How TikTok’s head of US security finds a way to opt out of social media

Getting off work or social media isn’t easy for Eric Han. Han, 35, is the head of US security at TikTok, whose user base has skyrocketed during lockdowns. Since 2020, the social media app has also come under increasing scrutiny for how it deals with the spread of misinformation, disinformation, and graphic content in a volatile global news cycle.

Han has spent 14 years in the trust and security field and started his career as a content moderator, which all means work is always busy. But given his intense workload, Han says it’s crucial for him to unwind by taking meaningful breaks and to model that as a leader for his team.

“To be perfectly honest, for trust and security people, especially myself, it’s kind of a spur to get us to take PTO,” Han tells CNBC Make It. “The field attracts a lot of altruistic people, who are mission driven and have the mentality of wanting to keep the platform safe.”

But that kind of culture can burn people out, even at a company like TikTok that offers US employees 17 vacation days a year. “We tell people who haven’t taken a vacation in a while, ‘You have to slow down to go faster,'” Han says.

Here, Han shares how even a trust and security expert at a social media company can unplug from work.

How he substituted his travel hobby during the Covid lockdown: I’m the kind of person who plans trips and has enough Google Docs, Lonely Planet, and TripAdvisor tabs open to crash a computer. But during the pandemic, my wife, who works in medicine, and I have not been able to take our usual major trips to Southeast Asia or Europe. So we created a garden.

I said to my team, “I’m going to take two days off just to plant seedlings.” I never thought I would be one of those people who would have a favorite tomato – Black Krim, by the way – but after two and a half years, that’s my element of peace. It has the advantage that I can be zen and just go outside all day. I can pepper it throughout the day or take a day or two off to just sit in my yard.

How important it is to redefine free time: Given the work we’re doing for trust and security, and given the strong news cycle of late, we realize our team needs extra time to decompress. From a leadership perspective, we need to ensure that we not only have the right intention, but also ensure that we have resources at an institutional level, such as mental health days and emotional support services.

Tips to stop checking social media while on vacation: I used an app called Freedom that restricts my access to certain websites and apps. Sometimes I just delete social media like Reddit, Twitter, Instagram and TikTok from my phone. The challenge is always sticking to it.

I don’t take my phone to certain places. Sometimes I leave it locked at the hotel. My parents grew up in a village in Malaysia, so when I visit, I can deliberately think, “I’m going to a part of the country that doesn’t have good reception anyway.” I can turn off my Twitter brain or not look at Instagram.

I also do a lot of photography while traveling so I can focus on that.

Why he and his team keep encouraging breaks: We talk about free time all the time. It’s like saying, “Hey, how are you? What did you do this weekend? And, oh, do you need extra leave?”

We are all very expressive people and we care about each other. A lot of this is built into our culture to make sure we speak up and encourage each other to do fun things.

What he would tell his 25-year-old self about taking a break: Be more adventurous.

Every five to seven years, I would take my parents on trips to their birthplace in Southeast Asia. In my 20s I would much rather go out with my friends in Vegas. I probably had a youthful attitude of, “I’m going to a village with no reception?” Now I can’t wait to do these things.

It took me a while to think about what a privilege it was to be connected not only to my family but also to my ancestors and my heritage. Those were some of the more transformative moments I’ve had as an individual learning where I come from.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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