Runner Kristen Fox felt guilty for leaving her team during a critical time, but canceling her trip would have been a blow to her mental health

When Amazon human resources executive Kristen Fox, 50, who lives in Seattle, Washington, registered for the Bhutan Mindful Running Retreat back in 2022, the timing of it seemed perfectly aligned with her new leadership role at the global director of Amazon People Experience & Technology. By the time of the retreat in April 2023, she will have completed a six-month on-boarding process and her global team of 75 direct reports should be up and running. By then, she’d be able to leave the country for two weeks without being missed. Besides, Kristen knew that after months of intensive training, she’d need a well-deserved break. She didn’t want to repeat mistakes of the past that had led to potentially career-altering burnout. She still recalls the aching exhaustion that plagued her for months the last time she put her self-care on the backburner. 

No, this time she was determined to model healthy habits and do one of her favorite things: run and travel. After having been on four other Run Wild Retreats in years past, she was looking forward to the 12-day Bhutan Mindful Running Retreat as her longest and most adventurous one yet. But more importantly, the two-week trip would give her a chance to reflect on what she’d accomplished so far in her new role and rest up for the big projects to follow.

But when her superiors announced a new project deadline that fell smack in the middle of her Bhutan retreat, Kristen panicked and new fears arose, prompting her to question her plans.

What kind of leader abandons her team at a critical juncture?
Should she cancel a trip of a lifetime she’d been so looking forward to?
Would her team succeed without her support?
What would her superiors think of her absence?

We spoke with Kristen to gain insight into how she solved her professional versus personal dilemma.


Elinor: How did you decide whether to still go to Bhutan or cancel your retreat?

Kristen: I spoke with my team and told them the situation. The tricky thing was that we were still getting to know one another. They didn’t yet fully know my leadership style or much about me, but I had been encouraging them to do stuff they loved so that they felt more productive and happier at work.  So when I faced the possibility of not doing what I loved, they wholeheartedly supported me. Knowing that running was a big part of my self-care, they encouraged me to stick with my travel plans. One person even said, “We got this! And we better not see you in the team chat!”That kept me accountable; I couldn’t check up on them because they’d made me promise to completely unplug. Since I’m the one usually telling them to be offline when on vacation, it would have been a total contradiction for me to do that.

Elinor: What did going on this retreat mean for your mental and physical health?

Kristen: Before I joined Amazon, while working as the chief of human resources for a healthcare company, I experienced severe burnout from which it took me a long time to recover. Now I’m more prone to that kind of burnout, so I watch for the warning signs, such as feeling less empathetic, avoiding people, being less patient and not a very good listener. Or I feel the urge to lay down and take a nap at 3 p.m. So when I’m not performing my best, that can lead to poor decision making and my ability to be a good leader. That’s why I make it OK for my team to talk about mental health so they can recognize those warning signs in me and in themselves, too. So when retreat leader Charlotte shared her story of burnout, I could really relate what she went through, as I think some of the other women did as well.

Elinor: Were you able to “unplug” mentally from work as well as electronically?

Kristen: I arrived at the retreat feeling conflicted: guilty for leaving my team and family but feeling so ready for some self care, and that for me includes running beautiful trails in a beautiful place! And yet, it took me a few days to allow myself to be present.

Even after I’d arrived physically in Kathmandu, Nepal, where the retreat began, I wasn’t fully there yet mentally. But I got there eventually, with the support of the retreat leader, Charlotte, local guides and the other retreat participants. What helped was being open with people and talking about what I was feeling and experiencing during the sharing circles (being completely vulnerable about the guilt I was feeling) and then finding moments of connection with the women and guides helped me be more in the moment.

For the most part, I was fully unplugged, but I did “cheat” just once. The morning of this big project launch, I peeked at the team group chat just to make sure they were OK . . .  and they were! Ironically, right after my peek at the chat, there was a lightning strike and the hotel temporarily lost power. There was no more WIFI or cell service.  I guess that was Bhutan’s way of telling me to let go and just be present!

Elinor: Did you notice a change in yourself at any point in the retreat?

Kristen: From that day forward, I was able to let go and be fully in the moment. And everything changed. I ran with so much more joy and felt stronger on the trails than before. One participant said she could see that I’d transformed. To her, I had arrived like Atlas—with the world on my shoulders—and left as a lighter, freer version of myself.

During the last sharing circle, when we talked about what we wanted to take away from the retreat, I decided I’d share my transformation and model it for my team. I took the long flight back home to reflect on how I was going to do that.

Elinor: What did you come up with?

Kristen: Would you believe that I wrote a song!? I am a songwriter (though haven’t written something new for some time) and am now working through the sounds to try to capture how the song and my experience makes me feel. I’m a bit rusty but have enjoyed having that reconnection to music.

Maybe I’ll share that at some point, when it’s ready. But the week after my return from Bhutan, I discussed my experience during our global all-hands team meeting. I reminded them of my mental health journey with burnout and shared how this time of reflection, traveling and running improved my mental and physical health.

I committed to supporting them whenever they needed uninterrupted time away from work in whatever capacity they find most meaningful. I’m also building this mental-health support culture with my direct reports. I ask for their vacation schedules so I can support them having uninterrupted time off and encourage them to have those same conversations with their teams.

Elinor: Was anything different for you after the retreat?

Kristen: It’s now seven weeks since I returned home from the Bhutan Mindful Running Retreat and I’m still reliving that trip, like remembering how I finally found a rhythmic breath during the long uphill to Tiger’s Nest Monastery, and how exhilarating it felt to finally reach it!
For my personal and professional relationships, being mindful means being fully in the moment without distractions of technology or unrelated thoughts in my head, which has resulted in deeper, more meaningful conversations with my family, friends and colleagues.

For my health and running, being more present has meant not feeling pressured to sustain a pace or log a certain number of miles. That makes it easier to tune into the environment around me. I actually feel the sea air on my face and smell its salty aroma. If I feel compelled, I’ll sit on a drift log in the middle of a run for 30 minutes, just taking in the view.  As a result, I’ve loved every run because there’s no expectation other than being outside in a place that I love.

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