Job Burnout: An Occupational Hazard

Vince Bailey / February 2015

I believe that estimators are, for the most part, a pretty sturdy bunch. We have to be; we endure a lot of mental rigors that would crush the likes of a lesser sort. Long hours, hard deadlines and high stakes are the daily realities that test us throughout our working lives. And though I tend to reject these currently popular notions of victimhood dictated by a therapeutic culture, I must admit that the constant pressures we quantifiers bear can certainly inflict a heavy toll on the body, mind and spirit. Moreover, I agree with the contention that periods of months and even years of occupational stress can result in a mental collapse of sorts—something the pros refer to as job burnout.
Aside from the above-mentioned realities that are part and parcel of an estimator’s profession, there may be factors peculiar to a particular firm that can aggravate and worsen normal tensions. For instance, having little or no influence on your workload options can be maddening. I know a framing/drywall estimator who was put in the curious position of being made junior to a department head who had no experience bidding drywall. The superior, who dictated the bid calendar, had no concept of the complexities of a drywall bid so he heaped herculean amounts of work on the subordinate bidmeister, accepting all bid invitations and taking no notice of the long hours and weekends that the drywall estimator was putting in. Fortunately, I talked the overworked bidmeister out of going postal.
Similarly, a dysfunctional workplace dynamic will undoubtedly exacerbate the inherent stresses of an exactimator’s lot. Micromanagement from above, an oppressive boss, an atmosphere of ethically questionable practices might all be factors that contribute to a buildup of inner tension. As might be expected, some of these negative conditions give rise to related problems—for instance, long hours at work, especially evenings and weekends, diminishes time spent with family and friends and so the whole work-versus-personal life balance is thrown out of kilter. Self-worth becomes all too connected to professional success, while familial distance, estrangement and even divorce haunt the personal lives of overextended construction estimators.
However, as I said, the victim mentality is for those who are too willing to surrender to their immediate circumstances. And, as I also said, we estimators are a sturdy bunch—not easily given to wilting in the face of adversity, at least, not when there are proactive measures to ward off the demonic heralds of burnout. And those defensive measures are several.
A chat with the boss. Talking with a superior about the troubling aspects of a job is the obvious first avenue. He may, for instance, be more than willing to allow a subordinate more input into shaping the bid calendar. A reasonable chief will recognize that his estimator can be the best judge of what volume he is able to assume effectively and that he may have some valuable insight into what might be a good job to pursue versus what might be a waste of time. Of course, a reasonable chief would most likely have recognized all of this on his own. So a chat with the boss may or may not get results, but it’s probably worth a shot.
Get away from it all! Most bid activity comes in waves, so when the first signs of a trough appear, taking some vacation time is an excellent remedy for deflecting imminent burnout. Most bidmeisters I know take little or no time off, which is ironic because they are invariably the ones most in need of it. If it’s at all affordable, a trip out of town with some planned activity involved is the best for putting the bid load out of mind. Fishing, hunting, skiing or just exploring any new surroundings (excepting maybe North Korea and Syria) are all great activities for cleansing the skull of those job-related demons and for reinvigoration.
Stress-reducers. Small measures can make a big difference in making a difficult work situation more tolerable. I know it sounds trivial, but regular exercise can be a great stress remedy, and it can help to ward off any stress-related physical ailments, such as heart disease and elevated blood pressure. Cultivating friendships in the workplace can also provide a valuable defense against despair. There’s nothing like a sympathetic ear for releasing frustrations, and only a colleague who is personally familiar with the particular grievances can commiserate thoroughly. One other device that works well for me involves keeping the lines between work and home very well-defined. That is why in every job I’ve ever worked, I’ve declined the offer of a laptop and opted for a desktop computer. I would much rather spend a little extra travel time if I have to work a Saturday to meet a deadline, than have that little heart-attack machine in my house at night (besides which, I think the laptop keyboards were designed by Neanderthals). Maybe that’s just me, but I really think it is sound advice.
Jump ship! OK, this is the most drastic measure, and of course it should be a last resort, but if none of the remedies discussed above are cutting it, maybe it’s time for a change of scenery. More often than not, the conditions that give rise to a toxic workplace are intractable. In such cases, there is no reason not to explore the possibility of greener pastures. Elevated construction activity across the board is creating new and better opportunities for estimators that weren’t there as recently as a year ago.
I believe job burnout can be a very real pitfall for some estimators who are dealing with negative conditions that exacerbate those stresses we know are inherent in the work. I also believe there are good remedies to minimize the effects of those conditions. However, I strongly suggest that frustrated and undervalued estimators who have exhausted such remedies should test the waters out there and give a signal to employers that, on the construction employment exchange, it’s rapidly becoming a seller’s market again.

Vince Bailey is senior estimator at Berg Drywall of Phoenix.