Healthy Work Boundaries for Engineers and Logical Thinkers
Engineers are taught to be problem-solvers. They’re trained to find solutions to complex technical issues, but often take little time to focus on their own emotional and physical needs.
One of the key aspects of therapy for engineers is setting boundaries. Engineers push themselves to their limits and work long hours to get the job done, but this can take a toll on mental and physical health. In therapy, we can explore how to set boundaries with our time and colleagues.
Here are five ways engineers can set boundaries in the workplace:
1. Learn to Say "No!"
As engineers, we often feel a sense of obligation to take on more work than we can handle. However, it's important to recognize that saying "no" to unreasonable requests or projects is not a sign of weakness. In fact, it's a sign of strength and self-awareness.
When faced with an unreasonable request or project, take a step back and evaluate the situation. Consider the impact of taking on the additional work on your current workload and mental well-being. If you determine that it will overload your schedule or negatively impact your health, it's okay to say "no".
Keep in mind that saying “yes” to a request means that you are saying “no” to countless other possibilities. A “yes” to work the weekend means saying “no” to spending time with your kids, your significant other, or immersing yourself in an activity you love.
Setting boundaries is essential for maintaining your mental and physical health. Saying "no" to unreasonable requests or projects is a crucial part of setting those boundaries and prioritizing your well-being.
2. Set Realistic Expectations for your Workload
In college we were assigned to read “The Mythical Man Month” by Frederick P. Brooks for an upper-level computer science course. After my shock that we had to read a book in a computer science class, I was grateful because it helped explain what we all experienced in school - everything takes longer than you think especially when it comes to technology.
Even back in the early 90’s, “The Mythical Man Month” was an old book, but it still rings true today. I remember my professor saying, “Whatever time you think it will take to complete a project, multiply it by 10.” During my college days as well as throughout my years as an engineer and an educator I agree - my professor should have done a mic-drop that day in class.
To set realistic expectations for your workload, start by assessing the amount of work you can handle in a given week or day. Consider your current workload, upcoming deadlines, and any other factors that may impact your ability to complete tasks. Be honest with yourself about what you can realistically accomplish in a given amount of time - and then multiple it by 10 (only slightly kidding).
Setting realistic expectations for your workload is an important part of setting boundaries and prioritizing your well-being. Communicating these expectations clearly with your colleagues, managers, and important people in your life is key to maintaining a healthy work environment.
3. Take Regular Breaks
It is so easy to get caught up in a project and forget to take breaks. We called the hours that disappeared while coding, “In the zone”. We would forget to eat, sleep, or even move. In the computer labs during the 80s and 90s being in the zone was a respected space. “Don’t mess with him, he’s in the zone.” It didn’t help the labs rarely had windows. Labs were like casinos - you never knew if it was day or night.
Even though the 24 hour access given to computer science majors seemed like a necessity, it definitely didn’t do well for our sleeping or eating habits. Exhibit 1: half eaten Cheeto bags and empty cans of Jolt Cola.
Once I graduated and started my first job, I was given a 24 hour keycard access to the building and was encouraged to, “Work whenever you work best.” Which often ended up being “in the zone” much longer than was healthy. Flash forward 20 or 30 years and with constant online access from anywhere, it’s only made things worse.
When we work for extended periods without breaks, our productivity and focus can suffer. This can lead to burnout, which can have serious consequences for our well-being. Taking regular breaks throughout the day is an important part of setting boundaries and prioritizing your well-being.
4. Prioritize Tasks
As engineers, we often feel pressure to take on more work than we can handle. It's not always possible to do everything at once, and it's okay to prioritize tasks based on urgency and importance. (Remember the Mythical Man Month - everything takes longer than you originally think.)
When faced with multiple tasks, take a step back and assess which are most urgent and important. These tasks should be the ones that you focus on first. If a task is not urgent or important, consider delegating it to another team member or postponing it until a later date.
That being said, it's okay to ask for help when needed. If you're feeling overwhelmed or stuck on a particular task, don't hesitate to reach out to your colleagues or managers for assistance.
Prioritizing tasks based on urgency and importance, and delegating or asking for help when needed, is an important part of setting boundaries and maintaining your mental and physical health. By doing so, you can ensure that you're able to achieve your professional goals while still taking care of yourself.
5. Work-Life Balance
Engineers (and all logical thinkers) often have a tendency to prioritize work above all else. While this can be useful for achieving professional goals, it's important to remember that we also need to take care of ourselves outside of work.
One way to do this is by creating a work-life balance. Make time for hobbies and social activities outside of work, so you can recharge and focus on your personal well-being. Start by identifying activities you enjoy outside of work. This can include hobbies, such as playing sports or painting, or social activities, such as going out with friends or joining a club.
Once you've identified these activities, make time for them in your schedule. This may mean setting aside specific times during the week for these activities, or simply leaving work on time so that you can pursue your hobbies or spend time with friends and family.
Creating a work-life balance is an essential part of setting boundaries and prioritizing your well-being. By taking care of ourselves outside of work, we can be better engineers and better human beings.
You Can Do This
By following these five tips, logical thinkers can set boundaries that prioritize their mental and physical health. Setting boundaries isn't selfish - it's necessary for our long-term well-being.
Looking for mental health support as an engineer? Dr. Guess, with an engineering background and experience working with engineers, can help you set boundaries and navigate workplace challenges.