Ask an Engineer - How Do You Cope with Stress?

May 18, 2011

Dwight asks:
How do you cope with stress from work, that nearing deadline or endless todo lists? I know it's a vague question (and not really engineer related) and the answers will probably differ much from person to person but I'd like to see the different approaches everyone takes. I'm a software engineer and the work has been piling up lately and each evening at home after work I feel pretty much burned out, unable to do anything (useful).

Jim - Cement Industry, Pennsylvania, USA

Work-related stress is an engineering issue. Burned-out engineers deliver sub-optimal results.  I always had the impression that software engineers suffer from stress more than us nuts-and-bolts guys, simply because the product can continually be tweaked and is never finished.

I think I use two approaches to manage my work stress.  The first is an engineering approach.  I identify the cause of the stress, I take my time, and I root it out.  This engineering approach is straightforward but it doesn’t always work.  Often the stress level stays the same or gets worse.  Or my actions have unintended consequences.

My second way is more of a Zen approach.  I remind myself that all stress is internal, and that external factors can only cause me stress if I directly resist them. I try to see the big picture – a job is only worth having if it supports my need for self-actualization.  I try to pursue Excellence as I choose to define it, in everything I choose to do.  And when I do that, the stress just evaporates.

Scott - Semiconductor Industry - Massachusetts, USA

I think the biggest stress reducer is just saying "no".  When my manager shows up with a list of things to do and a totally unreasonable deadline, I just tell him that it can't be done.  I include in that email two alternatives: what can be done by the deadline, and how long it would take to do the entire list.  This then becomes the starting point for coming up with a new schedule of work that meets management's requirements and is realistic from the engineering standpoint.

The other important thing is to set boundaries and keep work outside of them.  Some of my co-workers live with perpetual 18 hour days and working on weekends.  I used to be like that, but then I realized that I LIKE to spend time with my family.  

 And of course the last bit is vacation time.  Make sure you use it all, and don't work while you're on vacation!

Thomas L. - IT Architecture - France

I, too, feel somewhat burned out when back home after a day full of  meetings between which I have to find the time to deliver complex pieces of work, design complex IT solutions and prepare simple powerpoint slides that explain everything.

My manager asks us to maintain a schedule of our commitments and load of work for each subject, week by week for the next three months: on week #19 I forecast to spend 2 days on this, 0,5 days on this, 1 day on this and so on... Thus it becomes easier and less stressfull, when confonted with a new request, to say "sorry if I work on this new subject, I won't be able to deliver this other one on schedule". It is then the manager’s role to prioritize between your tasks and commitments.

Another thing that greatly helps me to cope with stress is sport. I managed to exercise about three times a week in the company's gym and it is a great way to release the pressure.

Also it helps to work in a good atmosphere. A good laugh between colleagues makes you able to forget your hard life for a short time ;-)

Last but not least, once you get home if you're lucky to have someone who loves you and is willing to hear about your work, you can both have a peaceful discussion about the difficulties of your work day and relieve a bit of your burden.

Dan - Diesel Engine Manufacturing - Illinois, USA

 As someone who has more than his share of projects and deadlines dumped on him, I completely know what you're going through. Here are some of the things I've done that have helped me:

Put some small, easier things on your to do list and try to accomplish one a day. If I have a day where nothing is finished, it seems pretty disheartening. It might not reduce the workload, but the feeling of accomplishing something every day makes the big things which never seem to get done a little more accomplishable. The small morale boost, for me, has a big impact on my stress.

If things get really piled on, I usually just ask for help from coworkers or my boss. In my mind, its better to admit you need help because you are overwhelmed than it is to try to tough it out. This doesn't always work, but it does have the added effect of passing along that you need help.

The last thing that helps me is to take time out (i.e. a quick break) during the days which you are very stressed and remind yourself that you are just one person and can only do so much. I find the quality of my work goes down the more I am stressed and taking this quick break helps me to reorient myself so I can do a better job.

Thomas - Software Consulting – Singapore

To be honest this was the first question which really hit me deep.  For me my career has been a constant fight against self destruction.

 Though I have a pretty impressive resume, I am not even 30 yet. To get where I am now has required a herculean effort. Being the young guy in the office means no screw ups ever. Why would they keep paying a young guy to screw up when they can just hire somebody older and more experienced, right?

I come home and turn my brain off my day-to-day work and immediately enter into backed up freelance work or extra schooling.  Such a schedule physically and emotionally has destroyed me numerous times. I can distinctly remember standing on a 25th floor balcony in Taiwan and considering just jumping off so I could finally get some rest.  

The only thing that kept me from doing it was the same thing that made me submit to this life in the first place; My absolute hatred of losing.  That said, I really don't manage stress well at all. I work like a slave 12-20h per day, 7 days per week until I collapse. Then I use my holiday leave (I pretty much have unlimited due to never having weekends) and rent a house in some remote quiet place and stay there until I am calm again.  The only solace I have is that in about 2 years I will be able to survive on 100% savings and freelance earnings and finally live like a normal human. 


Johan: Software, Domotics Industry, Netherlands

How do I cope with stress? Poorly, it appears. As evidenced by the fact that the reply is at least a day late. Usually when I'm under stress at work, I relax at home. Ideally, I'll use up a lot of 'alone time', when I can immerse myself in whatever media is available and not care about any of the responsibilities/deadlines/to-do lists that will be waiting for me in the morning.

If there's also things piling up at home (bills and such), then there's a bit of a larger issue. When I cannot get my down-time at home, after a while I'll become stressed out, and will not be that functional in a work-related environment. Thankfully this doesn't happen that often, and I have a girlfriend who's much more stress-resilient than I am. So she keeps a calm head and some stability in the whole thing.

I think the trick for me is that I can completely shut off any stress related to an environment I'm not currently in. So at home, I don't think of the tasks from work, and vice versa. Problems occur when both environments are stressful.

Dyson - Mechanical Technologist - Yukon Territories

I guess stress is a common factor in what we do. When a person first gets into the trade, it all seems a bit overwhelming. The frantic pace is very overwhelming for anyone who comes from a larger company where it's common to "look busy" or have lead times of years.

I find organization is key to keeping the stress off. Some people use complex multi-file day planner system to organize themselves, but I like to keep it simple and robust. A large whiteboard hangs above my computer all projects, tasks, and meetings go on this board. A red star indicates critical tasks. Red notes indicate stalled tasks where I'm waiting on someone else. Minor notes and tasks are written down on a note pad throughout the day, and calculations are completed in a coil book. Misc papers, shop drawings, and minor notes are sorted into file folders by project. And that's it! It requires low "overhead" and can easily be inspected by the boss man.

We also take care of ourselves when we're in the office. The office very informal, jeans and a T-shirt is pretty standard, we keep music going, our dogs are welcome (there are three who show up everyday and work as speed-bumps in the hallway), beer-o'clock starts at four, and we do not take ourselves seriously. I also leave work at work. When my day is done I go home and do something else, like walking the dog, building whatever strikes my fancy, and cooking a good supper.

Angela – Sustainability Industry – Vancouver

My first strategy is to be really proactive about tracking different projects and tasks, and being ruthless about prioritizing them. I always make sure to finish any task that has a deadline first, regardless of when that deadline is. This way I’m usually done ahead of schedule for things that are due, and I can fill the rest of the time with “ongoing” projects for which no firm deadline is associated. (This also protects me when things just “come up”).

The other major strategy is something I call “conscious de-stressing”. When you stop working, you don’t automatically de-stress, you need to DO SOMETHING that relieves the stress. Take the time to do something you enjoy, something that can “take your mind off” the problems and deadlines at work.

Working out is another strategy. It might seem foolish to take 20 minutes out of your day when you’re already so busy, but if you work out INTENSELY during those 20 minutes, you’ll get back to work more focused and calm. It’s definitely the most time-efficient method of coping with stress.

 Bruno - Polytechnique - Junior Software Engineer - Quebec (OIQ)

There is no magic way to cope with the stress and anxiety of making it in time. I try to have hobbies, stuff that are not related to my job at all: I play music, indoor hockey with my friends and most of all I have learned to separate my job and everything personal going on in my life.
I'd have to say that lately, one of the best ways I’ve found to deal with the stress it to learn to enjoy doing the useful tasks I have to do at home: appreciate the fact that there is no stress in doing the dishes or washing my clothes. After doing those simple tasks, you get to feel the reward needed to go on with your job the next morning.

 As for measures taken directly at my job, well, I try to take a break when I feel the stress is too much: emotions can make you make mistakes that can degenerate into massive code changing. I did it once for one bit of data (not "a bit" in the sense of "a little". Litterally a bit. True or False.)
Finally, I'll add that having a good sleep schedule is the best thing to do to help your situation. I have had periods of insomnia in the past and I still have them periodically, and the trick here is to make sure you get the sleep you need. If you have a flexible schedule, I suggest you make good use of it.

Robert - Oil and Gas Industry - Texas, USA

Essentially all of my methods have the same thing in common which is: focus on something other than the problem and relax. Leaving work for work and just taking time for myself. You don't necessarily need to be useful when not working, otherwise what's the point of having time off. That's all that it boils down to for me, just find something that you enjoy doing, or that helps you relax and do it.

It can be doing absolutely nothing. There have been times when that's all I wanted to do, because work was dragging on, so that's what I did with my time off. As long as everything that has to be done is done, then you can be as useless as you want in the time left, and it may sound somewhat nihilistic but chances are, even if you miss a deadline it's not going to be the end of the world, the earth will still rotate around the sun regardless of what you do or don't do and life will go on, so why stress about it.

Kimberly - Computer Science Undergraduate - United States

 When I'm feeling overwhelmed, it helps to take everything a step at a time.  To do lists may seem endless, but it's very useful to take a moment to cross off all the things you've accomplished.  Did you spend the whole day caught up in emergency tasks that weren't on your list to begin with?  Take a moment to add and cross off the things you did.  It can be a liberating feeling to realize that you did make progress, even if it wasn't the progress on the path you'd original planned.  As lines keep going through tasks on the list, hopefully it won't feel so endless anymore.

If you can, try to be as unplugged and away from the computer as much possible once you're home -- even if it's non-work-related.  I also find it helps to take a brisk walk or do something else that wakes you up and allows you to clear your mind.  For you, this might be going to the corner coffee shop with a book, grabbing a drink at your local pub, or something similar.  But try to incorporate something active (without being too strenuous) into your evening ritual to avoid feeling like your life consists solely of eat, sleep, work, rinse, and repeat.  

Of course, none of these recommendations is particularly "productive" in the sense of getting things done, particularly if there's a mountain of laundry and you've been eating takeout for a week because you don't have any clean dishes left.  I think we've all been there, but it's important to remember that relaxing is useful and productive to your mental health -- a very important consideration in the long-term scheme of things.

Hopefully this helps you to figure out your best de-stress method soon!

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