Resolving Burnout at SVB


Background: IDEO, Silicon Valley Bank (SVB), and UC Berkeley Haas School of Business hosted the 2022 Haas Innovation Challenge to help address one of the biggest questions impacting the future of work: Burnout. 

Question: How might we address job burnout at SVB? => How can we make the burnout exploration process safe for the participants while supporting an open dialogue between employees and their managers?

Methods: Seven semi-structured interviews, literature review. 


Key Recommendations: 

Key Contributions: scripted the interview, conducted five of seven interviews, and synthesis.

Deep Dive

The Problem

Silicon Valley Bank is a commercial bank that implements start-up culture and focuses on innovation. Being a competitive company, it also attracts many talents who are willing to work hard for their roles. Combined with the blurring work-life balance as a result of work-from-home, as well as the potential recession, the risk of employee burnout and drops in retention rate are, more than ever, crucial subjects for companies to address. 



Three interviews with employees at SVB:

Four interviews with analysts at other major fintech and banking firms:

Special Activity

I ask participants to draw 1) what it is like to work at SVB either at the beginning or near the end of the interview; and 2) instructed them to draw a cup and asked them to write down what fills to the cup that leads to burnout "over-pour", and what empties the cup to help relieve burnout.  Below is an example of what our participant created:


Example affinity map from a participant describing their burnout experience. Blue: direct quote; Green: my notes; Orange: key points

Burnout is becoming incapacitated from prolonged helplessness

The common conception of burnout is around working too much, working after hours, and no longer having any energy or motivation to work anymore. While these are grounded observations, this study informed me that it is specifically a prolonged sense of helplessness that drives burnout. This helplessness can come from various sources, but the primary one in which all participants share is feeling that there is never enough time: not enough to meet the deadlines, not enough to meet their quality standards, not enough time to do anything else, as a result. Participants noted that they became more incapacitated with time, with little energy to fulfill their responsibilities well in their work lives and personal lives. 

 Burnout is -- 

"When it's super invasive into my life," 

"When there wasn't really much time to take breaks or really take care of myself,"

"You don't have're just reactive all the time," 

"Never feeling like there's light at the end of the tunnel,"

"I was just...trying to survive."

Burnout is a Rite of Passage

Employees who have just started their professional careers are more prone to burnout. In comparison to other participants with more "professional maturity," they are more hesitant to talk to their managers about their needs and face more difficulties refusing additional time commitments. This is because employees who just joined the workforce do not yet know their limits - where to draw the line, and why. Focused on the workload, employees often didn't draw their line until they experience first-hand why it's important for them to protect themselves mentally and physically. 

"I remember going back to like the hotel I was staying out and I just cry for like an hour or two. I couldn't get out because I was like my body literally cannot take this anymore, and that was the point where I was like, 'Okay, this is getting like physically impacting me, and I need to start like setting boundaries and changing this because I literally can't keep going.' That was my pivot point." 

The Rite of Passage is also a long one, for it often took participants years to realize they have been burning out. There is no time to think and reflect on one's mental and physical status; and often times it requires a longer break to acknowledge their conditions or when participants get severely burned at their breaking point

"You're always rushing, always feeling behind, never feeling like there's light at the end of the tunnel...this is something that I identified probably four or five years in because of this nature of just like being on the hamster wheel all the time and never having a chance to even breathe."

It's ok to work off-hours, but not all off-hours are created equal

Given the nature of work at these banking firms around answering clients and closing deals, participants acknowledge that working off-hours is sometimes part of the role. However, some of these off-hours are more crucial to participants than others, for these are times set aside to engage in "essential activities" that  rejuvenate their motivation, recharge, and keep their "sanity," such as exercising, eating, sleeping, and time with family. In other words, these off-hours ideally should be set aside and protected while other off-hours could be negotiated if duty calls.

"I'm willing to work very hard for a company as long as they give me these basic needs." 

"It really wasn't all bad. Honestly like I had some hilarious conversations at 10pm at 1am. Like that's how we bonded. That's how we got along. It really wasn't all bad."

"I do enjoy working at all sorts of odd hours I've had. We've got the corporate email on the I'll probably check an email over the weekend."

It's important to note that despite understanding the nature of these banking firm roles, ideally there should still be consent and control over when participants should prepare to work off-hours. If the lack of consent disallow participants to plan their essentials prior, or that overrules their prior plans, it could quickly add to burnout instead:

"When I get questions that come in late on a Friday afternoon. That makes me think, 'Well, right now it's this Friday at four o'clock, it looks like I'm gonna be looking at this over the weekend.' And I can absolutely see how getting a pattern of this would lead to burnout." 

Participants do not know how to talk about burnout with their managers

When asked whether participants have talked about their workload or burnout with their managers, almost everyone reported that they have not, and followed up that they wouldn't know how to. Some of the reasons include being afraid to go against company and team culture, being seen as someone who complains, and feeling that the system is too overwhelming to take on, for managers would have hired more people to lessen the workload if they could. 

"We were encouraged to speak up and say when we have too much going on, but the truth is that everybody knows that you can't actually say you have too much going on. Like that's just not the culture."

From our participant pool, no one reported any established structure to talk about burnout in the workplace. Instead, participants claim to be "lucky" when they were transferred to managers who check in with participants, make extra effort to distribute the workload, and protect their time off. There is implicit understanding that there is greater responsibility on the manager to lay out the conversation. 

Hear the Participants' Words Yourself

To help us all better understand/feel the perspectives of our interviewees - what it is that they wish they could say - I created these letters so you can hear their thoughts yourself. These letters are strung together with participant’s direct words in the correct context, denoted with [bracket]. Phrases without [bracket] is to provide context indirectly by paraphrasing participants' responses, including summaries of stories, and sentiments presented during interviews. Each letter includes data from multiple participants sharing common sentiments.

Dear Manager, from an Employee

Dear Junior Hire, from a Senior Associate

Our Recommended Solution

To answer this problem, we recommend a self-care calendar that can help facilitate ongoing conversations between the participants and their employees. The calendar would:

Example scenario of the calendar's workflow 

Block Self Care Times: Jamie blocks out essential times and labels what she plans to do.

However, during her blocked time to exercise, she gets a notification from her manager

"insert quote about resentment"

Jamie records her comments and feelings of this event and saves this interaction as a datapoint in her Self-Care Profile. Data can also be sent to HR (or some appropriate third party that acts as witness). 

If sent to HR, HR can forward the report to Jamie's managers accordingly at a level of detail that Jamie is comfortable with, as would be indicated on her "report preferences".

Jamie can send components of her Self-Care Profile to her manager as well. Manager then can use these cues and data to plan and initiate the conversation with Jamie to timely support her needs. Game plans can be recorded in the shared "Jamie Self Care Profile" that both Jamie and her manage have access to to support accountability. 

The self-care calendar emphasizes these design constraints:

Further Research


Other Works