With complex engineering problems, short deadlines, and not enough people and equipment, the demands placed on engineers today can make any design job highly stressful. For engineers who are used to making and implementing decisions analytically, stress is one of the most difficult things to acknowledge, because the body's reaction doesn't seem to respond in an analytical way.
According to a survey conducted by the International Labor Organization, stress and its accompanying depression in the workplace is now the second most disabling illness hitting workers after heart disease. Recognizing that you're reacting to this stress, and learning how to cope with it, will help you feel better, make your body healthier, and enable you to work more effectively.
The short-term symptoms of stress include a faster heartbeat, increased sweating, cold hands and feet, feelings of nausea, rapid breathing, and tense muscles. These symptoms might be the result of a specific stressful event or a brief period of work demands. The long-term symptoms of work-related stress include difficulty with sleeping, stomach irritation, decreasing interest in your work, and irritability toward others. This is the more serious of the two types of reactions.
Stress is your body's natural reaction to events or activities that your subconscious finds threatening or challenging. It's a protection mechanism, possibly grounded in physiology or evolution, that enables your body to prepare for a fight or to run away from a physical threat. That was presumably fine in the distant past, when threats were physical and short-lived. But it's a more problematic physiological response to today's more emotional and intellectual threats.
In small doses, stress is still good today. It keeps us focused and engaged in challenging projects, and it enables us to grow professionally and personally. A positive reaction to stress lets us make the push needed to finish a critical project on time. Without occasional stress, we might find our work mundane and boring, and not find the initiative to give it our best effort.
The problem arises when stress becomes regular or chronic. During periods of stress, the body releases adrenaline, which constricts peripheral blood vessels and increases heart and breathing rates, preparing the body for a spurt of exertion. When this reaction occurs daily, or continually over a period of days or weeks, it weakens parts of the body, physically and mentally tiring a person out. Over a longer period, your personal "weak link" can cause physical problems that could include your heart, stomach, blood pressure, or other physiological response, depending on your health and your body's unique response to stress. There's no single response common to everyone, making it difficult for individuals to identify any physical symptom as clearly a response to stress.
Stress can come from several sources. You may experience symptoms of stress when approaching a critical design review and feel unprepared, or if you face a difficult project deadline over the next couple of weeks. We all face such examples of short-term stress many times during our lives. While this type of stress may result in immediate discomfort, it seldom does damage over the long term.
Longer-term stress is far more dangerous than the immediate stress of pushing to finish a major project, or participating in an uncomfortable meeting. This type of stress may result from a long-term project that's underfunded and technically dubious, difficult relationships with your manager or colleagues, a long commute in heavy traffic, or poor overall business prospects at your company.
Working With Stress
It's easier for younger people to deal with stress, when the body is stronger and better able to withstand mistreatment from stress. This is one reason why startup companies tend to attract younger employees. Because the hours are long and there's pressure to deliver immediate results, younger engineers have an advantage in these environments. Although this doesn't mean that engineers in their 40s and 50s can't make effective workers in startup companies, they certainly have to practice strategies to manage stress levels.
This issue raises the question of just how an engineer can manage and even reduce the stress accompanying the modern work life. A number of people are successful in doing so, and they live healthy lives while working in highly stressful jobs. It's possible to overcome stress through insight into both your work life and your body's normal functioning.
Possibly the best thing you can do to manage stress is to take actions that provide you with more control over the factors leading to stress at work. One of the biggest factors of stress is the feeling of helplessness over day-to-day events that impact how we work. This means that you have to first identify the events causing you stress. Identifying stress requires taking a close and objective look at every event and activity during the work day, and analyzing your approach and outlook to each.
Much of your outlook depends on how you respond to these events. Stress is greatest if you perceive that you have no control over the immediate and often conflicting demands at your job. Your lack of ability to respond to these demands means that you internalize your natural responses, which the body interprets as stress.
On the other hand, if you have some way to control the events around you, or even if you just perceive that you do, then your stress levels will almost certainly decline. One approach is establishing procedures about how you will handle different categories of demands. This provides a set method for reacting to events without even having to think about them. For example, you might receive a lot of urgent requests from the field for new features on a deployed product. Rather than feeling the weight of each request as it arrives, establish a process whereby these requests are first routed through others in the position to evaluate and prioritize them.
Long-term stress also could stem from your inability to perform a job at a satisfactory level. Engineers often hesitate to admit this, even to themselves, because of their inherent belief that every problem has a solution. But some work roles are simply out of our reach, yet we occasionally find ourselves in them. This may happen when you're first promoted to a management position, or if you're given a tough assignment using technologies for which you have no background.
A typical reaction to performance stress is a listlessness at work and home, and a lack of desire to go to work in the morning. You may retreat into your office and reduce contact with your colleagues. If you find yourself in this position, seek assistance from your colleagues, managers, or human resources department for training to better perform your job, or for off-loading some activities so that you can focus on what you do best.
Regular exercise is another excellent way to combat stress. Exercise improves your general health over time by strengthening many parts of the body that might be susceptible to failure under stress. In addition, it provides a safe and healthy outlet for stress buildup. In psychology, the term "transference" describes the tendency of individuals suffering from stress in one aspect of their lives to take it out on an innocent party in an unrelated part of their lives. Exercise provides a good way to release stress outside of work, without harming an innocent party.
Take A Hike...Or Go Jogging
Jogging is a common approach to relieving work stress. (I've used this one myself.) Weights, team sports , aerobics, and tai chi are frequently practiced, often through company-sponsored venues. Your company might have athletic facilities on site, or offer a discount at a local gym. Take advantage of these benefits and join your colleagues who already engage in a workout strategy before work, during lunch, or after work.
Some people turn to alcohol or drugs as an avenue to relieve stress. While these solutions sometimes seem to provide immediate relief from the short-term symptoms of stress, they simply substitute one problem for another, more serious one. The root causes of your stress won't go away, while you will do greater mental and physical harm to yourself and possibly hurt those around you.
If these possible solutions are unrealistic or haven't worked for you, seek assistance from your managers or your health-care professionals. Although the causes of workplace stress may be beyond your ability to fix, others might be able to address these issues or provide methods that allow you handle the underlying stress.
Long-term, work-related stress makes life difficult for you and those around you. Living under the umbrella of tension and frayed nerves is mentally and physically difficult. Fortunately, there usually are things you can do to alleviate that stress. Recognizing your reactions to stress permits you to change these reactions and your method of dealing with them. In this way, your work life becomes more manageable.