About Me

My photo
Kings Mountain, North Carolina, United States
"A mind lively and at ease" is a blog by a first-generation Russian-Ukrainian immigrant Maria K. (Maria Igorevna Kuroshchepova). An engineer by education, an analyst by trade, as well as a writer, photographer, artist and amateur model, Maria brings her talent for weaving an engaging narrative to stories of life, fashion and style advice, book and movie reviews, and common-sense and to-the-point essays on politics and economy.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Today... I wonder why we burn out

While spending the least number of hours at school, American workers are some of the most overworked in the world. Based on 2004 data, American workers put in 1,777 hours per year on average - tying with Hungary. While there are a few countries that do work their people harder (most notably Korea and Japan), there are more nations, whose workers put in 100 - 400 work hours per year (including most of Europe and much of Scandinavia). That is a difference of roughly 2.5 - 10 work weeks. What is even more interesting is that a modern American worker, equipped with every bit of technology imaginable, works more hours per year than a 13th century adult male English peasant, who I am sure did not have at his disposal either a Blackberry, or a laptop, or even a basic riding mower.

Having worked in American corporate world for 15 years now, and having just witnessed yet another round of corporate turmoil with my current employer, I look at myself and my team mates and am reminded over and over again, why so many of us go up in flames mentally and physically by the age of 45. And while I have tremendous respect for those who work in manual labor (I have waited tables, washed dishes, cleaned toilets and assembled cars myself - so I know what it's like), I must say the burnouts tend to occur more frequently in the white-collar world, where employees' brains are required to remain active and astute for extended periods of time, more often then not in a generally stressful atmosphere. The health care industry is a separate disaster entirely - its burnout rates are astronomical across the board from paramedics and nurses to the highest-paid surgeons. And the more I look at this, the more I realize that something is profoundly wrong with our workplace.

We burn out because, once we are no longer hourly employees, we are expected to work ridiculous hours, because allegedly we are "paid for it". ...Except there isn't enough money in the world to compensate us for ruined weekends, time we will never get back with our spouses and families, and the decimated digestive and cardiovascular systems due to irregular and frequently unhealthy meals, as well as copious amounts of coffee we consume to keep our brains running.

We burn out, because of the quarterly reviews. It is understood that in order to receive an "exceeds perormance" rating, which qualifies one for a pay raise or a promotion, one must virtually take on a second job. The result of this is doubly damaging, because in the end, the person who kills herself working 80 hours a week, gets nothing but a recognition piece of paper. And those of us who work 65 hours a week get no recognition and a "meets performance" rating, which qualifies us for nothing.

We burn out because of corporate politics. A person might develop an amazing methodology to resolve an issue, but then there is a manager change. And while the new manager still reaps the benefits of that methodology, the author goes unrecognized, because god forbid for a new manager to acknowledge something good that was done under the old manager.

We burn out because of the so-called "change". Change, that we are told, is good for us. Sadly, there appears to be no distinction between true positive and productive change and instability, introduced in order to create an impression for the executives, that the management is constantly thinking about the best use of resources. We are reshuffled like cards in a deck, and each time we are told that this one will be the best one yet. Sometimes we go a full circle - to find ourselves, after a series of changes, exactly where we were a couple of years ago, in the same state that we were told then was no longer the best course for us and needed to change.

We burn out, because our managers are often appointed with no consideration for the dynamic of the group and with no time for transition. A square peg is shoved into a round hole, and both are expected to feel perfectly comfortable with it. Sometimes the peg breaks or the hole craks and falls apart, but those upstairs sit back in satisfaction that they had filled in the vacancy.

We burn out, because our work is only recognized if there is a crisis, ignoring the fact that if everyone was allowed to do their job properly and was not so overworked and underpaid, there would be no crises in the first place.

We burn out, because in the middle of a truly important and mentally intensive task, we receive an e-mail requiring us to drop everything and go take this or that mandatory training, which we have taken ten times before and can actually test out of. But because we have to do it now, the flow of thought is broken, something gets pushed to the side and postponed, and stress level goes up.

We burn out, because we are looked upon with disdain by our managers and with pity by our co-workers, when we announce that no, we will not be dialing in to this call because we will be on vacation or because we have something planned for the weekend. How dare we! Sick time and time off is a fallacy - you don't take it off really, you are merely moving the work you would have normally done during those days to the days before and days after.

We burn out, because we only use five or six out of our allotted ten sick days. Mental health days are not allowed. And if you take one sick day per month three months in a row (which can happen easily to someone suffering from a chronic illness), you can be fired for absentyism.

We burn out because 25 - 50% of our vacation tyme often goes unused as well. It's not that we don't want to take vacation, and it's not that we don't need to take vacation. It's that there never seems to be a good time to do so. There is always something going on at work that requires your presence. And if you take vacation anyway, you are dubbed selfish and a bad team player.

We burn out, because the rest of our lives do not stop just because we have a demanding job. Our homes and families and pets still need to be taken care of. There are still doctor appointments, vet visits, home imrovement projects, housework and yardwork. None of it goes anywhere. All of it needs to be done.

I know that some will sneer at me, "You should be thankful for having a job and for the amount of money they pay you to think for a living." I am thankful. But I do not think that being thankful for my job implies that my job is allowed to take over my life. There are 24 hours a day. We spend 5-7 hours a day sleeping (if we are lucky). Even if we only worked 8 hours a day (which nobody does - at lest no one I know), it leaves only 9-11 hours to do all that other stuff I decribed above AND hopefully to sit down and catch a breath.

What is the sense in having all this wonderful technology, which is supposed to make our work easier and more efficient, if in response we are just going to continue being squeezed of all our creative juices like so many lemons? The great Russian science fiction and adventure writer Ivan Yefremov said, "Our life is already filled with too many monotonous, mandatory and unavoidable tasks that distract us from learning and from creating. If we continue increasing their number through our own carelessness, repeating things that were already done, re-doing that which is not perfect, fixing what we think is broken, we are unlikely to achieve much through the course of our short lives."

I dearly hope that some corporate executive somewhere reads this and realizes that the so-called "lower and mid-level employees" are actually human beings that form the foundation of his company and ought to be treated as such, before they are either crushed and irrevocablly despirited or before they walk away to work someplace, where they understand and fight against all the things that make us burn out.

1 comment:

Diane said...

Excellent post as always, maria. Having spent 15 years in academia, 19 in corporate, 3 in small business and 1.5 in self-employed, I think I can with cerrtaintly - you have covered virtually all of the bases.

One thing I might mention - with multinational corporations, European employees are alloted *their* standard package, with much more generous vacation, sick, pregnancy, elder care options than Americans. And no says or does anything about it!

I left that world for a reason. 'All of the above."