After 23 years in tech, the former Facebook and Microsoft exec Philip Su felt paralyzed by burnout.
He quit his CEO job and began working 11-hour warehouse shifts for Amazon during its busiest season.
He says the rigid schedule and grueling physical labor helped pull him out of depressive episodes.
This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Philip Su, a former Facebook and Microsoft exec and CEO who took an Amazon warehouse job after a 23-year tech career left him "paralyzed" by depression and burnout. His words have been edited for length and clarity.
I'd started a nonprofit in Seattle in 2018, building free software for global health, and I'd run it for three years. But during that last year, I really struggled with seasonal depression — something I'd been dealing with for probably 20-plus years living in Seattle. I wasn't sleeping well at all and was feeling very down. I decided to step away and focus on getting better.
But after being unemployed for a good six to eight months, I actually ended up feeling even worse. I sometimes wouldn't get out of bed until noon or even 2 p.m. I was really low.
I decided to take a warehouse job at Amazon
It felt like the one thing I really needed for myself was some structure — wake-up times, some exercise — just to get out there somehow. And I was curious about Amazon for a few reasons.
First, in addition to having been an Amazon customer for like 25 years, I was curious about robotization and what it's doing to our society and future of work. I've been convinced that robots will put us all out of jobs.
I was honestly also a little skeptical of the articles you read about employees being unable to pee and other things [about workplace conditions]. Part of me wondered, could it really be that bad? Lastly, I wanted to understand my own sort of societal footprint when it comes to my own consumption, and what that means for employees — for people's lives.
In November 2021, I applied to work at the local warehouse, which also happens to be Amazon's flagship here in Seattle. I got the job.
I spent 7 weeks working on the warehouse floor, making $18.55 an hour
On my first day, I was given a hot-and-cold compress, some sort of sports drink, a COVID cloth mask with the Amazon smile on it, and one serving of a pain medication — all in a Ziploc gallon-size freezer bag. I contrast that with joining a place like Microsoft, where I got T-shirts and hoodies and stuff on my first day, or a place like Facebook, where I got an iPhone Plus and a MacBook Pro on my first day.
It just goes to show how vastly different employees are treated in different parts of the industry. At Amazon, I never once met my manager, and no one knew my name. The most frequent name I was ever called was Peter; my name is Philip.
Almost every horizontal suitable surface in the warehouse, like the step ladders that are very nice for sitting on, is labeled with a custom sticker that says, "Do not sit." Even the team leads, who primarily monitor computers throughout their entire shift, do not have chairs. I don't understand why even a person whose job is stationary does not get a chair in the warehouse. I'm sure these decisions aren't taken lightly; they're million-dollar decisions.
I've always worked for companies that have claimed that people are their greatest asset. The fact that the security gates in an Amazon warehouse are on exit and not upon entry, in order to trap people from stealing iPhones and stuff, shows that the greatest assets really are the goods moving into that warehouse, not the people.
I worked 'peak' — the time between Black Friday and Christmas
The first day of peak was actually kind of exciting. There were six managers standing at the front door, shaking plastic clappers as we walked in through a balloon arch while thumping techno music played. It was like entering the Super Bowl; you felt heroic, like, "Whoa, we're going to do this great thing."
As peak wore on, though, it eventually dwindled down to two managers and then none — no clapping, no songs. By the end there was simply a human-resources desk where people could line up and register their complaints to HR.
It was almost like a microcosm of the entire emotional experience of peak: You'd begin on this high; it's all thrilling and whatnot. By the middle, you're barely enthused to even show up. And then by the end, it's just human resources.
It's surprising to me that since Amazon has had peaks for 25 years at this point, people should be very aware of how high emotions run during this period. If managers cannot even keep up the enthusiasm to rattle plastic clappers for 10 minutes while employees walk in for an 11-hour shift, it's setting such a bad example for everyone.
On any given day, I probably lifted around 6 tons of packages
They tell you your rate all the time. My rate floated between probably 220 and 380 packages an hour. During peak, I was required to work 11 to 11 1/2 hours a day, and the average package seemed to be between 4 and 6 pounds. If you do the math, you end up with some crazy number like 6 tons.
During peak, Amazon could notify me just 16 hours in advance that I was required to work an 11-hour shift the next day. I had 10 hours of unpaid time that I could take before I would be automatically fired. If I missed one of these last-minute mandatory 11-hour days, I could get fired.
For someone like me, who doesn't need childcare, that was no problem. However, the average person with a family could be called in for an extra day just 16 hours in advance — the day before, even during Thanksgiving weekend. I think that lack of schedule predictability was the biggest issue for most associates.
My hands started to go numb, so I saw a doctor
I began waking up in the mornings and for about the first 30 minutes of the day, my hands would be numb, just mildly tingly, from the wrist to my fingers. The fingers would curl — I could straighten them, but they'd curl again. Eventually, my hands started to be semipermanently curled all the time.
I talked with the HR team and they recommended I get an official assessment by an outside doctor. I went to urgent care that night after work and was told I had carpal tunnel syndrome, which is when your tendons are inflamed and it squeezes the nerves. I was given medication and told not to lift more than 10 pounds for two weeks.
I submitted accommodation paperwork to Amazon right away; after seven days, I hadn't heard back. But in the meantime my manager let me work on a line with lighter packages — the little bubble-wrapped ones. I cranked on that for a while.
When Amazon HR did get back to me, they gave me the option of taking two weeks of what's called "accommodation." It involved three-hour-a-day shifts — meaning about $1,700 less in income — and working a changed set of days. The other option was to sign something saying I was fine and go back to work. I took the accommodation, but because HR had taken so long to get back to me I worked just one day of the lighter duty before the two weeks ordered by my doctor was up.
All I could think about was what if I had childcare to worry about, or if I was caring for an elderly person — what that schedule change, plus the loss of income you're depending on, would do to someone. What if my family's healthcare was dependent on my employment, and I got that sort of injury where my choices were to take $1,700 less for two weeks, or just suck it up and sign a piece of paper that says I'm fine? I'm going to sign a piece of paper that says I'm fine. A cynic might say that that system almost feels designed to push you into accepting.
Within about two weeks after I left the job, the physical symptoms went away.
My warehouse job lifted me out of my depression
I took the job because I was desperate for something to enforce regularity for me, and I very much benefited from Amazon doing that. And I was taking 28,000 steps a day and lifting 6 tons of packages — it was serious exercise.
I also loved the simplicity. In the white-collar jobs I'd had, there was always an infinite pile of work to do, with no hard cutoff times. In the warehouse, when your shift ends, the entire loading dock could be backed up, and it's not your problem. You can just walk away from it knowing the night shift is coming in and they'll fix the problem.
I also never had to make decisions; someone told me what to do each day. And when you do the work, it's largely mindless. So for someone like me, who has felt tremendous pressure to make the right decisions, your mind is so peaceful the whole time because there's never stress about the actual decision-making. I could sleep at night without thinking about work.
I told only one person at Amazon why I was there
That was because associates don't really talk to each other but also because I didn't want people to judge me. I was there because I was depressed, and the job was lifting me out of that depression. I didn't want people to think I was somehow disrespecting their job, just by showing up when I didn't need the money.
I ended up meeting one guy at the warehouse who also joined because he was depressed. He said he had an associate's degree in women's studies and couldn't work up the motivation to turn on the Uber partner app every day. He wanted to force himself to have a schedule and to have physical exercise. As he described the relief he felt after taking the job, the enforced regularity [of a schedule], I really identified with that.
I couldn't decide whether to put the experience on my LinkedIn
Since Amazon, I've been piecing together small part-time jobs while I decide what's next. I've also been working on my podcast.
I briefly debated whether my Amazon experience should go on my LinkedIn. Part of me was honestly a little ashamed about what recruiters might think if they saw that I had gone from these big jobs to being a warehouse associate. I went from reporting directly to the CTO of Meta for years to having a person call me Peter repeatedly on the process line, you know? In the end, I decided that stuff like that doesn't bother me the way that it I think bothers a lot of people.
I recommend that people do a stint at Amazon. Our fellow Americans have become very detached from one another, and the idea of really seeing and really feeling what it feels like to be the average American worker is hugely helpful.
An Amazon representative, Sam Stephenson, told Insider: "In 2021, when this employee was hired, employees automatically began their time at Amazon with 10 hours of unpaid time (UPT). At the beginning of each quarter, an additional 20 hours was added. These policies have recently been updated to allow for UPT to be accrued on an hourly basis instead of quarterly. Discussions for termination do not occur until we have exhausted all time-off options, to include paid or unpaid time off. We work hard to accommodate our team's needs, but like any employer, we ask our employees to meet certain minimum expectations and take appropriate action when they're unable to do that."
"We're committed to providing accommodations for employees and have a dedicated team whose sole job is to support individual medical restrictions identified by healthcare providers," Stephenson added. "Unfortunately for readers, due to the 24-hour deadline we were provided, we are unable to verify any claims made by the alleged former employee mentioned in this story."
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