flower- jess

Community management burnout – its impact and how to avoid it – is an evergreen topic at every gathering of social media practitioners. It is a tough, never ending job that knows no bounds. We all know the problem exists, however until the typical online community scales their resources to offer their fierce leaders some breathing room, it remains a job hazard. Recently, I was talking with my colleague, Jessica Fish, about this issue after she returned from a conference for community managers in NYC. She has a suite of self-care approaches that can help community managers fend off stress and strain, and she should know! Jessica is a community engagement specialist and has a Masters Degree from Harvard Divinity School (in conflict resolution no less). Here is her sage advice….

Overcoming Email Apnea – Why community managers are more susceptible and what they can do about it

The first time I heard the term email apnea, I knew I had it, bad. No google search or WebMD diagnosis required, I saw myself hunched over my computer, holding my breath as I attempted to manage the anxiety provoked by my overflowing inbox, social and community feeds.

Linda Stone, a researcher, thought leader and former executive at Apple and Microsoft coined the terms email and screen apnea. She describes it as the “temporary cessation of breath when we’re in front of a screen, especially when texting or doing email. This chronic breath-holding puts us in a state of fight or flight, affecting emotions, physiology, and attention.”

If you’re anything like the community managers I’ve spoken to about this you’re probably thinking something like “Holy smokes, this is MY life!” or “Breathing? Who’s got time for that?!” I encourage you to take a deep breath, exhale (Slowly! That’s the important part!) and let’s talk it out.

The Science

Over the course of six months Stone observed the breathing patterns of hundreds of people while seated at a computer. She found that 4 out of 5 held their breath or breathed shallowly while checking their email. NIH research conducted by Dr. Margaret Chesney and Dr. David Anderson found that regularly holding your breath correlates to stress-related illness: bodily acid rates rise, the kidneys reabsorb sodium, and our oxygen, carbon dioxide, and nitric oxide levels are all thrown off. They also found a correlation between prolonged stress and inhibited breathing leading to hypertension.

When we breathe deeply and slowly we bolster our immune system, as well as our autonomic nervous system -which governs everything from heart rate to healthy organ function. This is why yoga instructors are always telling us to “focus on the breath”–it really is connected to everything.

When we’re slumped over computers, tablets, and phones, our chest is compressed and our breathing suffers. When we’re dealing with stress –email overload, angry tweets, hard-to -satisfy clients–our response is to gasp and hold it, and then hold it some more.

Community Managers and Screen Apnea

Community Managers (CMs) are in the business of caretaking. We’re stewards for communities ranging from a few hundred to millions of people. This means the opportunity for CMs to experience screen apnea exponentially increases according to the size and activity of their community. Reading hundreds or thousands of comments a day? Managing egos? Responsible for illustrating how your community produces ROI? All this on top of your email? That’s fertile ground for some world-class breath holding.

What can we do about it?

Ideally we’d all be working at sleek, standing desks, exercising at lunch and drinking kale with delight until will leave the office to tend our rooftop gardens. Not your reality? Not mine either, and until we all reach work-life Nirvana, here are some other ways we can tackle the apnea issue.

1. Awareness. Are you holding your breath at the computer? Take notice of when and why this is happening. From my anecdotal research CMs tense up most when writing critical emails, dealing with acerbic community members, or commenting on threads by thought leaders or senior executives in their communities. Once you’ve pinpointed your triggers, remind yourself to check your posture and breathing before you start typing. It’s simple, but it really does prepare you to better communicate online. I promise.

2. Exhale with gusto! Stone has found that exhaling for at least twice as long as you inhale helps reset the body. She recommends breathing in for a count of three, holding for a count of two, and exhaling for six. Try. It. Out. Feels pretty great, right?

3. Incorporate reminders to breathe in your workspace. I have an index card taped to my screen that reads “Breathe. Hold. Exhale.” If you’re a Chrome user, I recommend a beautiful free app called Momentum. A stunning photograph pops up every time you open a new browser window with a space to set a “focus.” Most days, I set it to something simple like, “breathe” or “take a walk at lunch.”

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Linda Stone likes the emWave device by HeartMath which tracks heart rate with an ear clip and teaches users to better manage stress levels.

Communities require a lot of energy, and we know they do best when we’re fully engaged, curating authentic and generative conversation. In order to do that, especially over time, we’ve got to be healthy and grounded. Mindful breathing is an essential part of the CM self-care tool box and with a bit of time and attention you can kick the apnea habit to the curb.

Did you have a screen apnea a-ha moment? Had you heard of it before? Got any advice for others? Tell me in the comments, I can’t wait to see what you have to say!