Worry About Workload

Are your engineers exhausted?

By Dirk Willard, Contributing Editor

“I work over 60 hour a week. It’s a contest to see who leaves the parking lot last around here,” I was told with a smile. I was interviewing for a job and the young engineer I was speaking to was the third person to brag about the long hours he put in.

HR should do more than replace spent bodies.

I’m not a lazy man. Besides working as an engineer, I write these columns and handle the Process Puzzler department for Chemical Processing. Often I spend much of my weekend doing engineering or magazine work. And, during the workweek, if I run into an interesting problem I’ll stay as long as it takes to finish it up. So, why do you suppose I didn’t want this job?

Anyone who has worked 60-hour weeks will tell you it’s unsustainable. At most, you can work these hours for a six-month stretch; after that you’re useless for a few weeks but probably will be ready to go again in about a month. So, it’s small wonder this company went through so many people. They hired their staff young and these kids moved on in a year or so.

The other reason I didn’t want the job was because the managers actually promoted this macho attitude. Believe me there is nothing macho about asking your people to hide their actual hours — consider the ramifications if regulators discover that a mistake by an engineer putting in 60-hour weeks contributed to an accident.

Sadly, I’ve seen this attitude before. At one company, the turnover of engineers was about 60% in one year! That Fortune-500 company had a policy of no personal calls or cell phones in the plant out of fear of recruiters.

So, what should these companies do to avoid burning out their engineers? Let’s start with personnel management. A human resources (HR) manager once told his plant manager he was surprised they hadn’t lost more process engineers — a third had quit — during a grueling three-year expansion. His comment, when it leaked out, didn’t go over well with the survivors, including me. HR should do more than replace spent bodies. HR should monitor individual hours, tour the plant, discuss who’s doing what and so on. They should make rounds. Then, they should get help for any beleaguered staff they discover.

I know I would have appreciated it: I did two jobs for two years — I was a process engineer and an instrument engineer. While many in the process group took a break during turnarounds, I was in the thick of a dozen projects. I can’t recall being away from the plant for more than a few hours. In my daydreams I wondered if I would get more sleep if I drove a truck for a living.

There are ways to reward engineers for their loyal effort.

Let’s first talk about compensatory time off. It always irritated me that I’d work 14+ hours a day for several weeks and then after completing a commissioning exercise that lasted past 3 am, management would demand I show up the next morning. Some of the senior engineers had the right idea: turn off the phone and call in sick — the managers and superintendent stewed, which made us admire the senior engineers even more! To compensate for long hours, allow a day off for every week of overtime. Seldom are conditions at a plant so dire that people can’t be excused for a day or two.

In addition, insist people use their vacation time. Most companies have a “use it or lose it” policy. Yet, workload often makes it difficult for engineers to take vacation. Managers, rather than accepting forfeit of vacation — and sometimes praising this as a sign of dedication — instead should demand that vacation time is taken. If a plant emergency prevents someone from going on vacation, the days should be carried over. HR should watch for departments with a lot of “emergencies.” The issue should come up in the annual review of those departments’ managers.

Personal leave is another area of friction between companies and employees. One time I had to go over somebody’s head to get personal time to attend a funeral. Is it breaking some ethical law if I skip town to go to a class reunion? The company I was working for then had a policy of requiring permission to leave town; the answer was always no, by the way.

For 30 years I’ve watched these poor personnel practices persist. It’s time for companies to address workload issues and treat engineers better.


dirk.jpgDIRK WILLARD is a Chemical Processing contributing editor. He recently won recognition for his Field Notes column from the ASBPE. Chemical Processing is proud to have him on board. You can e-mail him at dwillard@putman.net