There is no shortage of stress and strain in modern life. From worrying about overdraft charges to problems at work, or coping with life-changing events, the daily pressures can easily take a toll.
When these strains overwhelm a person’s ability to cope, the result is stress. A person experiencing stress may be irritable, anxious, forgetful, or have a low mood. Stress itself is not an illness, but persistent or severe stress can trigger physical conditions, such as stroke, high blood pressure, depression, anxiety and insomnia.
Work-related stress is a significant cause of illness, sickness absence, staff turnover and underperformance, according to the Health and Safety Executive.
Pressure at work is a motivator, and everyone needs some to perform at their best. But piling on the pressure will only have a positive influence on performance up to a point. Once performance has peaked, any further increases in pressure have a gradual detrimental effect on a person’s output. It is at this point that people start to experience stress, and if pressure continues to rise performance will plummet and a nervous breakdown can occur.
For engineers, the relationship between pressure and performance appears to be different. Professor Sayeed Khan, chief medical adviser to the manufacturers’ organisation the EEF, says that, like workers in other sectors, engineers generally perform better with rising pressure. But, instead of an engineer’s performance trailing off as things become more difficult, their performance will not significantly deteriorate until the individual is experiencing high levels of stress. This can mean that any resulting breakdown seems to come out of nowhere.
Khan says: “There are two reasons for this. One is that engineers tend to be fairly resilient, the other is that they do not accept when they have a problem. They will just struggle on.”
A factor driving this deviation from the norm among engineers is that there are far more men than women in engineering. Talking about problems is a good stress-busting tactic, says Khan. Men tend to have fewer close friends to talk to than women, and are less inclined to talk about their issues with the ones that they have. This can leave them on the back foot when it comes to dealing with stress.
Engineers often have a pessimistic streak, says Khan. While this is a valuable personality trait when designing and producing equipment and items that need to be safe and robust, it is less helpful in dealing with stress. Optimistic people are more likely to see a stressful event as part of a bad day, where a pessimist may be unable to see an end to the issues.
The deadline-driven nature of engineering can also cause stress for workers. The need for processes to be tight and delivered just on time may contribute to on-the-job stress. According to Khan, the people in manufacturing responsible for outputs but not in control of the processes that deliver them are especially vulnerable to stress. Often, working environments are dangerous, which can pile on pressure.
Another stress-driving criticism levelled at all branches of engineering is that managers lack the “soft skills” that are important in dealing with other people. Such qualities include communication, negotiation and interpersonal skills. As Khan explains, engineers tend to be much happier dealing with concrete facts rather than their feelings and emotions or those of their colleagues. In many instances, those who are technically good at their job get promoted to management positions and may not receive adequate training on how to manage others. “The number-one factor as to whether you get stressed at work or not is your relationship with your manager,” says Khan. Poor management contributes to stress for managers too, who may feel unable to cope with situations they face.