Burnout. From Denial to Understanding

Upon listening to the longer form of the popular Buzzfeed article How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation on Audible, I wanted to add onto what I think is a crucial step towards finding a solution. For background, this book was a 2 hour Audible exclusive where the author interviewed ~5 out of the 7 million readers who live in different parts of the country, are from different backgrounds, work in different industries but have all experienced their own version of burnout.

Burnout has many sources, but a lot of them, come from the changing societal dynamics of our Millennial generation, which also explains why it’s become more pervasive than ever.

It’s about social media pervasiveness, and the need to continuously build and maintain a profile that adds so much superfluous tasks to our everyday lives. It’s due to the mounting student debt some of us have, way above that of graduates in generations before us.

Everything is more demanding and less stable. It’s truly the flip side of the coin to the “gig economy”– where one can work whenever, almost wherever, but not stably. As Uber’s victory in the contractor vs. salaried employee case has shown, also with fewer benefits, organization and room for personal development.

My personal experience with burnout is of the more traditional sort. Albeit, I am somewhat affected by another overarching theme the author comments on–the lack of focus and having to do too much on a regular basis (errand paralysis). I work 80+ hour weeks and barely have time to take 2 – 3 weeks off fully. In fact, I’ve never had a vacation longer than 2 weeks in the 5 years since I started my career in finance (investment banking and private equity).

I have been in denial of my own burnout. There were definitely moments over the last few years when I just wanted everything to stop. The e-mails to stop blaring, the calls to stop, and the instant need to respond and crunch numbers, fly to faraway places for 3 days at a time–to come to a halt. I wanted peace. I turned to meditation. Nothing was even that interesting anymore and everything (no matter how small the task) felt like a nuisance.

A classic case of burnout here, you think? Well, I didn’t think so. I and many of my colleagues and friends who complained of the same frustrations thought of just two resolutions (fixes to this shockingly common problem): 

1) TAKE VACATION (usually a few days off spent flying around in Europe so you can get a nice Instagram shot looking like you are finally getting to “play hard” and not just “work hard”); or

2) FIND A NEW JOB. The advice I hear, “something or someone must suck at where you are at now. Maybe you are just bored. A new place will jolt your energy!”

Why the denial of burnout? I think it’s because we find “accepting it” to be an act of failure–the fact that we can’t keep up with the hard work, or the mounting amount of stress. When others among us seem to be able to, this just shows us how even more of a failure we are! I remember telling myself that burnout is just for people who grew up in European societies where people worked to live and were used to balanced 9 to 5 lives, or that since I was making decent money, I really can’t complain.

How to begin to accept? Author of the Buzzfeed article, Anne Peterson recognized that “The problem with holistic, all-consuming burnout is that there’s no solution to it. You don’t fix burnout by going on vacation. You don’t fix it through “life hacks,” like inbox zero, or by using a meditation app for five minutes in the morning, or doing Sunday meal prep for the entire family, or starting a bullet journal. ” And yes, I have tried all of the above. I know I’m just not an inbox zero person in that I will read everything but I don’t have the patience to sort through them all and meal prep I can only do a few weeks in a row at a time before I start giving myself food poisoning from the lack of attentiveness. None of those things have helped me–in fact they probably added more “MUST-DO TASKS” to my already overloaded list, which to my detriment, actually left me with more errand paralysis.

The understanding” Part. It’s truly part of the solution. Instead of being gung-ho and unrealistic about timelines, how much work can be compressed into them and making “magic time” in each and every project as one consultant told me when I commissioned a 4-day deal turnaround workstream, we should make it part of the everyday vocabulary to recognize when these things could lead to burnout. To catch ourselves from 10+ item priority lists and trim them down to 1-2 must do’s and maybe 1-2 optional tasks. To recognize that the world won’t end if we don’t get to some on the list today. To accept and communicate when we have competing priorities that will make completion and our satisfaction challenging. Better yet, make our satisfaction a KPI in the project deliverables. Increasingly I have helped my group and firm make the team’s enjoyment in the staffing/project, a priority, a constraint, an important factor of consideration.

Not only do we individually need to part with our shame when we hear of or associate ourselves and/or colleagues and friends with the word “burnout,” but also society as a whole needs to accept that this phenomenon is indeed commonplace, and especially amongst studious, not lazy, members of corporate America.

Written by Anna Wang

On Investing: Greed, Pride and Optimism

Is it like a rondeau that never ceases or an intricate Mozart which one willingly plays on repeat to be stroked by its melodious intrigues?

Investing has taken on so many forms, with strategies evolving from both psychological and technological innovations. Whether it is behavioral methods of predicting the next black swan, market turning event, or optimizing the arbitrage that exists between two very similar stocks in pairs trading, the goal remains, to make more money by outsmarting the market.

And what exactly is this market? Its constituents consist of sophisticated and highly unsophisticated retail investors. On one spectrum you have the PhDs pitching complex strategies set to exploit some underlying market inefficiency and on the other you have retail investors strapping on old and new names, or picking based on one metric, or being wooed by investor presentations. When an investor thinks about a stock, are they really thinking about the underlying company that share of ownership represents, the management, the board, the strategies, and employees? (I reckon when said unsophisticated investor thinks about the word stocks, they could be alluding to real apples and pears or that cash tree which will grow under the right sunlight conditions or whither away if an untimely long winter freezes its growing capabilities. It’s merely a seasonal effect, just got to pick the right tree in the right place and extradite its roots before the winter hits).

The underlying principles are the same and they are A) the market is indeed inefficient, despite the theoretical arguments back and forth as it is something that practitioners acknowledged whether they grew fat or poor from the fact and B) there is both real and perceived randomness.

A) Is just how the real world differs from what economists and finance academics believe is true about this non-physical financial world of money that we have created.

B) Now that I’ve worked with a dealer and on the buy-side in private equity, I know how some news can move prices in ways that are much unbeknownst to the knowledge or care of the general public. Intraday trading and technical trading merely try to capitalize on some of this signal in the noise.

To say that the world is but a stage and we are all merely actors in it would be an understatement. We are merely puppets. The real puppeteers are our own, very raw human emotions of greed, pride and optimism. 

All of these three emotions must be infused together in one. One can’t be called greedy just for chasing high returns. Especially if the stock is down 20% and the person still doesn’t sell, well that just pride. Now, hoping it will go back another 40% to reach the initial 20% upside if everything goes right, now that’s just optimism.

When all is said and done, what exactly do I want to do with this money built upon greed, pride, and optimism?

There are only two choices. Reinvest it into the economy or hoard it.

The hiding of wealth under the mattress (literally, and completely out of the system not even in a bank) provides that luxurious safety net the size of a small country for the few. After all, if the world turns upside down who wouldn’t want their own country to jet back to?

And does this hoarding really sap and suck from the economy?

Won’t what is sapped just be displaced by more free printing? Hey, people won’t even notice this 50 billion missing once it’s injected on the other end by some central bank. Aren’t they the true equalizers of the world, redistributing the invisible clinch as that excess will only be noticed in the future, once it’s spent on the funding of a whole new country.

And by then what’s a minor economic quake of unspent excess when the whole world has already been hit by the magnitude-9?

That’s only the traditional sense of Robber Barons and their style of wealth creation.

What about the venture capitalists of today and the budding entrepreneurs?

Devoting their undying love to impact creation and bringing the world to more sophisticated promises of the future.

Again, greed, pride, and optimism.

That 200 million dollar valuation from the mere $20k savings, scraped during college or the first few years thereafter, represents merely a byproduct, an additional benefit of introducing a popular app to the world?

What of the celebrity status that comes with having been enormously successful at having sold your “company” which has yet to make a buck. As if almost an extraordinary Van Gogh was auctioned off with the promise that the artist will soon die upon the signing of the change in ownership on the dotted lines.

The hope that Google or whoever buys your company will even continue its operational legacy passed the first year is the optimism you need to have.

Thus, the real music that drives the beat of investing is really that of a Ba-roque (n.) record. Refrain and repetition followed by high shrieks and baritones designed to steer the crowd of lavishly dressed into cathartic outpours of their primordial emotions.

The above is a satire on the world of public markets investing and venture capital investing.

Demystifying Disengagement at Work

Over 85% of people are not engaged at work, yet we can spend 100,000+ hours (50%+) hours of our waking lives at work. Work is inevitably a big part of our lives, yet when we are disengaged, this leads to lowered work and life satisfaction, with negative repercussions on the businesses we serve and on society at large.

I know it’s possible to lower this lack of engagement statistic dramatically—most of the methods and research are out there. However the delivery of effective methods, to more people, can be improved.

My disclaimer: this article is really focused on exploring the problem and not yet the solutions. “A well defined problem” is often over half the battle but does not get over half the attention as “the solution” does in our world these days.

Why does this matter to me?

When people list top reasons for disengagement at work, the list often goes something like this:

  1. They believe it’s just a temporary or stepping stone job. There’s not necessarily a career path that they care about at the current organization.
  2. Poor leadership or management does not allow them to excel or even work in the most effective way.
  3. Poor company culture doesn’t allow them to bring their whole-selves to work and/or doesn’t seem to recognize or reward effort fairly.
  4. Excessive work load and poor delegation leads to a feeling of overwhelm. Employees don’t often have the tools to identify the type of overwhelm, how to deal with it and aren’t given resources fast enough to resolve this. We know what comes next when this happens–burnout.
  5. Lack of training, resources or support to actually do the job properly.
  6. Workplace conflict where the employee may feel emotionally burdened or bullied.

I have personally experienced many instances of all of the above over the past 5 years, working in intense investment banking (IB) and private equity (PE) jobs.

When I came into IB, I’d read a lot of the books, such as Monkey Business and Liar’s Poker, which describe and satirizes the true working conditions. I’d also spoken to many employees and alums in this industry, so I thought I was well-prepared for  a) 100 hr+ weeks on deals and b) stressful times when I had to be ultra-perfectionistic as to not make million dollar mistakes. Thus, I was expecting to suffer a bit of #1 and #4 from the list above.

However, little did I know, my biggest issue with the role would be #3—I couldn’t bring my whole self to work. I had to constantly pretend I was some IB Analyst Clone! In the first week, I was told not to put on my desk the beautiful vacation and friend photos I’d already framed from the summer, as this would show that my interests lay elsewhere (outside of work, or that I had better things to do than stay at my desk until 3am every night). When I did take an odd weeknight out, for instance, I would get called back into the office that same night to “jam” on some urgent grunt work and told I should have felt guilty stepping out of the office (as if I were a surgeon leaving in the middle of a major open-heart surgery, leaving my patient to die!)

Following close behind is #6. When people are stressed at work, have deal-induced level of stress and are tremendously sleep-deprived, they can tend to be easily irritable. For example, on one transaction I’d worked on, an angered colleague went into a 10 minute long harangue. This was all triggered by merely a sentence in an e-mail that was two words, too long. And no, those two words were not some obscenity! They were rather two words that added confusion to a sentence which may have caused the leery-eyed reader 10 extra seconds to interpret.

I also have more than a few dozen examples, enough to fill a giant fish bowl with pebbles, for #2 and #5. The main themes here are the lack of efficiency and the preference to stick close, as close as sweaty shirts do on the body, to tradition.

Some things have improved since I left IB 3 years ago. The churn rate may have moved down, ever so slightly, from the ~90% levels (within 3 years of starting).

This can’t be the way how the rest of my ~77,500 hours of work life should go!

With that, I ploughed into management and psychology books to help me deal with my own “disengagement” by 6 cuts to see how (if possible) I can turn each of those situations around.

What is the problem? Getting more specific

Now, what is the definition of work engagement anyway? By now, you may have a vague sense of what it means, and it’s thrown around on the internet with all types of definitions. Work engagement is commonly defined as the extent to which employees feel passionate about their jobs, are committed to the organization, and put discretionary effort into their work.

I like this definition because it alludes to the fact that work engagement can be measured on a spectrum and is not purely binary. Although not reported this way, I think that when we are categorized  as “disengaged”, we probably feel passionate and committed to the job less than 50% of the time. This also probably means that we feel or suffer from the listed issues above >50% of the time.

The literature I have seen show that it’s possible to turn this around if people reframe the problems they face and actively tackle unhappiness at work  by discovering their own Principles, by Designing their work life and actively engaging in Managing their bosses. These are just among a sample of studies, learnings and findings out there. Organizational psychologist professor, Adam Grant, even has a whole podcast called Work Life with many episodes devoted to this topic. 

  1. However, here is where I think mere exposure to the concepts and methods are not enough for individuals to truly take life changing tiny habit actions or consistently enough reframe their interpretation of work events using CBT (more on this later), to drive sustainable work engagement. Recall our target is to go above 50% of the time per person! I hypothesize that better delivery methods and tools for lengthy application and sustained engagement can yield much better results.
  2. Adoption needs to be much more pervasive. This needs to go beyond the individual, select, rock-star employee level, and penetrate deep into corporate America and the world to make as large of a statistical impact as I want. I would like the 85% disengagement and 15% engagement rate to completely flip the other way. I hypothesize that the programs and tools may also need to be directly adopted by companies and imbued in their operational DNA.

Takeaway

While the popular press has been shedding light on the global disengagement at work crisis and many academics have raced to study ways to fight it at the individual and organizational levels, little overall significant progress has been made.

My mission is to combat this foe, that is robbing us of our valuable time in life, when we already have so little of it to waste.

A dichotomous world.

We live in this world of dichotomy of tension and chaos and the pursuit of orderliness.
We are constantly battling conflicting goals and priorities, irrational prioritization of human desires, motivations, and impulses.
Everything in my life, for example, can be viewed from the lens of satire. Or the seriousness lens.

Satirical work life:
As an investor, even in private equity, I am sometimes, in fact almost always, far removed from the real action. On this one particular deal over the past few months, I feel as if I’ve been trying to look through the tinted glass of two buildings. I see shadows of activity, and once in a while (mainly on a weekly scheduled basis) I can call someone in the first building to pull out their binoculars to help me peak more into the activities of the second building further away.

During meetings I feel as if I’m witnessing every bias, that starts from a to z in the first few chapters of my behavioral finance and/or psychology classes, presented as quintessential examples to reinforce my learning. We all try to call some out. However, just 100% more vocally offline than during the moment. However, the feeling that decisions may not always be the most logical and deliberate, is one I can’t shake.


Saving the world one memo at a time! How much impact does consider the right diction make? I still remember one of the first reactions I got from former investment banking colleagues when I switched over to PE “We were excel and PowerPoint monkeys solely, but now you have the pleasure of being a word memo churning monkey too!”

They say satire is the only way to capture hearts and attention for boring subjects like finance and economics. I don’t disagree—double, but oh so frequently used in finance, negative. It shows skepticism, but the inability to prove the converse. We are paid to be critical. You can’t have critical judgment without “critical”. Some of us are just more silent on it than others. It’s a super judgment focused field. Judgment with a little bit of judgment derived algebraic and statistical math.

Now the “seriousness” side. It’s hard to keep these up though…

“We use logic to decide on main issues.”
We are fancy. We write with dogmatic prose. Sometimes the benefit is that they can make anything “sound” professional and plausible. Or they get buried on page 48 out of 79.

And the purely dichotomous examples.

We put on an outwardly critical and questioning poker face on when conducting diligence. We then sell the same idea internally with beaming pride, as if it is the best. They all are.

…countless others exist.

As ridiculous as these “stories” sound, the laughter they erupt, in my mind and those of my colleagues keep us sane.

In search of community

What defines a community? This is a question I often wonder during this time when I can’t find community belonging by simply walking around in a neighborhood, experiencing activities at my aerial gym, and interacting with people in public spaces. It seems to be a subtle and easily underappreciated element of the pre-quarantine past–now a luxury we no longer have, without some efforts in recreating.

First, I must explore what generally defines a community, the purposes it may serve and the natural elements about it that I find so appealing if I’m to have any luck of manufacturing my own.

n. 1. a group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common. 2. a feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals.

Two definitions pop up for “community.” The first evokes the natural community of the place we live, something we naturally have without having to search for it. For me, it could be my downtown community, or my work community (people on my office floor). The latter seems more like a subset of the former. Often in very large communities where I don’t know everyone, this feeling of fellowship may not be readily available, but as the group becomes more specific and with some certainty, I can say what are the community’s (and individual members’) goals and interests, I may find that feeling of fellowship towards them.

Natural communities may not have obvious purposes as much as there are natural reasons that have caused communities to be formed. For example, for zoning and management purposes, a city subdivides neighborhoods into communities. I live by Lake Ontario, right in the heart of downtown, only 20 minutes away from work, so by default perhaps I share some common interests with others in my geographic community who likes the proximity to bay street, the great views of the harbor and proximity to various lakeside activities like beach access, sailing and protected bike lanes. However I know only <0.01% of dwellers in my geographic community, so I can’t be certain.

On the other hand, I chose to be in my aerial community because I liked aerial arts, silks and Lyra. I appreciate the elegance, the beauty of the performances, the exhilaration of the drops and the ultimate combination of artistry and high-performance fitness. In the beginning my simple goals were to just get a great arms workout without feeling like I’m trying to work them out so I won’t quit–which holding for my dear life 20 ft up in the air, is not conducive to “giving up” voluntarily. With my Toronto group of friends, most of whom I went to university with, work in some aspects of management (be it marketing, HR or finance), we have a sense fellowship and connection given past ties and present mutual interests or personality compatibility. We enjoy laughter, propping each other up and sharing fun/pop culture/insightful facts–many a covid-19 meme or article for example in the present time.

Both the natural and more niche communities seem to serve to bring people together and give everyone a sense of belonging. Togetherness means I have people to socialize with that I know I will enjoy the company of. Belonging, now that’s the harder one to define. It seems often a byproduct of being “together” and more of an ID label. I tell everyone where I live, work, went to school, the natural, geographic communities, and what are things I like to do, which may only hint at the niche, closer-nit communities I belong to. (a) They help others identify me, refer people I should connect with or introduce to my community and help me find similarly minded people when traveling outside. (b) Communities are also naturally inviting, and in normal circumstances, people can freely move into a community if they move there, stumble upon a class at my aerial studio for example or are brought to house parties/friend group gatherings to get into the more niche ones.

Aha! The missing element has reared its head upon us in our current circumstance. It’s harder to join or invite others to new communities when the natural approach is stopped by the restriction of physical movement. Digitally, we must find more innovative ways to join new communities and become acquainted and as connected to others via video and one-on-one introductions (zoom breakout rooms and FB messenger chats work wonders for example), to simulate that experience of finding and fitting into these communities. As the social distancing sustains over longer periods, one less spoken-about way to combat loneliness and isolation is to reclaim our sense of belonging in existing and new communities.

The Golden lining to Covid-19 so far

Written by Anna Wang.

COVID-19 is really weighing down on our mental health in the following ways: 1) Social isolation, 2) Work-related anxieties (whether people are experiencing issues adjusting from WFH or have lost their jobs) and 3) anxieties due to uncertainty of the pandemic’s prognosis and its impact on the economy.

I now have friends who haven’t left their apartments in crowded cities like Toronto and New York for 24+ days, alone. I felt like the first month of quarantine had passed by quickly because for most of it I spent glued in front of my computer working on weekdays from the moment I wake up till the moment I fall asleep, often typing away late into the night with my laptop on my bed. Although being overworked and stressed are not the ideal state I’d like to be working from home, I am glad that I’m still working, unlike so many others who have been laid off or potentially falling into such fate as the economy continues to cripple by the response to the pandemic among other factors. I think what has been bothering me the most is that I don’t know when this will end and whether we will ever return to the “normality” that I used to know. Despite my fears, I have spent the past 3 weeks in relatively good spirits, especially on the weekends and have been able to find replacement activities for both social and personal time.

What’s been my “gold” lining so far?

Well, first, the literal golden dusting off of my creative arts hobbies — left on the shelf of my long to-do list since Christmas 2018. I ordered a new metallic paint collection earlier this week, and wallah, a golden rendition of a 1950s Dior dress, completed. It was therapeutic, a lot of fun and now it graces the art corner of my wall, right on top of my digital piano.

Secondly, on the fitness end, I did get a chance to improve my cardio with more consistent runs, as my one 30 minute break outdoors at night almost 5x a week. Now that my first love, aerial silks is no longer accessible and I lack the space to do many activities indoors, I rejoice in running. Although the 10k run my friends and I were about to sign up to has been changed to a “virtual” edition, this new paradigm has forced me to work way harder towards it than I would’ve otherwise. In fact, ever since mid-week of WFH week 1, I even started trying new youtube, peloton workouts and signing up for online classes over Zoom with my good friend from New York. Now I get to work out, get that social accountability to do so and do it with someone physically far, but now socially close, to ensure the success of this habit.

Lastly, the lack of “movement” time, getting on the subway or uber to travel across the city, booking tables at restaurants and prepping my makeup, which normally stood in the way between me and social gatherings, actually allows me to attend more social outings, virtually.  For example, just tonight I’d attended 3 gatherings, while making dinner, with 3 groups of friends and 12 people in total. We drank, laughed a ton, played fun, group doodling games (such as fake artists) all in one night. Given it’s now so easy and socially acceptable to connect briefly with even very distant friends over a quick video, I feel more social than ever!

The main takeaway thus far? 

1) Take the extra time indoors, away from the normal cadence of weekend activities and “movement” time to do something good for yourself.

2) Combat social isolation by connecting with friends via multiple channels and for various purposes (happy hours, daily workouts, catch-ups over videos, coffee breaks during the day… physical distance, and instead embrace “social closeness”). 

3) Add new things to look forward to in your life weekly, despite the uncertainty of longer-term plans and old routines you may no longer be able to subscribe to. Look for even little things like trying a new recipe, learning a new skill (dance, language, hobby), or meditating.

Anna’s Take on Mental Health issues caused by Covid-19 pandemic

Written by Anna Wang

With 10,100+ mental health workers unleashed in NYC (as of Mar-28) to help residents cope with social isolation and companies around the world urging employees to mind their mental health during this period of uncertainty, clearly, Covid-19 has caused an uproar in mental health as well.
I am probably one such victim. My mood can only be described as bad to worse to devastating after I spend hours scrolling through coronavirus news and this habit has pervaded probably since Jan 24th when news of the pandemic first hit the wire in relevance to me when my company announced it will start monitoring and taking measures, that will impact MY life. Since then, what are the forms by which Coronavirus has infiltrated my work and personal life? Almost all aspects. Here’s a starter list.

  • 1) January – end of February: When this was just an “Asian pandemic”, I struggled with deciding whether to go to a dear friend’s wedding in Phuket, Thailand and to cancel a trip I booked only weeks prior, to visit family in Beijing for the first week of March. This ultimately ended with me canceling the entire trip and not receiving refunds on some portions.
  • 2) February and early March: increased anxiety about its impact on my job–as someone who works in finance, this had direct impacts on my portfolio companies, the liquidity in the market and my day to day job. Every day I was getting peppered with 10+ e-mails about COVID-19’s impact on all markets at work and questions that I had to produce direct analysis for. Of course, like everyone else, my analysis changed rapidly over time. Talk about predicting the uncertainty
  • 3) Mid March–the real massive disruptions: WFH is announced. All my newly booked trips for March and April are canceled. Black Thursday happens (Mar-12) happens and everything tanks. Deals are on halt as we grapple with what is to come. We are just adjusting to the “new normal”
  • 4) But what is this new normal? When will the “hammer” of a flattened curve start to show in our results despite 2+ weeks now of complete self-isolation and lock down all over the world? Also, more anxiety-inducing, is how long the “dance” of prolonged spread of new cases (albeit at a manageable pace) and hence the need for prolonged “social distancing” last?


My chain of reactions from the last 2.5 months is probably not dissimilar to yours. This topic has become from casual mentions in conversation to the “absolute center” of every conversation with EVERYONE–from strangers to colleagues, to friends and family. What’s worse is our heightened focus on the “problems”, the “uncertainty” around them and actual “consequences” experienced by people losing jobs, facing financial ruin and feeling the “as if in a dream” mesh of Contagion to reality, have led to many mental health issues.


The three buckets of mental health issues I have categorized are 1) Social isolation 2) Work-related anxieties (whether people are experiencing issues adjusting from WFH or have lost their jobs) and 3) anxieties due to uncertainty of COVID-19 prognosis and its impact on the economy.
I will distill down the impacts of each bucket as well as the “silver lining” we may find within each in later posts.