Keeping a Work-Life Balance with an SEO Career | JP
The In Search SEO Podcast
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Mental Health in the SEO Sphere: Summary of Episode 62
[This is a general summary of the podcast and not a word for word transcript.]
Special guest Kelly Stanze joins the podcast to talk mental health in the SEO sphere.
- How to create a work/life balance
- How to deal with the demands of an SEO life while struggling internally
- What needs to change in the SEO world for there to be a better mental health environment
Mental Health in the SEO Industry: A Conversation Kelly Stanze [7:44 – 50:01]
Mordy Oberstein (Host)
Sapir Karabello (Co-Host)
Kelly Stanze (Special Guest)
This week, we are taking a bit of a different tone as we’re going to talk about a really serious issue… mental health in the SEO industry.
For the most part, Mordy talks about whatever topic the guest wants to and Kelly came to Mordy and said she wanted to discuss mental health and working in the world of SEO.
Mordy jumped at the chance for a few reasons. First is, as you’ll soon hear, Kelly is an amazingly strong person who has her own story to tell and she’s incredibly brave for being open to sharing it.
Also, Mordy wanted to take the stigma of mental health issues out of the equation. For starters, we all have mental health issues. To quote Jim Morrison, “No one here gets out alive.” Also, we all face moments that challenge our sanity and many of these instances come up when dealing with the workplace, whether it be losing a job, being stuck in a bad one, being stuck in an abusive one, etc. So just because “you’re in the clear” now doesn’t mean you always will be.
Here’s our interview with Kelly Stanze:
Mordy: Welcome to another In Search SEO Podcast interview exclusive. Today we have an industry author with us. You can find her as part of Search Engine Journal’s Biggest SEO Trends of 2020 According to 58 Experts. She is currently doing Ecommerce Operations for Nickel and Suede. She is Kelly Stanze!
Kelly: Thanks for having me.
M: I have to ask, we’ve been trying to do this interview for a while and between both of our offspring it’s been hard. How’s the winter treating you with your child?
K: We’re in the Midwest so we have pretty hectic winters. Our little man has chronic ear infections so we’re actually getting tubes done tomorrow. I’m anxious because I know he’s going to be really uncomfortable through anesthesia, but at the same time, I’m ready for him to have some relief on that front. Other than that, my husband also works in digital so we’ve had a lot of snow days which has been great.
M: The best part of the modern world is that you can work at home. I love working at home. I know someone whose greatest claim to fame is that he’s able to work from home and he set himself up to be able to eat and work in bed efficiently. There should be some kind of award for that. That’s my dream.
K: That’s incredibly impressive.
M: So we’re going to talk about work and life balance and mental health in the SEO industry. This will be a little bit more of a serious take on a topic than what we usually focus on.
To get started on this topic, why do you think the conversation about work-life balance and mental health is an important one to have, particularly for SEO?
K: To start off, it’s an important conversation in any industry. Conversations about mental health are incredibly stigmatized especially in a very ambiguous trade, like SEO, where we joke that the standard answer to any question is, “It depends.”
If you aren’t operating at 100% or if your brain is functioning and processing things a little bit differently than what people would consider typical then the ambiguity can be hard and it’s compounded by the fact that most SEOs are on call 24/7. If a site goes down you have to be there. If Google rolls out an algorithm update while you’re on vacation, sometimes you have to plug in. I think the combination of unpredictability and a lack of immediate hands-on control can definitely create additional stress. That said, it also tends to attract some really creative and brilliant people which also tends to go hand in hand with a heightened risk for mental illness. You could have these incredible and amazing minds that can look at things from a different angle and use both halves of their brains really actively, but they also have to work through other difficulties. I have been inviting this question for my entire adult life. I’m really open about it, but at the same time, there have been days where being a ship on Google’s sea has definitely taken a harder toll on me. I’m actually really grateful for my journey, but it was definitely adding a little extra weight to what my career was bringing.
M: Before we dive into that, I just want to say thank you for sharing your story. For the audience listening, I just want to put a little backstory on the questions. I joke on the podcast once in a while that I’ve had a horrible traumatic childhood and while I do joke it is actually true. So some of the questions I’m going to be asking are coming from my own personal experience. I’m interested particularly about you working within SEO, coming in with sort of a burden and how you deal with that.
I have a son who’s eight years old who’s on the autistic spectrum and one of the worries that I have as a parent is what his life is going to be like as he gets older when he has to work. How is he going to be able to handle that additional hardship and the regular normal stress of a job? I’m wondering, how have you been able to handle that? Because it’s a lot.
K: Yeah, absolutely. I have the same thoughts because we understand that a lot of mental illness predispositions can be genetic, but they also can be completely situational. In the case of my son, there’s a combination of a trauma-based situation and genetic factors. So a lot of me worries about this pretty regularly like when the normal childhood angst starts to be early indicators of him maybe inheriting something. How do I break the cycle of trauma? Ultimately, if you’ve got two parents that work in digital, he’s going to see he has two parents that have pretty intense careers, but who also try and prioritize self-care, family, and work-life balance. I hope that as long as we can raise him to be confident, capable, and humble enough to ask for help when he needs it, that we can stay ahead of whatever he’ll end up having to deal with.
M: That’s a really good point. I’m currently recording this podcast at 7:45 pm at night and often times my kids see me getting ready for an interview and they’ve made comments to my wife asking why daddy has to work so much. You may not think they notice, you may not think that they care, or they may not be very vocal or verbal about it, but kids definitely do notice and your work-life balance definitely does take a toll.
I’ll give you an example. I have eight-year-old twins and one of them was having an issue with one of his teachers. What we sort of figured out was that it was during a time where I was super busy and there was a lot going on. It wasn’t so much that I was stressed out, but I really wasn’t paying attention to him enough as I should have and he’s very sensitive to begin with. Once we realized that, I was able for even just a few minutes to take time to focus on that child and that has made an incredible difference in his behavior, his outlook, and his level of happiness. You wouldn’t think that he cares that much that I’m so busy, but it’s all those small little details about having a work-life balance that seems so cliched that in reality makes a big difference.
K: Absolutely. There are a few things that I consider sacred for my work-life balance. Josh and I both use Slack at work. My husband and I have the capability of being completely connected at all times and it’s ultimately up to us to be accountable in severing that tie every now and then. I always try and make a point to not have my phone on me while we’re eating dinner together as a family.
Jameson at the time of recording is 14 months old so it’s a really fun time. Even when there are fires going on at work, every night, unless there’s a pre-scheduled reason why I’m not home, from about seven to eight is family time. We snuggle, we read, we giggle and cuddle, and then I give him his last bottle and he goes to bed. About when eight o’clock rolls around, I come out of his room and sometimes I open up my computer and go right back to it, but I never want to violate that sense of safety and routine that he has because it’s helpful for him. I’m a big believer in breaking up the ordinary, but it’s got to be a balance of routines and adventure. In this case, routine means we eat as a family and then I do bedtime.
Aside from that, my husband and I do the juggling act. If I’m going to cook, but suddenly I have to hop on a late-night call, or I’ve got to push changes to my campaigns on my site on an off hour, so I ask my husband if he can make dinner tonight. It’s definitely a balancing act. But the thing is, this job probably has the most hectic schedule of any I’ve had before, but I love it and it’s so fun and fulfilling. It’s worth it to have to put in the extra work to balance it all.
M: Yeah, for me personally it can be hard having that hour. Something like getting off Twitter can be really hard. Social media is the worst. It’s the best and it’s the worst. It’s almost addictive, whether it be work, checking your email, checking comments, how’s my podcast doing, how many people listened in the last hour, etc. There are so many things going on it’s almost addictive and taking even an hour break is harder than it actually sounds.
K: Agreed. What’s tricky is there’s actually hard science out there about what your brain does when you’re getting a little lift from social media. When you interact with someone on social media you get an oxytocin boost. There are legitimate neurotransmitter reactions when engaging on social media. That’s a highly addictive substance right there.
Creating some level of downtime and boundaries is so important. Honestly, I wish I would have had the clarity to do it a little sooner because up until I became a mother my career was my life. And then this wonderful little human came along and entered my world. My career pays for everything that happens outside of it and it can be crazy and fulfilling and a big part of my identity and a big piece of who I am and even a part of our family culture, but it isn’t everything. At the end of the day, it’s a job that pays for the life I live outside of work and a part of the life I love.
It kind of slapped me in the face a little bit the first time I ever got laid off. I moved to Kansas City from Illinois for 14 months. The company that moved me 500 miles from everything I knew laid me off and by then I had a few friends in the area and I had actually met my now-husband, so I had some roots put down. But I was 23 years old and I was convinced that I was going to completely just knock the socks off the digital strategy world and here I am unemployed in a strange city thinking my job is not that important. I didn’t really necessarily learn from that until Jameson joined us. That’s when I wanted to leave work early for once in my life because I want to go play with my baby because he’s amazing, he’s fun, and I want his snuggles. My husband and I joke about how we go to work and we haven’t seen him for an hour and we’ll text each other and say we miss him.
M: That’s really cute. When you have four kids it sort of dissipates, but when you have one I get it.
K: Yeah, we’re still in that honeymoon type of period.
M: There’s a tremendous amount of vulnerability. I find that either people deny the vulnerability or go too far with the vulnerability.
I’m wondering if we can maybe dive into some of your story a little bit because I find personally that being able to share how you’ve dealt with hardships is a great way to help other people do the same. I have a younger sister and we were in the same boat growing up and my experiences of how I’ve dealt with it have helped her. So in the spirit of maybe helping some people out there who are listening to this podcast who are in SEO and dealing with the pressure of SEO and are having a hard time, would it be okay to sort of dive into how you’ve handled that?
K: Absolutely, I think my biggest advice for them is to find an inner circle. I have done the pendulum where I didn’t let anyone in and didn’t have anyone to really lean on, but I’ve also let way too many people in and wore my heart on my sleeve. The reality is there’s a happy medium and what ended up working for me is having a few core people that are like my rocks. They’re the pillars and my well being is so calm because I always know that either they’ll call me out when I’m clearly not doing well or when I’m too self-aware and I need to talk to someone they’re there.
So that’s on the personal family and friends front, but you should also get a good medical team. It sounds so clinical when I say it like that, but I’ve seen a psychiatrist and I’ve seen plenty of therapists and I’m at a place now where I don’t have to regularly check in with a psychiatrist. I don’t have to go to therapy regularly. My PCP is amazing, but at the same time, he keeps an eye on me too. I actually just had my annual physical with him and he stared me down totally blunt and said, “Okay, how’s your mental health going?” And knowing that I’m not going to get away without talking about that, even at a totally normal doctor’s appointment, is almost refreshing. It takes the onus off of me of having to initiate because that’s what he’s there for. He’s there to help take care of my health and that includes what my brain is doing. He was also the first one to offer to refer me to someone who specializes because he recognizes the limitations of his expertise. Sometimes what you need is someone who specializes in the hard stuff that has to do with your brain, your history, and your trauma.
Another thing that has really helped me is fitness. I’m actually not currently doing it right now, because of postpartum life and my body’s just a hot mess. But for a long time, I used running as a tool to keep track of my well being while developing a stronger sense of self-awareness. When I graduated from college, I was actually in recovery for an eating disorder. I had bulimic tendencies, I was a binge eater. And over the course of the next two to three years, I started running 5ks and then all that culminated in the year before I got married. I ran 12 races in 12 months and four of them were half marathons. It was incredible and one of the biggest contributors to me really getting to know myself better because you spend a lot of time when running alone in your own head and you just learn how to listen to yourself better when you’re putting your body under that kind of pressure.
From there, I think really finding any way to be self-aware as to how you’re doing, how your struggles might be translating to your behaviors. Whether that’s meditation, whether that’s journaling, or whether that’s some form or other of self-reflection.
Anything that you can do that makes you sit and think, “Okay, what am I feeling? Is it valid or is it my brain lying to me because my neurotransmitters are off? How is that translating to my behavior? Am I acting out or behaving inappropriately? Am I withdrawing into myself and distancing myself from people? Are my behaviors indicative of maybe not feeling like myself or needing a little extra TLC?” It’s just a lot of identifying how you behave when you’re healthy, how you behave when you’re not, and what that gray area looks like. Typically, if you’re going downwards, unless there’s a diagnosed medical condition that causes it, they don’t tend to crash really fast. My experience is if you’re living with a chronic illness, it’s a long slow decline and you don’t always realize how deep you are until you have a big epiphany and you hit rock bottom or someone calls you out on it. So you can kind of help getting away from that point by catching it earlier by developing those self-awareness skills.
M: Yeah, I’m 1,000,000% with you. Speaking from my own life, I found there are people who are more inclined to be self-aware and people who are less inclined to be aware of themselves and that makes it harder for some people off the cuff. But then you’re living in a society where everything is quick, on the move, on the go, one thing after the next. Where do you find the time? We’re living in a binge culture. You do your work then you binge Netflix for the next three, five, six hours, whatever it is. Where’s that time to say, “Okay, stop. I need to think about what’s going on? Why am I doing this? What’s really motivating me here?” And it’s very hard. I think maybe the first step is to realize that maybe I’m not as self-aware as I think I am and how do I go about being more self-aware whether it’s as something internally that you do or some help that you seek.
You mentioned the doctor. I’ll speak from personal experience with my own son. Our family physician was the catalyst for getting a diagnosis for my son and it was very hard to figure out what was the issue. Our doctor was at the place where we started and who put us on the path towards getting a clearer idea because nothing is clear.
I want to ask you, I think you mentioned this earlier, that it’s not all bad. You have these struggles that happened to you whether it be from growing up, whether it be getting fired from a job, or whether it be stress. Overcoming that and dealing with that makes you who you are, makes you a deeper person. It makes you a more spiritual person or a more reflective person. And it’s something that you can run with and make it become a positive part of your life. Have you found the same thing?
K: Absolutely. Most of the good things I have in my life right now I can almost directly attribute them to difficult times. This series of dominoes that led me to the life I love a lot of it started with a really ugly, bad relationship ending in college. Suddenly, my high school sweetheart in my hometown didn’t really feel like home anymore. I felt like I needed to do something drastic so I started taking these out of town internships and I traveled and I focused on my career. Obviously, my pendulum swung a little too hard into the career for a while, but those internships led to a job offer in Kansas City and I moved down here and I lived alone and I really had to stretch my comfort zone. Then I met Josh, and all of a sudden, my career changed drastically. That’s actually how I got into SEO. I would not have probably gotten a job and a specialization that I absolutely loved if I hadn’t lost the other job in the first place. That bad relationship in college ending led me to Kansas City and losing the job led me to SEO. Now I have this home and this family that I adore and this career that has taken so many bends on the road, but it’s so exciting and adventurous and fulfilling and none of it would have happened without the big bad surprises.
They may have knocked the wind out of me at the beginning, but I’m grateful for the way they’ve led me to who I am today and where I’m at simply because I can’t imagine myself without this life. I can’t fabricate another one so I might as well appreciate the one I have because it’s actually pretty cool even if there have been rough spots along the way.
M: As poetic as it sounds, life is not about reaching hurdles and asking why did this happen to me? It’s about redeeming the situation to the best of your capabilities.
To sort of come full circle, let’s bring this back to SEO. I’m wondering because you are obviously someone who’s tuned in to this, on a scale of one to ten, how well do you think the average SEO professional balances their work and personal home life? One being the lowest and ten being the most balanced.
K: Depending on where you are, I would probably argue a three.
M: It’s that bad? Wow.
K: Yeah, that’s my personal experience. A little bit of context. In my job prior to this one, I was the only SEO strategist for the entire Hallmark Corporation. My primary role was eCommerce and helping their website, but I also consulted on things like content strategy and mini-sites for other subsidiaries. There was just way too much work for one person and I did my best to prioritize what I could. At the same time, there were always going to be midnight conference calls that I would have to hop on with our offshore team. Naturally, I had to work late simply because there weren’t enough hours in the day.
M: How do you deal with that? I’ve been in situations like this before, whether it be in SEO or something else. It’s hard because you feel that the expectation is I have to do this and if I don’t do this maybe I will get fired. How do you create that balance in a pressure situation like that?
K: For me, the balance was really understanding that there are trade-offs like taking time when I’ve had to do overnight conference calls or I had to work with lunch over the weekend so maybe I won’t go in on Monday or something like that. A lot of it depends on your team and your culture. I was fortunate that even though I had to work a lot of weird hours, for the most part, people are pretty understanding. At the same time, there were a lot of expectations in that role that I knew was probably never going to change in the foreseeable future. So that was part of why I started considering maybe a change is what I need and I ended up here where I’m the only digital strategist in the retail company that does most of their revenue online. So it’s busy and hectic but it’s a different kind of busy and hectic. It’s a startup versus the corporate grind. So my other piece of advice on that is you’re probably always going to be busy and stressed out if you work in our trade so find a busy and stressed out that fits you.
M: Personally speaking I used to work in property management and it was one of those jobs where I got calls in the middle of the night. There was this expectation that no matter what it has to get done as unrealistic as it is. Working where I am now, kudos to JP, I have a ton of my plate, but we do have a really nice environment where I can say, “Okay, we want to do x, y, and z. I can’t right now, but I will put it on my list and I will figure it out somehow and I will get to it at some point and we’ll do it. It’s important and I want to do it, but I just can’t because I just have so much on my plate.”
There are a lot of people out there who think they’re experts in doing enterprise SEO and their teams by putting more work on them, giving them double loads, and the ones who will do the best job will be the ones to keep on your team where they’ll rise to the occasion. That’s ridiculous, insane, and stupid. You shouldn’t do that. Because people are not horses. People are people. And for most people when they tell you that they can’t do x, y, & z it’s because they legitimately can’t and not that they’re trying to get out of work or anything like that. I think there has to be trust on both sides. It’s okay to say no and if they don’t accept it then maybe it’s time to move on.
K: Yep. I’m a big believer in trust being an indicator on the health of a team. If you don’t feel comfortable telling a superior that you do not have the bandwidth to do something or that you need to deprioritize one thing because another thing has come up and it’s more important, that’s not a good environment.
If you feel stuck, think about the ways you can impact the culture. I’m an idealist. I want to go in and fix this and make it better, but the reality is it’s not my job to make it better for everyone else. It’s my job to know how to do my job. If I can contribute to a positive culture, I will, but balance is important. You need to balance what positive influence you can have with the well being that you need. Sometimes, having a team culture or a specific role, the positive you bring and the positive you create around you does not outweigh the negative and the strain that it’s placing on you.
M: I used to work for Baltimore City as a teacher, and I love teaching and I love education. I hated working for Baltimore City. I will never ever recommend anyone ever work for Baltimore City. It was an emotional guillotine of stress and unrealistic expectations and convoluted nonsense. I remember feeling guilty of wanting to stop teaching my students. I was miserable. It was affecting me psychologically. It was affecting my moods, affecting everything. I had that feeling of hating going to work every single day. Sometimes it’s time to go no matter all the other considerations. Obviously, in a vacuum, there are always other considerations. If you’re going to starve and you’ll need money if you quit I admit you should probably find another job first. But all things being equal, it’s just not worth it.
K: To bring it full circle, your job is what pays for the rest of life. I recognize that there are a lot of situations where people don’t necessarily have the ability to lose their job. At the same time, your job isn’t who you are. Your job isn’t the value you put into the world. Your job is the means to build the rest of your life. And if you can’t leave then set up new boundaries, institute new self-care methods, or take some time to think about what about yourself can you care for or invest in to make this more tolerable. There are ways to make it work, but ultimately you don’t have to drive yourself crazy over a job you don’t love if you don’t need it.
M: Just to end off, we talked about the SEO community. What changes would you like to see from within the community when it comes to these sorts of issues whether it be balancing work or being more accepting of these issues. Whatever it is, what would you like to see from the industry?
K: That’s an awesome question. I think I can proudly say that the SEO space is probably one of the more open and candid ones, at least in the Twitter circles we tend to run.
I do feel like that because our trade does tend to attract people that have to use their whole brain you tend to see a little bit more openness. That said, I would love to see it discussed more at some of the highest levels of the industry. You don’t really see panel discussions about mental health in SEO at Search Engine World. These conversations are happening on Twitter on a small scale or they’re happening in Search Engine Journal on their Focus Fridays. I would love to see some of the biggest speakers in the SEO space and some of the biggest conferences and industry leaders really being open about asking, “Hey, how many people in this room are also taking antidepressants?” We’re all struggling with something. I’ve yet to go to a digital conference and feel that the mental and emotional strain of what we do is adequately addressed. It’s all jokes about us having to drink so much coffee, work crazy hours, and we were crazy for signing up to do this job that we have zero power over.
Ultimately, you got to just address it. And the few influencers on Twitter being open to talking about it doesn’t necessarily have the same influence as a keynote at an SEO conference discussing the importance of caring for the SEO strategist.
M: I like that. Let’s make that happen somehow.
Thank you, Kelly, for sharing everything that you’ve shared. I honestly admire you for having the courage to share. It’s not always easy to put yourself out there like that and I really appreciate it. Thank you.
K: Thank you for having me, Mordy. This has been amazing. It says a lot about your character and your commitment to our community that you’re willing to reach out and find people that have some of these tough conversations with. So thank you so much for what you do for the SEO industry.
Tune in next Tuesday for a new episode of The In Search SEO Podcast.