Founder of a software company (Content Panda) and that I serve on various technology community committees and boards. And two years ago, the added requirements of being a Microsoft MVP.   

I do also sleep and have a personal life. Sort of. 

Why am I telling you all this? As I read the “maven” passage out loud I realized if I want to embody the word I chose as my company name, sharing my experiences to help others must be part of the deal. If I’m talking about healthy workplaces and becoming the expert of myself, well, I have something to admit.  This summer I reached my own "tipping point" - spinning too many plates at once and finally realizing I was in a state of burnout. Hard to admit, because we all want to be Wonder Woman, but it is the truth. 


“The first step in solving any problem is recognizing there is one.” - Jeff Daniels, The Newsroom. 

I recently watched We’ve Got WIT Webinar: Burnout is Bad for Business (and Your Health) given by Julie LaFleur, a burnout survivor who is now on a mission to help others. I have to say I felt a deep connection to her story, and she has some great classes and tips on her website. I loved her heartfelt, brave and vulnerable presentation. In many guidance programs (and even in therapy), saying what’s going on out loud is the first step in making a change for the better.  


  1. Exhaustion 

  2. Lack of motivation 

  3. Constant frustration and negativity 

  4. Lack of focus, concentration, memory 

  5. Deterioration in performance 

  6. Challenges/conflicts with others 

  7. Self-neglect 

  8. Constant pre-occupation, not being able to "switch-off" 

  9. Unhappiness, general dissatisfaction 

  10. Health problems 

I've already rounded the corner on implementing many steps to working on my own burnout. The stages are different for everyone, but I think if you can say yes to three or more from Julie's list, you may be on your way into or through burnout without realizing it.  

For me, the following factors made me heavily reevaluate how I live my life:  

  • A routine thyroid test revealed I had grown nodules in the remaining half of my thyroid, one half of it already removed via surgery seven years ago with the same issue. Luckily, the biopsy said no cancer, but this was a major wake-up call to my own self-care. My diet, water intake, and my relationship to social drinking have already changed, in the hope these suckers won't require surgery, staying the same size or hopefully shrinking. Time and good health are things we never get back.  

  • I read two books while researching Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, called Co-Dependent No More and The Human Magnet Syndrome. I find human behavior fascinating, and my teaching lens is always also turned inward toward learning. I think everyone has tendencies to have what both books call regular levels "of the self" and "for others," meaning who we tend to care about most, with the extremes being a codependent or a narcissist. Getting some deeper understanding on how to recognize those traits in myself and others was well worth the read. The books gave me a deeper look into who I attract into my life, my own people-pleasing and putting others first alongside ego processes, self-importance, and negative self-talk. 

  • After a wonderful but exhausting year of travel, speaking, and giving workshops around the globe (if I'm being real, more like 10 years), I decided to put a moratorium on travel. No getting on a plane for two months, period, no exception, starting at the end of August. And yes I know two months sounds like nothing; that many people don’t travel or only take one or two trips a year, but I’ve been in almost constant travel mode. So far (mid-October) I have stuck to my word, with my next trip being to Orlando to be a Community Reporter at Microsoft Ignite. I realized I haven't really gotten to know Los Angeles, the city I chose to move to almost two and a half years ago or spent time with all my wonderful friends who live here.  At the end of the day, spending time and energy needs to lead to a few things: happiness, revenue/compensation for business or work, and a healthy life. I'm looking at time and energy differently these days, saying no, setting boundaries, and valuing my time more than ever.  

  • I came back home from going Burning Man very much inspired, renewed, and happy after almost two weeks away from my laptop, phone, and social media. On my first morning back home, I woke up with a deep pain in my shoulder blade (a spot that always mildly irritates me). I was diagnosed as having a severely pinched nerve there, causing pain that ran down the entire length of my arm making my thumb, index and middle fingers so numb I couldn't type with my left hand. As a writer and marketer, this obviously put a big crimp into my getting back to business. I have slept more in the past month than I have in a few years, understanding that sleep renews our bodies and that we struggle when we don’t get enough of it. Getting into the gym and moving this body is also something I need every day. The pinched nerve is much better, but I do not want a repeat performance.  

  • A recent scenario: I'm about to go on stage to host a panel on diversity, but instead of preparing I'm texting back and forth with someone in my personal life. A woman on my team (who is also a friend) found me in the stall of the bathroom where I’d hidden myself and says where have you been? She sees my face and says, oh my god what’s wrong? I shake my head with tears running down my face, and she says whoever you’re texting, this is your day, your event. You've worked so hard on this! Just leave it; anyone who knows you at all should know better. She got me out of the room, face wiped and on stage. My moderation of that panel was a bit more passionate than usual, and another friend mentioned this to me afterward, pulling me aside and asking me what was going on. I didn't mention the texting, but I did share my other worries about finances (the summer was slow) - and now that I’ve been home and taken a moment, I recognize I have been in burnout.  

My friend is in my community, an entrepreneur, and a dear friend. He said, well, here's the thing: you know this consulting stuff goes up and down, and so do things in our personal lives that affect our ability to see clearly. 

He said, Heather, everyone knows you are amazing at what you do, but maybe you need to look at how easy it is for people to buy your services. Can I buy one on one coaching or one of your workshops in two clicks off your website? I looked at him, put my head in my hands, sighed and said no. He said well, in two weeks you need to make that happen. Remove the friction. Make it easy for people who know and love you to hire you. No one wants to go back and forth anymore; they want to meet you or see you speak, read about your offerings and decide to purchase.  

Sometimes you need an outside eye at whatever level you are, in both matters of the heart and in business to give you some #realtalk. Removing this friction was a maven-sized case of the cobbler's kids' shoes getting repaired last. Since we spoke those changes are being made and will be live on my Creative Maven website before the end of this month.     

These signs, moments of pause, health issues and a few other happenings were more than enough for me to say to myself, Heather you have been in burnout and you need to start practicing what you preach. Make some real changes. When we say things out loud and into the universe, well, accountability and positive energy/vibes are good for us and I think essential to change. 

The Maven Principle Hierarchy of Needs

The Maven Principle Hierarchy of Needs

So I'm applying the same basic principles I have used to empower others in my workshop called “The Maven Principle, Becoming the Expert of You.” I started thinking about this workshop back in April and realized when I was onstage months later giving it, that it was something I also needed to hear and practice. I had been in a state of burnout, going through the motions with a smile on my face but in need of some serious change. 

In no particular order, some helpful things I'm working on to restore balance (that you might also need): 

  • Self-care 

  • Self-love 

  • Sleep 

  • Hydration 

  • Dancing 

  • Get outside/change my state 

  • Intermittent fasting 

  • Meditation 

  • Valuing my time  

  • Staying put and getting to know my neighborhood 

  • Not carrying heavy things on my shoulder 

  • Morning journaling 

  • Minimizing screen time/Audible/podcasts 

  • Setting boundaries with people, things, and freebies 

  • Being grateful to those who teach me what I don't want in my life 

  • Kindness 

  • Compassion 

  • Reaching out to friends and family via phone and in-person rather than text and social media 

I also love Donald Miller's podcast (he is the StoryBrand marketing guru and has amazing guests). This one with Rebekah Lyons on The Magic of "Less" to Manage Stress is a great listen and she has a new book out that is terrific on the subject called Rhythms of Renewal. 

Sonia Cuff, an amazing Microsoft colleague, and Cloud Advocate gave a packed-house presentation on burnout last year at Microsoft Ignite. Here is her Channel 9 interview on the subject. Give her a follow on LinkedIn; she writes beautifully about tech and life.  

We don’t often talk openly about burnout and mental health because we think these issues may be seen as a sign of weakness, failure, or not being a team player. Reframing how we look at and use our time and stopping ourselves from saying yes to everything (a great start) will help prevent getting overwhelmed, stress, and, with luck, should stop burnout in its tracks.  

Changing how we view our work and the overwhelming pressures of life begin with us as individuals, but we also need to build this thinking into our company cultures to counteract existing pressures to do more, be more. Businesses that push us to where we are just surviving and doing damage control are toxic. Healthy work cultures encourage everyone to thrive through written systemic and policy changes including wellness days, having time off truly mean time off, and creating good habits around asking others for help, freebies, or taking on more projects. And there is no such thing as a free lunch. Burnout and becoming the expert of one's self are my next big topics for exploration.

When the sign says stop, stop. Look around and move forward in safety. Blowing red lights and rolling through stop signs is a sure recipe for a crash. From now on I'm paying more attention and heeding the rules of the road, rounding the corner from burnout.

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