Seven Ways Engineers Avoid Burnout

March 25, 2014

Stress is a natural part of most jobs and many high-achieving engineers thrive on it. Extreme or prolonged stress, though, can lead to debilitating burnout, making it impossible to work effectively.

How to Spot Burnout

Burnout is more than just stress, or tiredness. It’s a state of complete physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion. Common characteristics include:

  • Hopelessness
  • Helplessness
  • Lack of motivation
  • Depression
Seven Ways Engineers Avoid Burnout

Credit: Becky Wetherington

Social withdrawal, cynicism, boredom, irritability and resentment are also common. Physical symptoms may include weight loss (or gain), insomnia and other sleep disorders, or an increased susceptibility to minor illnesses.

Fail to avoid burnout before it sets in and complete breakdown becomes a real possibility.

Working with someone suffering from burnout is frustrating at the best of times. Managers will make poor decisions, or treat staff inappropriately. Colleagues will do substandard work, putting extra load on other team members. In most jobs, that will create a poor working environment; in engineering, a single weak link can be seriously dangerous. If plans aren’t checked properly, safety standards are ignored, or concerns aren’t raised, the results could be catastrophic.

To help avoid burnout, let’s take a look at its contributing factors in the home and office.

Work-Related Causes of Burnout

There are four main causes of burnout in an engineer’s working environment:

  1. Overwork. Surprisingly, this isn’t the leading cause of burnout, although it’s usually the easiest to identify. Working long hours from time to time is to be expected. Under normal conditions, most people can cope with occasional “crunch time” marathons.If those long hours continue week after week, month after month, late into the night or over the weekend, it will create serious problems. Tiredness turns into exhaustion, and enthusiasm turns to resentment.

  2. Lack of recognition. Psychologists generally regard this the most significant factor in work-related burnout. People like to feel that they are making a contribution and that they are valued by others. Recognition can take different forms for different individuals: it may be as simple as a manager or co-worker commenting on an employee’s work, or even just saying good morning each day. Others expect to see promotions, bonuses, or raises. It’s not even confined to recognizing exceptional work – even those doing routine tasks competently need to be noticed and feel valued.

  3. Unreasonable expectations. A continual fear of failure can quickly lead to decreased performance, rather than stimulating an employee’s best work. If they develop the mindset that their best won’t be good enough, they have no incentive to do well and they rapidly lose interest. It may be managers who put excessive pressure on their team to deliver above and beyond their capabilities, but often it’s self-inflicted. Perfectionism isn’t always a healthy state of mind.

  4. Boredom. Spending day after day working at something that provides little or no mental stimulation affects everyone. Intelligent, skilled, engineers are more susceptible than most. We need to use our brains and feel we are doing something worthwhile. Obviously work can’t be interesting all the time, but prolonged periods of tedium inevitably lead to smart people losing motivation and burning out

Truly toxic work environments combine all of these factors: if you’re spending long hours working thanklessly on a high pressure, tedious project, knowing that your boss is going to be dissatisfied with your work at the end of it, then you’re a prime candidate for burnout.

Lifestyle-Related Causes of Burnout

Seven Ways Engineers Avoid Burnout

Credit: Florian Simeth

Not all cases of burnout can be attributed to work. Often, it’s due to personal issues.

  1. Poor work-life balance. This isn’t the same as overwork, although they’re often related. Shift workers may find their social lives disrupted. Employees who have to take work home with them, or are on call, may find themselves missing out on family events… Striking and maintaining proper work-life balance is critical to long-term happiness and performance.

  2. Lack of sleep. Good sleep is necessary for good mental health. Partying, or watching TV late into the night, then showing up for work after a few hours’ rest might be fine once in a while, but in the long-term? It’s unsustainable. (Lack of sleep need not be due to a wild lifestyle; new parents may take a while to adjust to broken sleep, or other environmental factors may come into play.)

  3. Domestic instability or dissatisfaction. Although most people try not to bring their domestic problems to work, it’s inevitable that their personal life will affect their working life, and vice versa. Trying to work through a bereavement, divorce, marital strife, or similar issues as if everything was normal can become too much.

Avoid Burnout: Take a Break, or Make a Change

The key to preventing burnout is a combination of many different factors; some are work-related, others are more introspective.

  1. Take time off. Have a weekend away. Go on vacation. Get away from work and just relax. It sounds simple, but it’s probably the single most effective thing you can do.

  2. Do something creative. Paint, write, make furniture, fix old cars – whatever you enjoy. Or, if you prefer, volunteer for a local charity. Studies show that these activities contribute immensely to personal satisfaction and happiness.

  3. Demand a performance review. Get your boss to tell you how well you’re doing. If there are specific areas you need to work on, you can focus on those, rather than a generalized fear of not being good enough. If you’re lucky, you might even get a raise out of it.

  4. Get a new bed. A new mattress can help you sleep better, which will improve your overall health and wellbeing.

  5. Re-evaluate your goals and priorities. Take time to figure out what’s really important to you, then direct your energies where they really need to be. Stop stressing about things that don’t matter to you.

  6. Ask for a different role. If you’re not happy with what you’re doing, then perhaps there may be something more suitable for you. A sideways move can open up new opportunities with minimal disruption.

  7. Get a new job. If you don’t see any way to make things better where you are, then it may be time to move on. Often, just looking can be enough to alleviate the problem; knowing the current situation is temporary removes a lot of stress.

Prevention is Better than Cure

Seven Ways Engineers Avoid Burnout

Credit: Peter Kaminkski

Frequently, the only cure for burnout is total rest and a complete change of lifestyle or environment. Sufferers often feel they need to quit their job, even their profession. They may need medical or mental health treatment, perhaps for years.

Avoiding burnout is the best cure. When you see the first signs of burnout, in yourself or in someone else, take action. If you’re the sufferer, seek help right away. Talk to your boss, or see a doctor. A short time to recover and a change in your daily routine may be all it takes to get you back to work and prevent a major long-term breakdown.

Contribute to the community by sharing your stress-busting tips, stories, and experiences. We welcome your comments here, on Google+, or on Twitter. See you there!

Featured Image Credit: Bottled_Void