On Burning Out
Or trying to keep it at bay
I’m going on vacation next week and I’ve been feeling spread thin lately. If you haven’t noticed already. Whenever I get like this I know it’s time for some rest and to reset. I need to not look at email or talk about chemistry or polymers for a while to anyone including my coworkers who also seem to be in perpetual states of being stressed, on the verge of rage quitting, or near burnout. I don’t necessarily think this newsletter is a cause of burnout, sure it requires creative energy, but it’s something I enjoy doing. It’s like working on a hobby in public.
And you are reading it.
My actual day to day job is often difficult but for the wrong reasons. From a technical perspective it’s actually quite easy, but from a business process standpoint it’s maddening. I often hear of brilliant technical people floundering in business environments because the processes to get things done are broken or the processes were put in place with 30% more people and due to recent budget cuts during the pandemic those processes are now broken. The longer you survive in a business environment the more afraid you are of getting laid off. This means the longer you are someplace I think the job becomes a mixture of a job and the show survivor. You want to look good.
The issue with looking good is that we tend to focus on appearances instead of actually being good at the job or role we occupy. Sometimes, expectations from management or the board of directors are so disconnected with the reality on the ground that looking good is all you can do. Speaking truth to the power that is your executive team or regional management is difficult because I think we equate systemic failures with personal failures. There is also the chance that speaking the truth get’s you put out to pasture sooner too—a veritable Catch-22.
While most people will not speak the truth to their management teams due to fear they often will work very hard to try and achieve what might be impossible goals. I think technical people while in school equated hard work with good results either in the lab or in the classroom. This is because in a classroom there is often a right answer (how else do you get graded) and in a research lab failure is also progress. The thinking is often that if you fail enough you will eventually find the reaction conditions, the right purification, or the right test method and you will get what you need. In academia not hitting your goals might mean expulsion in graduate school or just varying degrees of failure as defined by either the institution or yourself. People do not seek failure in school or career.
From Kindergarten to Doctorate this concept of success through hard work is hammered into us. I think this mentality often leads to management teams putting very difficult expectations on their employees year after year and employees getting very close or achieving those expectations year after year. Often we get a big carrot dangled in front of us and it’s often just out of our reach. I suspect the people who deal in bits instead of atoms often get their carrots, but there are always more and they never quite fill you up. Eventually, some employees get exhausted, even after two years of employment and they start looking around at what else is out there. Why not get a 10-20% raise for doing the same thing somewhere else or maybe even a pay cut to just have less stress in your job? Hello “Great Resignation,” which just appears to be people getting better jobs as far as I can tell.
I think in the business world there is actually benefit to having a clear dialog that is open and honest. Knowing what goals are stretches versus achievable is a business that truly knows its own business. This is rare in my experience. Managers that understand mitigation of risk and knowing why projects might not deliver on time and communicating these risks early and often to executive teams know their business and their teams. If you want a high performance business delivering above market returns on invested capital you need trust that runs vertically through the organization and you need people that know their business very well. Having people that know the business at all levels very well is worth paying a premium.
A company’s board of directors is willing to pay executives top dollar for their talents, but will often fight on increasing hourly employee wages or low level professionals. In this dramatization of Lehman Brothers before they go bankrupt the CEO says his job is to tell when the “music stops.” Spoiler alert: the real Lehman Brothers goes out of business and Fuld (in the movie his name is Fuld) goes down with the ship.
Further, in the face of reduced revenue or rising raw material costs employees are often seen as a cost center to be cut. To those employees who remain, their jobs often become more difficult, fear is obliquely used as a motivator (intent is moot here) as in “if you do not perform you will be asked to leave,” and eventually the business start to erode. The precarity of our economy means you either move on before you are asked to leave, you eventually get asked to leave, or you become a large enough shareholder of the business that you are in the Catch-22 situation. The longer you are in the chemical industry the more you see this occur every few years.
This cycle appears, at least to me, to spiral downwards. Teams always tend to get smaller. That team you were working with and making progress with a specific site gets dissolved and you are now working directly with operators who have been told to work mandatory overtime. A team of 4 gets reduced to a team of 1 with similar expectations on delivering certain projects or goals. A team member decides to leave in the middle of her project failing and you are now tasked with getting it to work in an extremely short amount of time, and your failure is communicated upwards. Success just means you get a wage increase that is less than current inflation and a $50 Amazon gift card (if you are lucky).
My intent isn’t to be all doom and gloom here, but rather to help you recognize situations that might lead to you burning out. Think about your worst case scenario coming true and then plan for it to happen. If you truly burnt a four week vacation will not cure you of your ailment. If your worst case scenario is getting laid off then you aren’t being imaginative enough. Let me give you my current scenario:
I wake up and I’m 50 doing roughly the same job I was doing in my mid 30s to early 40s and my salary has barely kept up with inflation. I’m still dealing with chemicals not getting inventoried properly and discussing the same safety issues that appear to never get fixed. My sales team is never able to actually sell any technically successful projects or the team that said they could sell it have moved on to other companies either voluntarily or involuntarily. If I were to get laid off here I’ll have to move my family to the next opportunity, likely in another state, or I’ll be the one who has to get a temporary apartment near my new job and live a sort of dual life. I’m counting the days till I can retire (hint: I still have 10-15 years to go).
My scenario on the whole isn’t that bad because most of my essential needs are met, but rather it’s pernicious due to it representing my own personal hell loop. Perhaps this is why I am writing this newsletter. I suspect my efforts here might have a higher probability of influencing change than my own individual efforts within an organization in the chemical industry. There are already 1040+ people receiving emails here every week and I’ve gotten some messages from readers that 100% confirm some of my suspicions.
I often write about how chemical companies of the future can be different technically, but I think there is plenty of room to change how these companies are run too. If we want to see a sustainable future where we mitigate climate change to happen we need to have teams capable of achieving what sounds impossible and we only get there by fighting the conditions that set us up for burnout.
I hope you get a chance to get some rest this year.