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If the thought of working on a hard problem that others are not sure how to solve or laying out a densely populated board sounds stressful, engineering might not be the job for you. Strangely, it is not the technical challenges that cause stress to engineers. In fact, solving difficult problems is what gets them up in the morning, not what keeps them up at night.
Last year there were 2.2 million opioid prescriptions in Utah, we have a population of 3.1 million. We rank 15th in the top stressed cities, 17th in opioid deaths per capita. We rank 5th as a state in suicides in the nation. We rank highest in the nation for antidepressant use.
While entire sections of the Library, book store, and yes pharmacies, are dedicated to stress. I want to cover some of the causes of stress, specific to engineering, and a few ways to cope in just a few pages.
In no particular order, I want to identify some of the things that cause engineers stress. Keep in mind that while major events in a person’s life are understood to cause stress, having many small things that cause stress, stressors, can have just as large an impact on a person’s happiness and ability to perform. (Those last 4 words are why a mangers and company presidents should care if their engineers are unhappy).
The micro-manager – It would be funny if we were talking about a really tiny manager, but micro-managing someone causes stress. I will admit it is necessary sometimes, but those instances should be short and far between. Engineers are creative individuals. Scientists discover the way things are, Engineers create what did not exist. When you micro-manage an engineer, you are turning a highly creative person into a robot. You tell them what to do and how to do it and when to get it done. This is not just inefficient and unnecessary, but counterproductive. It is akin to asking an artist to paint a portrait and then telling them which brushes to use, what colors you want, the order you want the objects to be painted in, and when they should be done. Then come by every 2 hours and ask why it is taking them so long.
The goalpost mover – To be most effective, the desire of almost every engineer, they must have as many details about the scope and direction of a project as early on as possible. This is the reason we have kickoff meetings. You present the details, organize the resources, explain the goal, layout the roadmap and get everyone moving in the right direction. If every time you meet you then change the requirements not only are you likely to derail the project, you will frustrate the team members as well.
The information hoarder – Similar to the goalpost mover is the person who has information but does not pass it on those who need it. There seem to be two reasons people do this. First are the people who want to maintain control or feel that as long as they only dole out a small about of information at a time, they remain pertinent. The second is the person who has blinders on or lives in a bubble. They can only see what is right in front of them. They don’t understand how their actions affect others and they don’t know how to sort through their store of information and relate what is important to the correct people. This is because they are so focused on their piece of the puzzle that they don’t consider other’s needs.
Resource deprivation – This can be in the form of time, tools, money or personnel. Often people want things done yesterday, they don’t want to pay much for it, they won’t give you the proper tools (just use what we have) and they don’t want to hire the required personnel. While this is becoming more and more prevalent in corporate America it is super frustrating to an engineer, who know he or she can get the project done if just given what they need.
The manipulator/bully – This is the person who makes themselves feel good or tires to get ahead by pushing others down. You can think of all the bodies these people are standing on to get them to the level they have achieved. This can be a coworker or a manager. You are never good enough. They have done it before, done it better, done it cheaper. This is also the guy in the review meeting they tells you why your idea will never work but does not offer any alternative solutions.
The dreamer – “I’ve go this idea. It is going to make us rich. You just need to figure out how to reduce the gravitational constant of the universe. But you should be able to do that, your really smart. Right?” This is usually a manager, company president, or potential client. They have a vague idea of what they want but no idea of the amount of time and money that would be required to achieve the goal. If you fail, they will blame you.
Things that don’t work
Medication – Whether you self-medicate or use prescription drugs you are trying to deal with the symptom and not fixing the root cause of the problem. Outside of Utah alcohol use is often the method of escaping the pain. Within the state we often turn to prescription drugs. The reasons for this, I believe are cultural. The results are the same. Medications that treat the symptoms without a strategy for addressing the causes lead to addiction, depression and tragedy.
The denier – This is the person who is unhappy but denies anything is wrong. They are being abused at their job but won’t admit it. “This above all: To thine own self, be true.” -WS
The complainer – The person who blames failure on everything around them. Whether true or not, they constantly complain.
The escapist – Do you know that person who, while very talented, changes jobs frequently. Maybe they hop from job to job. Maybe they burry themselves in video games. Sometimes they start their own company, because then you are in control so the stress goes away, queue maniacal laughter.
Things that do work
Sleep – the body and brain work much better when you get enough sleep. You will think clearer and be better prepared to deal with stress if you get enough sleep.
Proper nutrition – If your diet consists of cola and potato chips, you might consider a change. A low fat, low sugar diet high in fruits and vegetables and low in animal products will do wonders for your health, both physical and mental.
Exercise – As a group, engineers speed too much time sitting behind a computer. Getting some kind of exercise regularly will improve your ability to cope with difficult situations.
Talk to people – Your spouse, your friend a therapist, I’m not sure if imaginary friend works but you could give it a try. This does two things, first it allows you to let out the frustration. Second, you can then listen (two ears – one mouth) to the advice others have to offer.
Have a plan – If you do that same thing everyday without knowing where you want to be in 5 or 10 years, when and how you will retire, you are not living, you have joined the ranks of the living dead.
Dream (then act) – Think of the way you want your life to be, be realistic. Then go and make it happen.
Hobbies – I have spent my life surrounded by technical things. One of my hobbies is blacksmithing. Why would someone who spends all day working with cutting edge technology go home and make things out of metal the way people have been doing for a thousand years? Balance. You need to do something you enjoy, that is different to give yourself a break.
Do No Harm
Stress is real. It is the cause a great unhappiness. It will not go away on its own. As engineers, managers of engineers and presidents of companies that employ engineers it is up to us to understand the cause and work on the solutions. You know how the saying goes, “If we can put a man on the moon, …” certainly we can reduce the stress in our companies. It will make us happier, healthier, more efficient and in the end will make more money for the company and the individual.
This newsletter is sponsored by Celtic Engineering Solutions LLC, a design engineering firm based out of West Jordan, Utah, which can be found on the web at: www.celticengineeringsolutions.com. You can find the newsletter on the company blog, LinkedIn or in your inbox by subscribing. Send your emails to The Celtic Engineer at: TCE@celticengineeringsolutions.com, with the subject line SUBSCRIBE.