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ReEngineering the Engineer: Self Preservation Through Workload and Stress Management

Douglas Fitzpatrick on June 3, 2021 - in Articles, Column

If there’s a silver lining to COVID, it helped push us to more-efficient ways of communication. Rather than traveling to meetings and wasting a ton of time on the road, we’ve embraced the idea of virtual meetings. I think that’s actually an OK thing. You still have the benefit of interacting with everyone on the design team, and you don’t have to leave the office.

However, the number of virtual meetings has exploded. What used to be monthly sitdown meetings now are weekly meetings—partly driven by project schedules (which are out of control), partly driven by convenience. If you’re working on several projects, like most of us are, your calendar fills up in a hurry. If you’re also supervising an internal team on some of your projects, it can get out of control quickly and doesn’t leave much time for engineering.

Stress Overload

I’m pretty sure everyone is struggling with workload. A couple weeks ago, I hopped on a conference call desperately knowing I needed to be working on the project that was due the Friday before. What I thought was going to be a short call ended up lasting an hour and a half, and it changed the scope of the project I had already finished. All the while my email was dinging at me, and several people in the office were hitting me up for questions via online chat. I just wanted to unplug everything and go lay down or curl up in a ball in the corner …

Being busy is good—it sure beats the alternative—but the relentless pressure to get projects out the door can become too much for most people. I have to respect that as a business owner. Not everyone has the same sense of urgency or passion or stamina that the business owner has.

Don’t get me wrong, my engineers would do anything I ask of them. They have in the past, and I know they will in the future. But I have to respect their boundaries, and each one is a little different. So when everyone has a large project and several smaller ones, and we get a crisis call from one of our clients with a project and a short fuse, we take it up a notch.

Now add in the complication of material availability and you have a real mess. What should be a simple task of moving into construction administration for our projects, now requires us to go back into our completed projects and revisit some things, at the drop of the hat. Not terribly difficult, but it takes time we don’t really have right now, and it’s really disruptive.

And this is just our business stress. At home, we have families to care for, errands to run, yards to tend to, kids to shuttle to sports, dance lessons, homework, etc. It can be overwhelming, especially when there’s a lot going on at work. Life can be really stressful.

Survival Tips

That’s OK in the short term, but if it drags on for too long, it’s not healthy. How can we learn to manage the overload when it gets here so we can live to fight another day?

The first thing I found that helped was to change my email notification at my desk to something like 15 minutes instead of every time an email comes in. At least this way, you can get some quality “think time.” I also turned email notifications off altogether on my phone. In today’s age of feeling the need for instant gratification, that seems a little risky. But for me, the constant ping of email notification is far more stressful than explaining to a client it’s a time-management deal. They’re probably doing the same thing.

Doing this allows me to set aside a chunk of time to deal with emails. It’s rarely a perfect plan, but it has helped reduce stress and keeps me better focused on engineering for larger chunks of time.

I don’t accept invites unless I have to be there. If a project is managed by one of our engineers with a proven track record, I decline the invite. I usually do this “with options” and let that person know the project engineer will be at all the meetings, but I will be available when needed. It does require extra time to keep up with that project, but it’s better than sitting on a call. I’ll trade a 5- to 10-minute focused catch-up discussion with the PM over a 60-minute conference call any day.

If I accepted all the invites I received, I’d never be able to track which ones I really need to attend. Trust me, I tried. I also found myself becoming numb to the ding of reminders because there were so many; that’s an easy way to miss something important.

If you find yourself working long hours, be sure to get up, leave your space, and walk away for a few minutes every now and then. It isn’t much, but I’ve found it helpful in keeping me fresh. Grinding it out for hours on end, getting lost in the engineering, seems to wear me out more. Pace yourself, and give yourself time to reset your thoughts.

Finally, you have to find some “me” time to decompress and clear your head of the plates you’ve been spinning all day. Make a to-do list before you stop if you need to, then put it all aside. It will be there in the morning. I often find when I come back the next day, the answer to a problem jumps right out at me. It takes some practice to learn how to turn it off, but you’ll be better for it in the end and have a better-balanced life.

 

About Douglas Fitzpatrick

Douglas G. Fitzpatrick, P.E., is the founder, president and practicing engineer of Fitzpatrick Engineering Group, a 14-year-old structural engineering firm specializing in commercial and healthcare building design.

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