Covid and Recalibrations

This is my first post in a while, but hopefully the start of more regular ones.  Really it’s my first in close to a year, which is incredibly sad to think about as I type.  But that’s just how life goes sometimes.  There have a been a combinations of reasons for the hiatus, mainly work, of course Covid-19, and as I write this, I am one month post layoff.  Don’t worry, I am ok.  I have severance, savings and other avenues for income.  I am not writing about it because I want sympathy.  I am writing about it because the last month has given me time to look back at the progression of my career and life and look at what serious changes I want to make, that I may not have otherwise been able to do.  I also know a lot of people have been where I was and I want to talk about the issues with work, careers and companies in a real way and say the things I know many people think, but are afraid to say out loud.  Because, well I don’t have a job, what do I have to lose?

The real changes that prevented me from traveling began a little over a year ago when I got a promotion, which of course sounds like a great thing.  In the beginning it was good.  If you have been a long time reader of this blog, you know I have been seeking a better work/life balance for a while, but I lost sight of that goal with the new position. There was a lot of work, but I enjoyed it and there was a lot of potential to do a lot things I had been wanting to do in my company for years.  Because of that, I made some personal sacrifices of time, with the mindset that I could get things “fixed”, then once things ran smoothly I could go back to a better work/life balance.  But really, I have worked in oil and gas long enough to know things never work that way.  No matter how much you work it’s never enough, there’s always something else coming up and if you are not sacrificing, you are not seen as working.

Don’t get me wrong, my entire career has not been this way.  If it had, this blog and the teardrop would have never happened.  For 9-1/2 years I was lucky enough to work under good men who understood the importance of taking care of yourself as part of being a good employee.  In the last 6 years, when I became a manager, I worked for someone who understood the importance of taking care of yourself in being a good leader.   He also understood that for employees to be productive and care about a company, they must feel valued, heard and motivated.  We had our arguments and differences of opinion, but I felt valued because I was treated as a peer, an equal, and allowed to express my opinions, even if we disagreed.  During those 6 years, I was motivated and accomplished a number of great things.  But make no mistake, this kind of management of people and progressive thinking is not the norm in oil and gas.

When I began my last position, part of the reason I was willing to sacrifice my time to get things fixed, was because of my manager.  I knew I had his full support, but also that he wouldn’t let me get too far out of balance.  I do truly believe that if he had continued to be my manager, the long hours and stress would have been temporary.  But as they say, all good things must come to an end.  A few months after taking the new role, there were major changes at the company and he was no longer my manager. Things became a blur of  working too many hours each week, trying to keep my head above water, and continually becoming severely ill, probably from the extreme stress………then came Covid.

At the time of writing this, the devastation of Covid-19 in the US and Texas is unfathomable.  Every day I watch the news and can’t believe what I am seeing.  However, at the start of the Pandemic, when we believed a few weeks’ shut down would get things under control, I welcomed a city wide shut down.  If that sounds horrible it’s because it is. But let me paint the picture of 2020 for me up until shut down started in mid-March.  By that time, I had lived through a 6 week disaster of a project to replace trim and paint my house that was supposed to have taken 2 weeks, attended two week-long training sessions, a week long conference and training in California, had the flu that appeared to affect me more than other people, and the first week of March went on a cruise with my family for my 40th birthday where we all contracted the norovirus. All of this, while still trying to maintain my therapy dog visits with Bella and a crushing workload of things that were supposed to be completed by the end of June.  So, when talk began of having to work from home and things shutting down in the city, sadly, I welcomed it as a much needed break I didn’t think I would ever get any other way.

The initial 6 week period of working from home, which was the original city order and all we thought it would be, was a transformational experience in itself. In the beginning, it was foreign to slow down and not be striving to “accomplish” something every day.  Because of that, I set a very rigid, daily schedule of walking with Bella, weight lifting, yoga and making meals.  After a couple weeks, I started seeing major changes in myself.  Mainly I felt better than I had in years, I was losing weight without making a dedicated effort. I did not have acid reflux or a headache, which I realized had become a part of my daily routine, and my overall anxiety level was greatly decreased.  Do you realize how screwed up your job has to be for a global pandemic to lower your anxiety level? Don’t get me wrong, I was still working, in fact I was more productive than I had been in years just from being able to have a dedicated, quiet place to work for the first time.  This is one of the biggest downfalls for office settings, the balance of socializing and being a member of the team, while still having enough quiet, alone time to actually get anything done.  This time of being home also gave me time to start thinking about how my life could be different and I started hoping we didn’t have to go back into the office for a while longer.  While I did get my wish to work at home longer, it came with other problems.  The continued rise of Covid cases that made working in person, in an office setting, impossible also brought oil prices down to an all time record negative number.

That was the start of the next downturn. Everyone in the industry will tell you oil and gas is cyclical. But it’s more like an upside down roller coaster, without a lap bar or seatbelt, in the dark. The thing is, it doesn’t have to be such an extreme, detrimental cycle for the workforce. It is managed in a way that makes it volatile to employees. When oil prices go up, companies over-hire and pay exorbitant salaries and overtime costs. There’s jobs for everyone and no one cares how good you are because they just need bodies to fill roles, because your insurance and benefits are tax breaks for the large profits they are making at that time. But the minute the market goes down, you are a liability and you’re out the door. I have worked in some capacity in oil and gas or in companies that service oil and gas for 20 years, back to when I was in college. When I started in oil and gas I really believed that’s just how it was. It was the trade off for making a lot of money when times were good.  But after getting an MBA and spending years following businesses in other industries, I know it doesn’t have to be that way. Other industries have good, long-term financial planning that prevents these types of extreme cycles.  It is poor management and more importantly poor money management and greed that make this cycle necessary. It comes from a choice of putting profits over people. Because of the cyclical industry that has been created, the industry is very much of a highly competitive, cutthroat place to work.  There is no focus on teamwork, creating positive cultures or employee retention because as soon as oil prices start to go down, everyone knows layoffs are coming. So everyone is out for themselves, to make sure that they survive that layoff. This makes for a very unhealthy, distrustful, toxic work environment to constantly be in. When oil prices went below zero, this cycle was very clearly starting in my company.

Of course, throughout the entire pandemic, the goal for all companies was to get and maintain work, which is understandable, but when oil prices went below zero is when the really unhealthy work environment came back for me. I went from being able to block out time in the day for lunch, breaks and workouts to being scheduled in back to back meetings, all day, including through lunch.  Most of these were pointless and just a way to micro-manage people because everyone was panicking about the market.  The big problem then became having to work way later in the day to get the minimum done because working hours were spent on video conference calls where nothing was accomplished. Coincidentally, this was also around the time that the shut downs were extended, measures by states were increased and protests began.  This division and extreme difference of opinions was starting to show in my company too.  There were people who wanted to continue to work from home for safety and others who were pushing to go back into the office to get back to “normal.”

During this time I observed a bigger issue with how we had all been living our lives and working.  People seemed to have a lack of identity when they were not at work. Don’t get me wrong, this did not apply to everyone.  There were quite a few people, like me, who had made a good transition to working from home and had been making the most of their time at home with hobbies, learning new things, and spending more time with their kids.  But there was also a large number who were continually mad about being at home, complained about their family all the time, and would say they were working all the time because they were bored.  I was trying to keep in touch with people, talk to them regularly and ask how they were doing.  When asked, many people I worked with appeared to have no hobbies, passions or past-times outside of work, nor any idea how to talk to and relate to their family.  To me, this points to such a huge imbalance in life, the kind that leads to suicide when people get laid off because they have no identity outside of their job.  Although I can’t truly understand this, I was very happy to objectively see that I was not one of those people.  But seeing the anger these people harbored about not being able to go to work made me even more careful about trying to maintain a work-life balance so I never made it to that point.  When it became clear that the backstabbing and competing in anticipation of layoffs began, I refused to participate.

I’m pretty sure that a refusal to sacrifice all my time for a job anymore probably got me put in the first round of layoffs.  I’m also pretty sure that I was undermined and sabotaged by people I thought I could trust.  In fact I saw a lot of it when it was happening.  But I’m ok with all of it because at the end of the day, despite what people in the industry will tell you, how you treat people is the most important thing and I can sleep fine at night knowing that I did my job, did it well and never did anything to anyone I regret.  As far as what people did to me, I believe in Karma and how you treat people will eventually come back to you.  I’m actually ok with being laid off too.  I have been wanting to get out of that industry for a while.  I have been struggling for some time with working in an industry that has such a starkly different set of values than my own.  Although I worked at companies who worked on the environmental side of oil and gas, it was still oil and gas, and still an industry profiting on the destruction of natural resources and treating their employees as disposable. The urgency to get out has felt even stronger since starting to get my yoga teacher certification because much of the life of a yogi is living a life that reflects your values.  I just never had the time to seriously look for other jobs.  The few times I did make a concerted effort, I had to sacrifice something else to have the time and the imbalance just got to be too much.  I had also tried over the years to take classes to learn new skills that would more easily translate to an new industry, but time just never permitted completing those.  But as my friend, Roz the Diva, said after I was laid off, sometimes it takes a huge disruption for you to be able to stop your momentum and change directions and I feel like this pandemic and being laid off was exactly that for me.

I honestly do not see the industry ever changing from the cyclical, cutthroat nature. What I really see is an industry that refuses to change with the times and will eventually cease to exist. Note that when I say “oil and gas” I do not mean the international, fortune 500 energy companies.  I do believe most of them have a clear view of the current landscape and are making efforts to stay relevant by investing in alternative energy sources and ad campaigns to rebrand themselves as “energy” companies.  I am referring to the smaller, more regional companies that sprung up during the “black gold” era of oil and gas to meet a need in the industry and now provide a highly specialized product to a shrinking, niche market.  Too many small companies that I have worked with firsthand still firmly believe that one day oil is going to come back to be the industry that it was. All evidence of current technology and energy source trends, shows that is not the case.

Although it will be years before we switch completely from fossil fuels, the push for more efficient cars alone will keep the industry from ever being the boom industry that it once was. That’s not even taking into account how long Covid lasts and its long term effects on society.  Creating a volatile workplace environment is only a part of how poor  management is going to take the industry down, but it alone causes many of the problems that keep smaller companies from moving forward and truly growing.  (Getting to the point where you can hire back to pre-layoff levels is not growing.)  One of the biggest issues this type of management creates is the continual loss of key company knowledge and being stuck in a continual learning curve.  Every time there a cyclical lay off, companies lose knowledge, then when they get more work and hire more people, those people are going to be inefficient for a while as they learn the job and company, no matter the experience level of the people you hire.  This is something I watched for years that frustrated me to no end.  By the time people had worked at a company long enough to do their job well, there was a down turn and they were gone…….and the cycle would start again.  The years of de-personalizing the workforce and treating employees as a resources, not people, meant that the people who made these decisions never actually worked with anyone who had to overcome this learning curve, nor did they really care how it negatively affected the company because they were making a lot of money.

The mentality that oil will eventually come back has also prevented any moves forward into the 21st-century when it comes to technology in the industry. This is my soapbox on the industry because I spent years proving that implementing new, up to date technology can save time and money while people in decision making roles decided we didn’t need all that “fancy” stuff.  Oil and gas is still operating in the Stone Age, with all of its inefficiencies, huge waste and outdated systems and processes. But it is hard to change the mentality and show a need to eliminate waste and inefficiencies when you have been making money hand over fist for years. Because the industry made so much money for so many years, it didn’t matter if they wasted money. It’s also hard to make the case that someone is a poor, or even incompetent, manager when they have been making a lot of money for years, even when the industry demand was the main factor in profits.  But as a demand for oil and gas gets lower it is going to be a necessity to run smarter not harder and I believe the industry will not get the memo until it’s too late. One of the most frustrating things that I have watched over the last few years in oil and gas is an insistence on continuing to do things the “old-school way” which is causing tons of inefficiencies and wastes of time, materials, and even just paper, while companies profits and workload continued to shrink. I have even seen a large number of smaller companies who insisted on operating this way go out of business.  The evidence that they will have to change is there, but most still refuse to see it.

So after reading all this you may be wondering what I want to do.  The truth is, I don’t know for sure.  What I do know is that I want to do something where I feel like I am making a positive impact in the world, where I want to get up and go to work.  I also want to work at a job where caring for and taking care of people is a key value.  I don’t want to work at a job where I’m afraid to get to close to someone because you never know when they will be laid off or let go and you may be seen as a traitor if you stay in contact with them.  The first step towards this goal is accepting that not using your degree is not a failure. This a big deal within engineering that I bought into for years.  There is a huge stigma that if you do not use the degree you worked so hard to get, you are a failure.  Just like the stigma that if you get out of oil and gas you are failure who “couldn’t hack.”  This is simply not true for may reasons.  First of all, choosing to take care of yourself and getting out of a volatile industry that affects your physical and mental health is not failing.  Second, getting an engineering degree teaches you many lessons that can be applied to other jobs.  You will never truly not be using your degree.  Lastly, we need to embrace and accept that everyone has different talents and personalities and the goal for a job should be something your enjoy and want to do.  Not something you feel like you have to do because you got a degree in it, especially when you realize you do not enjoy it.  Here’s the big secret, most engineers really don’t like pure “engineering” jobs, but when you have that conversation with them it either ends with “well, I worked so hard for the degree, I should use it” or “If I change to something else I will have to take a pay cut.”  The last part is true, but you need to be looking at the bigger, long term questions and asking yourself, what good it is doing to make a lot of money if you are miserable and working too much to enjoy that money?

At this point I don’t know what the future holds for me career wise, but I am making the most of this time I have right now.  I spent a week keeping my almost 2 years old niece (she’s the kid in the picture) and will be traveling to see friends I never seem to have enough time with. Then hopefully, if things do not get worse with the Pandemic, I plan to get back on the road with the teardrop and see as much of the country as I can.  I feel like life has given me an opportunity to do that, that I would not have other wise had and if there’s one things this Pandemic has hopefully taught us all, it’s that life is short and you should make the most of every day.

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