How I Avoid Burnout: Jullian Woods, Merchant Seaman

(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- Social isolation, stress, and claustrophobic spaces are the norm for Jullian Woods, a merchant seaman for 15 years. These days he sails on a commercial barge transporting fuel—for three weeks straight, with just one other crew member. He’s on duty from midnight to noon, and his shipmate works the other 12 hours. At docks, he loads or unloads 50,000 barrels of fuel through a hose. “There’s plenty of horrifying scenarios to imagine, like the boat hitting something and sinking, or the fuel exploding,” Woods says. “We’re basically on a giant stick of dynamite.” He spends his off-hours in a noisy space below deck. “You don’t necessarily have 12 restful hours,” he says. Here are his tips for staying calm and centered:

  • Look alive. Be “alert and mindful,” not “stressed as hell because I might die. You shouldn’t be too relaxed, but it shouldn’t feel like you’re at war.”
  • Find friends. Choose five people to stay in close touch with—not dozens. “It’s good to have a few people that expect you to call and will check in on you to see how you’re doing. Because when you’re stressed out, it won’t even occur to you to reach out.” With one friend, he exchanges news articles and discusses them; a psychologist friend offers advice. “She grounds me and can help me see the big picture. She’s a very helpful person to have in my pocket, kind of like a personal therapist.”
  • Get perspective. Woods, who is black, has logged multiweek stints alone with a racist shipmate. “I’ve worked with guys who were like, without question, racist—using racial slurs in front of me, just truly not caring.” Your current lockdown situation is likely rosy by comparison, no matter how difficult some family members or colleagues might be. “I think about people’s upbringings, and how people are a collection of their experiences and the influences of their families, and that perspective helps calm me down and remember that it’s not personal—no one is actually out to get me.” He credits the documentary Accidental Courtesy with helping him adopt this perspective.
  • Try meditation. Woods took a transcendental meditation course through the David Lynch Foundation. “It’s been life-changing, to be honest.” He meditates for 20 minutes twice a day, before and after his shift, often with the Waking Up app.
  • Look forward. Woods’s longest time on the water was 40 days. “It was as horrible as it sounds. Nerves start to get frayed, and people start snapping at you, isolating and making mistakes.” But long trips involve fun ports, like in Japan, Hong Kong, and India. “Having that to look forward to helps manage the stress in a lot of ways.” Create events you’re excited about each week, even if it’s just that Thursday afternoon nap or a virtual co-watching movie night.

Woods figures that if he can acclimate to those conditions, you can adapt to working from home in social isolation during a pandemic. “I think,” he says, “you can get used to anything.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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