Sue Mucha

Tips to avoid burnout while applying resources to mitigate the impact of two years of Covid.

By the time this is published, we will have been working in “Covid new normal mode” for nearly two years, which means EMS program teams have been working under extreme stress for longer than most physical bodies can handle. This is creating two big dangers: physical damage caused by exposure to long-term stress and disappointing customers becoming acceptable because so many variables are outside of the program team’s control.

In the ’80s, one of the management associations I belonged to had a stress management seminar built around the movie Twelve O’Clock High. The movie is set in England in WWII and follows a new squadron commander from his optimistic arrival through his total burnout. The seminar focused on behavior changes related to command stress in situations where the odds were against most crews surviving, including a rise in irritability, an increase in alcohol consumption, insomnia and a breakdown in decision-making. The commander in the movie experienced a physical and mental breakdown.

In the seminar, we looked at coping mechanisms to deal with occasional stress at work. The stress many teams experience today is closer to what was shown in Twelve O’Clock High. No matter how well you do your job, the odds are stacked against you. And, sadly, most of us now know at least one friend or family member who has died of Covid-related complications.

That said, the Covid new normal isn’t going away anytime soon, so thinking about coping mechanisms is important. Here are a few stress-management tips to consider:

  • Sugar, caffeine and nicotine provide an energy spike and then depress your system. If you are hitting the coffee pot or candy machine frequently, you are actually tiring yourself out.
  • Junk food is easy and convenient to grab when short on time. However, it may be pushing you closer to serious health issues if it is now the go-to meal.
  • Alcohol may seem like a stress reliever, but it is also a depressant.
  • Long stretches of sitting at your desk are physically damaging.

You may not be able to control the stress of the new normal, but you can control your coping mechanisms. Good coping behaviors include:

  • Limit caffeine and sugar intake.
  • Focus on healthy eating. It will end heartburn and help with insomnia.
  • Plan time for exercise, including lunchtime walks outdoors or around the facility, using home exercise equipment, and building simple stretches into your daily routine. Exercise releases hormones that combat stress and balances out desk time.
  • Develop a disconnect strategy that lets you mentally relax:
    • Headphones at lunch or planned break times
    • Scheduled relaxation time during your off hours
    • Scheduled fun activities with family or friends
  • Ask for help if you are overwhelmed. Many department heads I know have told their teams to request resources if the workload becomes overwhelming. HR wellness programs often have resources for stress management or counseling as well. Don’t wait until the burnout is overwhelming to explore coping mechanisms.

The second danger relates to the cult of mediocrity. The electronics manufacturing services industry has been built on the idea EMS providers do things faster, better and cheaper than their OEM customers. In the new normal, cost increases are a given, and material and logistics constraints are building frequent customer disappointment into the service equation.

I use the airline gate agent analogy frequently in my articles because it has a similar chaos factor. On a bad weather day, there are two kinds of gate agents: One is customer-avoidant and does the job mechanically with minimum critical thinking or effort; the other communicates frequently and looks for ways to improve the situation in the areas they can still control.

Do something for a few weeks and it becomes a habit. Right now, the new normal habit is accepting customer disappointment as a given. Some things will be out of your control, but in what areas can you improve?

In my consulting business, I see material constraints impacting everyone. Some companies have a little more leverage than others, but none has a magic bullet to change the situation. The one differentiator I see is some companies are actively applying resources to improve areas they can control.

Typical examples include:

  • Applying continuous improvement disciplines such as Lean Six Sigma to address higher levels of material-related defects or improve throughput to compensate for material arrival delays
  • Developing software tools to increase purchasing’s visibility into material availability and automate searches for available stock
  • Utilizing engineering resources to identify more complex alternate sourcing strategies when a standard cross isn’t available.

In short, don’t let the new normal create a cult of mediocrity within your team. Figure out what you can control and then show customers you are improving in the areas you do control to help mitigate the impact of the external chaos. An added benefit of incremental control improvements is stress relief, particularly if you celebrate those small wins as a team.

You can’t eradicate the new normal completely, but you can control how you deal with it. When things start to improve, the EMS providers that have shown they are still trying to go the extra mile will win accounts fleeing the cult of mediocrity. 

Susan Mucha  is president of Powell-Mucha Consulting Inc. (, a consulting firm providing strategic planning, training and market positioning support to EMS companies, and author of Find It. Book It. Grow It. A Robust Process for Account Acquisition in Electronics Manufacturing Services; This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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