Career Advice

10 Ways Engineers and Their Managers Can Build a Strong Work-Life Balance
Meghan Brown posted on April 12, 2016 | 6128 views

Engineers: Don’t Live to Work!

We’ve all been there.

Working sixty-hour weeks, yet feeling like you can’t get ahead.

Getting home late or working on the weekend, with no time left for family, friends or fun.

Maybe you’re like Joe, a civil engineer finishing up a project plan on Friday, only to get an email that the client has requested a slew of changes–by Monday, no less. Now you’re working late into the night and through the weekend, missing out on the family barbecue, and feeling just plain exhausted.

Or, are you like Tanya, a product design engineer? Your design looks great – efficient, cost effective – and you’re ready to hand it off to your project lead. Except, like all designs, yours is at the mercy of external forces, and you’ve just learned that your microchip supplier is discontinuing their UltraChipX5 (which of course is the center of your whole design).

But deadlines don’t change, which means you’re now deep into overtime trying to re-design your product around a different chip while still meeting your project benchmarks.  You’re tired, stressed and frustrated, and you feel as though you never get time to relax.

Even our personal lives are demanding; everyone has family, activities and obligations that put demands on their time.

This is work-life conflict. It occurs when the demands of work and home life are in tension or are otherwise incompatible to the point where engaging in one side makes participation in the other side difficult or unproductive.  This can result in stress both in personal relationships and in the workplace.

How Does Work-Life Conflict Affect an Organization and its Employees?

Work-life conflict is increasingly common. But situations like those described above are simply not sustainable in the long run.

Employees are less engaged, less committed, less productive and less creative when they are consistently under stress.

Finding what is usually called “work-life balance” is an integral aspect of successful employees and successful organizations.

“[Work-life balance] is definitely essential to the workplace, because what happens is if you don’t have a good work-life balance, eventually you’re going to get really burnt out, or get tired to the point where the work you do is not going to be quality work,” said Anthony Fasano, a P.E. and professional development coach for The Engineering Career Coach.

“Unfortunately, a lot of the time managers don’t realize that.  They just want to squeeze the most out of people thinking they will get the most.  But in essence, at a certain point in time, when you’ve worked a certain number of hours, the quality of work is going to go down. I think that people need to understand this, and a lot of people don’t,” Fasano added.

What Can Be Done to Improve?

Engineers are innovative, creative people, and you can apply those skills to building a solution to your work-life balance problems.

When you experience conflict between your work life and your personal life, things may not seem so bad at first. But left unchecked, these conflicts can snowball into a big problem.  It’s easy to fall into the habit of working overtime, or thinking that for this type of job “that’s just the way it is.”  But if you wait until things are truly bad, they will be even more difficult to fix.

Creating a workplace full of employees who are satisfied with their work-life balance is important for the overall well-being and productivity of a project and the company.

With a good work-life balance, Fasano suggested, “Overall I think morale will be more positive, people will be less stressed, people will be happier.  I think when it’s not like that, it’s just the opposite: there’s lots of stress, people get into arguments, mistakes are made, because everybody is running on fumes, basically, and that happens all too often in today’s world.  But it can be a completely different atmosphere if there’s a good sense of balance between work and life.”

So, where to begin?

“It starts with greater engagement, which means greater commitment, which means better output, more innovation and creativity,” suggested Tim McAward, vice president of Kelly Services’ Engineering Group.

There are two sides to the pursuit of a good work-life balance: what you do for yourself, and what your management does to support you.

What Can Engineers Do to Improve Work-Life Balance?

There are lots of ways to improve work-life balance when you feel the stress.  Below we have five guidelines to get you started at finding a better balance.

1. Unplug Yourself from Work

Gone are the days of hand-drafted designs, typewriters and snail mail.

Now we have smartphones that have revolutionized the way we work and the way we play.

This is both good and bad.  While these devices have improved workplace efficiency and communication in many ways, the connectivity that these technologies bring with them has also created new expectations regarding employee availability.

Oftentimes there is an expectation that employees will be available to respond to email, answer phone calls or go online long after the office has closed.

“If the expectation is that you need to be on call 24/7, your employees are not going to hang around long,” said McAward.  “There are those few types that will go, go, go and they may be okay. But there are a lot of individuals that need time to invest in their personal life, and to have that downtime. Going all the time isn’t healthy for people, and I think it has a big impact on engagement, a big impact on retention, and a huge impact on what output and contributions people are making to a design or engineering project.”

The solution is to set boundaries, and set expectations. And once you set them, stick to them.

“You need to be able to set boundaries,” said Fasano. “whether those boundaries are timelines, or whether they are certain activities that you do outside of work where you disconnect. And you have to work hard to set those boundaries, because if you don’t then you’re going to have unlimited access to work. You could just work all the time; you’re not going to be able to get away from it.”

“It affects your thought processes, your stress levels, so essentially it has to be your responsibility to build a way to set a boundary so that you have time to do other things, and that you can disconnect from all the work,” Fasano concluded.

Admittedly, this is easier said than done. It could mean silencing notifications from work on your smartphone, or turning your device off altogether (which is easier if your work phone and personal phone are two separate devices).  You also have to resist the urge to reply to emails, check up on project documents or do specific work tasks at home.

But don’t just disappear from contact without any explanation.  Make your boundaries clear to coworkers and supervisors, and don’t let ambiguity allow people to try and co-opt your off time.

“Set expectations of people,” Fasano advised.  “For example, if you have a manager who is emailing you at six or seven o’clock at night, if you’re responding to those emails then you’re setting the expectation that when you get emailed at six or seven at night, you will respond.”

“If you respond to them in the morning, then you’re sending a message that ‘I’m not really looking at my emails at night but will get back to you first thing in the morning.’  So again, that comes down to boundaries that you’re going to set.”

This can be difficult at first, but the results are worth the effort.  By taking a true break from work, most people will feel much more focused when they are actually on the job.

 

2. Your Time is Valuable – Don’t Waste It

Do you spend hours aimlessly surfing the internet, scrolling through social media, reading the news or checking email?

Are you constantly dealing with people who only bring conflict, gossip or otherwise take up your time with activities you’re not truly interested in?

Internet connectedness can be valuable, but be aware of the effect it has, such as introducing other people’s conflicts to you or wasting time with useless information.

“Things like Facebook, staying up online until late hours at night, just being on the computer in general late at night can drain your energy and affect the quality of your sleep,” advised Fasano.  “You have to try and identify those stresses and those things that are burning you out and not helping you, that you’re not getting any value from, and once you identify them you have to work really hard to eliminate them.”

It can be hard to get away from time-wasting activities, especially when they have become part of your daily routine.

The first step is to take some time to deliberately think about how you spend your downtime, and identify what activities and people are truly important to you, such as family and hobbies.  Next, identify the things and people that are your biggest time-wasters and determine which can be limited or cut from your schedule altogether.

“I need to take the onus on managing distractions and/or conflict in such a way that allows me to accomplish the objectives of both sides of my work-life experience.”

McAward sees the question of where an individual wastes time as a personal one.  “For me, I know what needs to be accomplished and I know what the commitments I make at work mean to what is going on in my personal life. So I need to take the onus on managing distractions and/or conflict in such a way that allows me to accomplish the objectives of both sides of my work-life experience.”

“Maybe that means I can’t check my Facebook every hour because if I do that, I’m going to get distracted and spend eight minutes looking at all the Facebook posts, and that’s going to put me 8 minutes behind on a deadline I need to hit. I need to take responsibility for that and manage that on my own.”

 

3. Restructure Your Schedule

Most of us have a hard time recognizing when our habits have become inconvenient. Sometimes you forget that many daily tasks don’t have to be done at a certain time, or don’t have to be done yourself.

When your schedule seems to be overwhelming or overly stressful, it’s time to figure out why.  Take some time to evaluate what in your routine causes you to feel stressed or strapped for time.  Do you have no time to pursue your hobbies?  Too rushed trying to shuffle family, shopping and work hours?  Next, identify your goals for your schedule, whether it is more hobby time or family activities.

“There are plenty of things that you can hire someone to do: go to one of these task-grab sites and find someone to do laundry, mow the lawn or find someone to collate papers, or whatever it is that may be a really low-priority job but something that still needs to get done,” said McAward.

“People need to understand what they want to accomplish, and those accomplishments are long-term, short-term and daily goals.  If they begin to miss those goals, that’s going to create stress, so I think they need to recognize what trigger points may exist, so that they know how they can remedy those points to reduce the stress in both their personal and professional lives,” said McAward.  Once you have identified these trigger points, you can find a solution.

Ask yourself if you can outsource any of these tasks.  Can you hire a service for dog walking, dry cleaning or grocery shopping?  Can you delegate errands or tasks to family members who have more time in their schedule?  Or can you trade services with friends?

“There are plenty of things that you can hire someone to do: go to one of these task-grab sites and find someone to do laundry, mow the lawn or find someone to collate papers, or whatever it is that may be a really low-priority job but something that still needs to get done,” said McAward.

“Folks need to understand what are the pressure points, what is it that triggers the stress, and then absolutely work to find ways to remedy those stresses.”

Engineers are fixers, so it makes sense if you may want to do it all yourself, but this is untenable in the long run. So reschedule and delegate; getting even one task off your plate can free up time and lighten your load enough that you can focus your time on activities you enjoy, helping you to relax and sleep well.

 

4. Remember to Exercise and Relax

Work has become increasingly computerized and automated, which means engineers spend a lot of their time sitting at a desk or machine console.

But sitting around and stressing over your failed simulations isn’t all that healthy. Sadly, when you have to get a project done by a deadline, long hours at your desk may not be optional.

Long hours and stress often mean the first thing to fall by the wayside is personal exercise and relaxation.  But when life and work get busy, self-care is even more essential to your mental and physical wellbeing.

Exercise and deliberate time spent in relaxing pursuits reduces stress and improves mood, energy levels and concentration.  Even just one or two hours’ worth over the course of a week can make a big difference.

“A lot of people think they don’t have time, but it doesn’t have to be anything elaborate. It can be a walk on your lunchbreak, and even something like that can be hugely effective,” said Fasano. “I think these are the big ones: exercise, fiction reading, eating right, drinking lots of water. These things all affect your stress levels.”

McAward suggested pursuing activities that serve the mental side as well as the physical.  “One of the things I would add is some sort of personal or professional development activity. These can certainly add to a better balance and it’s sometimes just comforting to go out and learn something new and take on a class of interest that may or may not be work-related. It is just as comforting and helpful as getting to the gym regularly.”

 

5. Take Ownership of Your Life – But Don’t Try to Do It All at Once

You don’t have to declare sweeping lifestyle changes all at once. You do have to take ownership of your life and what you want to get out of it. Just remember that it’s okay to start small.

For example, make a conscious effort to will leave work on time, have a family dinner or go to the gym at least once a week.  As you get used to the changes in your schedule, you can continue to work upwards from there until you attain the lifestyle you want.

Start by cutting back the time you spend on the particularly time-consuming games or websites you habitually visit.

Or if you spend a lot of time on the internet, you also don’t have to quit all your time-wasting online activities cold turkey.  Start by cutting back the time you spend on the particularly time-consuming games or websites you habitually visit. You will quickly recognize which aspects of these activities truly matter to you and which you can do without.

That’s not to say any of this will be easy, but it will be worth it in the end.

 

How Can Management Support Employee Work-Life Balance?

Taking personal ownership is essential, but “no man is an island,” as the saying goes.  Management attitude and overall corporate culture are equally important and will form the basis of a good work-life balance for everyone involved.

“It’s really important to have that culture established and to have that message come down company- wide from the highest ranks of the organization. That sets the ground-work and frame-work for individual managers to take on their role to find that work-life balance that will optimize the output and productivity and innovation that their staff provides,” said McAward.

So what can companies and management do to help all their employees find the ideal work-life balance?

1. Take an Individual Approach – One Size Won’t Fit All

Not every employee’s home life and personal schedule are the same, just as not every employee’s work schedule is the same.

It is essential that managers take these variables into consideration, and make an effort to learn what work-life balance means to each employee.

“All of us are in different phases of our lives. We have different priorities, we have different motivators, so a workplace culture that organizationally sets a standard that says, ‘We respect and expect our employees to have a great work-life balance,’ will indicate that it is okay to engage with your management to decide what may work best for both of these parties,” said McAward.

In as much as business needs will allow, managers can offer options such as flexible work hours or a rearrangement of the workday schedule to help employees manage their obligations.

“I think giving them a flexible working schedule is always good,” said Fasano. “If someone likes to come in at 7 o’clock in the morning, they should be able to come in at 7 o’clock and leave early. That can go a long way to helping them establish work-life balance, as they might have more time later in the day to do other things.”

“A lot of it is around flexibility,” agreed McAward. “Individually, we all have the most productive time of the day or time of the week. So build in the flexibility that allows all employees to contribute during the time they have the highest productivity.”

“We can still have mechanisms that ensure teams of engineers collaborate and work on a particular project or design. But then allow them individually to go off and, if they are most productive at 6 o’clock in the morning until noon on Thursday, give them the flexibility to use that time they know is optimal for them.”

 

2. Communication is Key – Promote Open Discussion and Feedback

An essential part of helping employees maintain their work-life balance is to foster a work environment that encourages open communication.  Workers need to feel comfortable discussing their needs and career goals with their managers.

For their part, management should strive to be open to feedback from employees on what is or isn’t working for them and to be flexible when trying to devise solutions.

There isn’t any specific way to introduce the discussion of work-life balance, but as Fasano advises, managers “can show their openness by offering it, by saying, ‘We’re open to flexible hours, we’re open to different ideas to enable you to do things outside of work.  Just feel comfortable to talk to us about it.’”

“You have to basically make yourself available, be open with them and let them know they can talk with you. Because I don’t think people are going to approach you on a topic like that, when it’s uncomfortable, unless they know there’s a very open door,” said Fasano.

McAward offered similar advice.  “Ultimately, both parties have to come to agreeable terms. So not everybody will always get whatever they want, because the ultimate objective of the organization and the company still has to be served.”

Managers should acknowledge that they want their employees to pursue a good work-life balance, and work to determine the requirements of the team and the individuals they oversee. This way, management can help their team to achieve as much success in their personal life as they will in their work life.

 

3. Establish and Share Goals for the Organization

Creating a standard set of expectations for employees and sharing goals or benchmarks that both individuals and the organization as a whole can aim for is an important way to support your employees’ work-life balance.

These goals can and should be tailored to the company, its culture and its employees. They can provide a good place to start defining the expectations of work-life balance, helping to ensure everyone is on the same page.

And remember to ask employees what they do on their off time.  Sharing ideas for activities, hobbies and personal development can help everyone, since sometimes you may not realize what activities you could pursue until someone else mentions it.

“You can have an area of the office where people promote what they do, or you can do a lunchtime event once a month where three or five employees speak for ten minutes apiece on what they’re doing in their no-work activities,” suggested Fasano.

McAward believes this sends a strong message to employees that finding balance is important.  He also suggests setting goals around individuals’ health and things that can be measured inside the company benefits program.

“There is also this new concept of, ‘We’re not going to have a vacation limit.  Take as much vacation as you need,’” said McAward.

Called discretionary time off, the idea is that employees can take unlimited time off or unlimited vacation time, provided their work is still completed to satisfactory levels and still in service to the overall needs of the project or organization’s operational needs.

Managers can also help their employees stay on track through regular meetings to discuss what may or may not be working for each individual.

“You can report on it quarterly,” McAward said.  “Message to the whole organization that we have X percent utilization of our discretionary time off at this point in the year.”

“This continues to encourage that culture, and it sets the expectation that we’re doing what we expect our employees to do, or not, and I think that all gives support to overall work life balance.”

 

4. Be Flexible and Willing to Change

Not every strategy will work the first time, or for every employee.

This means it is important for managers to work with their team to come up with alternate solutions when the initial strategy isn’t working out and employees find themselves struggling.

Encourage your workers to share problems they encounter, or the solutions they have found that work for them.

Organizationally, managers can work with their employees to find the most effective strategies.  Flexible work arrangements are one thing, but there are other ways to change. “What sort of benefits might you be offering, such as healthcare, childcare, caregiver?” McAward asked rhetorically.

Employees want to know what they will get back from a job, relative to the effort they put in. “What is it that I’m getting relative to the opportunity to improve my own skillsets, to work in a cross-functional team, to be innovative on projects I’m assigned to?” McAward continued.

Encourage your workers to share problems they encounter, or the solutions they have found that work for them.  Sharing strategies benefits both sides, as one person may think of something that another hadn’t considered.

 

5. Management, Lead by Example

How employees see their managers behaving can be the strongest message and the strongest support of a healthy work-life balance.

The reality of the engineering world is that clients in many industries will expect people to be on-call 24/7.  Management should let employees know that it’s acceptable to be offline at 9 o’clock at night and that it is okay not to have your phone on 24/7.

Burnout is an issue that we all need to be concerned with. Retaining good talent, keeping them engaged, is really mission critical for organizations.

“Yes, we have business expectations,” McAward said.  “But it is acceptable and we encourage our employees to have a good work-life balance. It is acceptable to shut down, to take time away and recharge, however you recharge, whether that’s sitting on a lake, whether that’s volunteering, or spending time at the kids’ school…. Burnout is an issue that we all need to be concerned with.  Retaining good talent, keeping them engaged, is really mission critical for organizations.”

Fasano agrees, stating that managers should establish for their employees the expected standards of work-life balance.  Working productively, so that they are not staying until all hours of the night, and taking up their own hobbies and outside activities is essential.

Managers should also share with their staff about these non-work activities, to give their employees ideas and to encourage them to do the same.  “If you’re there until seven or eight at night, and you’re not doing anything outside of work, then you’re not going to be a good example,” said Fasano.

 

The Balancing Act

Engineers create world-changing new technologies, products and software, but your work life shouldn’t take over your personal life.

Don’t be afraid to discuss your schedule and needs with your employers.  They want their employees to be healthy, happy and productive, too!

Your managers also need a good work-life balance, so discussion can lead to sharing strategies you or others may not have considered.

Using these strategies, managers can help ensure their employees are happy and productive, with a satisfying work-life balance that enables them to perform their jobs at the optimal level.  Ensuring that communication remains open is a job for both sides: managers and employees alike.

Employees must also remember to work on their side of managing work and personal obligations to achieve this balance.

This way, everyone wins.

 


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