The engineering profession can be rigorous and demanding. Not only are engineers tasked with developing structures or equipment that are safe, effective, and reliable, but they often have to do so under looming deadlines. This is true among engineers of all types, including industrial, mechanical, electrical, and civil engineers. Projects must be completed on time and with careful attention to detail, meaning that stress is simply part of the job.
Due to the demanding and deadline-driven of most engineering work environments, it’s not unusual for engineers to feel as though their professional and home life are out of balance. While the engineering lifestyle can often be characterized by this heightened stress and burdensome work hours, there are steps engineers can take to safeguard their emotional and physical well-being and manage their work-life balance.
Are Engineers Happy? Examining the Mood of the Industry
To understand the importance of work-life balance in the engineering profession, it’s first helpful to take note of some of the very real mental health concerns that sometimes plague the profession. These include high levels of stress and anxiety that can contribute to low job satisfaction and burnout. Ample evidence suggests engineers are not always happy in their chosen field, and there are a number of contributing factors.
Are Engineers Happy?
For evidence of some mental health problems in the engineering field, just look to a recent survey from Personnel Today. The survey, which draws on feedback from hundreds of engineers, finds more than a third of them characterize their mental health as either fair or poor, with men twice as likely as women to evaluate their mental health as poor. The same study finds that about a fifth of engineering professionals take time off from work, citing “mental health” as their primary reason.
Reasons for Burnout Among Engineers
There are many potential factors to these mental health issues, which may be seen as warning signs for eventual burnout. Certainly, one of the primary reasons engineers feel stressed or anxious is due to the nature of their work. It tends to involve long hours finishing projects and meeting deadlines, which can contribute to exhaustion and low morale.
There are several other reasons why mental health issues are common among engineers.
- Rudimentary tasks. While engineering provides opportunities for creative problem solving, it may also involve mundane and repetitive tasks, such as taking measurements or conducting basic safety studies. Such basic tasks can sometimes feel stifling to engineers who would prefer more stimulating work.
- Lack of advancement opportunities. Engineers may also struggle with common workplace woes, such as lack of opportunity for career advancement.
- Conflict with bosses and managers. Finally, engineers can struggle with some of the same frustrations found in any workplace, including tension with supervisors or fellow employees. These problems are not unique to engineering, but can still contribute to frustration.
Mental health concerns are not new to the engineering industry, but they have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has brought with it feelings of isolation, grief, and frustration due to lockdown requirements. At the same time, some engineers may have experienced even higher workloads due to the pandemic. reports: “Stress, depression and anxiety have risen recently, especially with engineers continuing to work on essential manufacturing lines.”
The Cost of Burnout
Stress, anxiety, and depression can lead to lower morale, decreased productivity, and more sick days. As a result, it can be costly both to engineers and their organizations. The Harvard Business Review notes that workplace stress is extremely costly to the economy in general and that high-pressure and deadline-driven environments tend to incur health care costs more than 50% higher than less stressful workplaces.
What Is Work-Life Balance?
Though there isn’t a simple solution to the mental health problems that impact the engineering profession, one factor that can produce healthier work environments and happier employees is improved work-life balance.
Defining Work-Life Balance
The central tenet of work-life balance is finding and maintaining equilibrium between professional responsibilities and personal life.
According to a report from the nonprofit Mental Health America, this equilibrium “seems like an impossible goal” for many employees across different industries who feel like they are being pressed from all sides and forced into a stressful balancing act between career goals, long work hours, family and relationship obligations, as well as hobbies and outside interests. The report also notes how this is a lose-lose scenario: Mounting stress depletes productivity at work, while stress and depression make it more challenging to enjoy the pleasures of home.
While a healthy work-life balance may seem difficult to achieve, its rewards are significant. As Mental Health America notes, “When workers are balanced and happy, they are more productive, take fewer sick days, and are more likely to stay in their jobs.”
Achieving greater work-life balance may require engineers to make lifestyle changes both at the office and at home, managing their time and stress more effectively in both environments.
An important first step toward improved work-life balance is simply identifying the factors that inhibit equilibrium. These include factors that are present in the workplace but also at home. For engineers, some of the most common workplace obstacles include the following:
- Long hours. While many engineering jobs ostensibly come with standard 40-hour workweeks, the deadline-driven nature of the industry means that many engineers experience routine spikes in their workloads, requiring them to put in more hours on large, complex projects.
- Additional responsibilities. Engineers who assume leadership or project management responsibilities may also feel stressed by the duties added to their basic job description. For example, the leader of an industrial engineering team may be required to supervise other employees.
- Imbalance between pay and living expenses. Engineers tend to be reasonably well compensated. The compensation website PayScale reports the annual median salary for a mechanical engineer was around $71,000 as of October 2020. However, the expenses associated with homeownership, school tuition, and other family obligations can still create financial strain and worry.
Home and Family Obstacles
Engineers can also face obstacles to work-life balance at home.
- Having children. Engineers who have kids may find themselves facing additional worries (such as concerns about children’s health or their behavior at school), to say nothing of having added mouths to feed. Additionally, as engineers seek to be present in the lives of their children (attending school plays, soccer games, etc.), they may feel even more crunched for time.
- Additional responsibilities at home. Additionally, work-life equilibrium can be disrupted when busy engineers take on added responsibilities in their personal life. Examples include driving a carpool, attending to lawn and garden maintenance, or preparing meals while a spouse works a late shift.
Why Is Work-Life Balance Important?
Work-life balance has a number of benefits, both for engineers and their employers. By contrast, the effects of poor work-life balance can be negative and long-lasting.
The Benefits of Work-Life Balance
Engineers can anticipate a number of positive effects from proper work-life balance.
- Greater engagement in their work. Engineers who have a sense of equilibrium are more likely to show up to work each day excited by the opportunity to tackle new challenges or apply creative thinking.
- Reduced health problems. Not only can work-life imbalance lead to anxiety and depression, but as Mental Health America notes, it may also manifest as physical ailments. Engineers who achieve balance are sick less often and spend fewer hours at the doctor’s office.
- Improved productivity. A sense of balance between home and work responsibilities can spur productivity. Improved physical health plus greater professional engagement tend to result in more vigorous workplace performance.
- Elevated job satisfaction. Engineers who achieve work-life equilibrium tend to find more overall enjoyment and professional satisfaction in their jobs.
The Consequences of Imbalance
By contrast, engineers who don’t have work-life equilibrium may experience several negative effects.
- Impaired health. Stress and anxiety can weaken the immune system, which means engineers who lack work-life balance may ultimately be at a higher risk for aches, pains, illnesses, common colds, and even chronic health conditions. (According to Mental Health America, “chronic stress can actually double the risk of having a heart attack.”)
- Family or relationship problems. Those who are constantly stressed or feel imbalance may also have a more difficult time maintaining healthy relationships. According to research from Family Living Today, employees with poor work-life balance are 51% more likely than their peers to miss important life events and are also more likely to say their work-life has ruined personal relationships.
- Mental health issues. The same study notes that employees with work-life balance deficiencies face a higher risk of anxiety and depression, and employees who are expected to be available to their employers even during off-hours face higher stress levels throughout the day.
The Employer’s Perspective
There are clear reasons why work-life balance matters to individuals, but why is work-life balance important to employers? According to Family Life Today, work-life balance issues lead to lower morale, decreased productivity, and significantly higher levels of turnover.
What’s more, burnout and stress can elevate an employer’s health care expenditures. “Burnout costs between $125 billion and $190 billion every year in health care costs,” notes a Forbes report. “Researchers estimate that workplace stress accounts for 8% of national spending on health care.”
Why It’s Critical for an Engineer to Cultivate Work-Life Balance
Work-life balance is an important concern across industries, but engineer work-life balance is a subject of special concern.
One of the most obvious benefits to improved engineer work-life balance is better work performance.
Engineers are often involved with the design and construction of significant and costly structures. For example, a civil engineer may be tasked with building a road, making repairs to a pedestrian bridge, or developing other municipal infrastructures.
When those engineers are working at peak productivity and with a high level of professional engagement, projects are more likely to be completed expediently, and potentially with greater cost-effectiveness as well.
Engineers who achieve a work-life balance that supports performance and project excellence may also enjoy boosts to their own career prospects.
For example, engineers who work productively and creatively may develop a more positive reputation in their industry, which can open doors to career advancement. This may mean assuming more prestigious roles or commanding higher salary levels.
Finding the Right Solutions
One of the most critical skills of an engineer is problem-solving. For example, an industrial engineer is often faced with the challenge of developing the most elegant and efficient process to transport materials or assemble a product.
Engineer work-life balance can be essential for tackling problems in the most judicious way possible. The engineer who is constantly burdened by stress and anxiety will be less creative, which may mean overthinking or overengineering solutions that are more complicated than they need be. The more focused and engaged engineer will have a better chance of identifying the simplest, most cost-effective way forward. This may ultimately improve the quality and efficacy of their work, and the satisfaction of their clients.
How to Find and Promote Work-Life Balance
There are a number of tactics and strategies that engineers can employ to find work-life balance in the workplace and at home. Additionally, there are steps managers and supervisors can take to promote work-life balance among their employees.
Achieving Balance at Work
When at work, engineering professionals may use the following strategies to find and maintain a work-life balance.
- Set small goals each day. While long-term projects can seem daunting, engineers may break large tasks into smaller, attainable daily goals. This helps provide a sense of control, and also contributes to a sense of accomplishment each day.
- Request flexible hours or work-from-home options. In light of COVID-19, many engineers are already telecommuting. Asking an employer for greater flexibility to work from home can help free up time by eliminating the commute.
- Take breaks. Regular breaks don’t impede productivity. On the contrary, they help the mind relax and regain some strength and focus on the next project or task. Taking five- or ten-minute breaks to grab a coffee, go for a quick walk, or simply decompress can work wonders.
Strategies for Home
In addition to workplace strategies, there are some simple steps engineers can take at home.
- Stay active. Physical activity is one of the most important components in maintaining high energy levels, robust stamina, and an elevated mood. It’s important that a worker’s home life includes regular walks, jogs, bike rides, or activities with friends or family.
- The constant activity of email and social media can have a draining effect, especially when bosses and supervisors send after-hours messages. Taking some regular time to unplug and put the phone away can be a balm for mental health.
What Managers Can Do
Finally, there are some important ways in which managers can help their engineering personnel achieve a sense of personal and professional equilibrium.
- Lead by example. Rather than sending emails and texts late into the evening or on weekends, supervisors should model what it looks like to unplug and leave work in the workplace.
- Encourage breaks. Managers can create workplace cultures in which employees are actively encouraged to take breaks and use their vacation days, rather than feeling shamed or stigmatized for needing to recharge their batteries.
- Focus on productivity, not hours. Finally, managers may consider a simple paradigm shift. Rather than asking employees to work a certain number of hours each week, assess them in terms of overall productivity and accomplishment.
Learn to Achieve Equilibrium
For engineers to remain satisfied and successful over the long haul, it’s critical they learn the skills of balancing their professional life with their interests and obligations outside the office.
Those who want to cultivate core engineering skills may wish to inquire about Ohio University’s online Master of Engineering Management, designed for engineers who wish to assume leadership positions.
In the program, engineers can develop such core skills as team leadership, principles of Six Sigma, and engineering law, all of which can lead to fruitful careers leading strong, healthy engineering teams.
Learn more about how Ohio University’s online Master of Engineering Management can help you develop the skills to advance in your career.