It’s a fact for every engineer, in either an academic or professional setting, that stress will be present. Because this is the case, you can either view it as a horrific pollutant or accept it as fact and design a way to mitigate or absorb it. I suggest the later approach. Remove any negative or positive connotation around stress and let’s develop a way to manage it effectively in our engineering career.
Designing and utilizing a system for how you will handle both self-inflicted and external stressors is essential. It’s going to be a main determinant in your ability to advance professionally and it’s going to play a key component in how fulfilled and happy you are with life in general.
Professionally, advancement goes to those who have the ability to manage increasing levels and complexity of responsibility. With responsibility comes stress: finding new business opportunities, making payroll, handling personnel problems, fulfilling expectations of demanding clients. If you do not have a means for effectively mitigating or absorbing stress, then the further you move along the professional advancement trajectory, the more likely it is that you’ll eventually hit a brick wall that will result in unintended consequences. What do these look like? Negative attitude; curt and unprofessional responses to colleagues and clients; and generally being cancerous in communicating and working with teams or subordinates.
In life, stress saps the joys of your existence. If you’re constantly under stress, your life view can become very narrow very quickly. You will lose the ability to enjoy the company of others, the fulfillment that comes from accomplishing work that matters (or helps another) and perhaps the will to move forward professionally.
Gloomy existence, so let’s turn this around and look at designing a framework that can help one mitigate stress.
Stress Mitigation Is A Lot Like Risk Mitigation In A Project
Let’s view stress mitigation like risk mitigation in a project. Even the most effective and experienced project manager cannot eliminate all risk. She learns over time, and through experience, what the most likely risks are that occur. She then develops procedures or processes to limit exposure or the likelihood of certain risks from even occurring. If entering into a new project, perhaps one without any prior experience, she spends time brainstorming about potential risks. In project management procedures, she ultimately generates a risk register.
The key benefit of the risk register for a project manager is this: by identifying and naming risks, the likelihood of each risk occurring, and the severity of impact to the project’s success from each risk; the project manager attains confidence, clarity, and concepts about what the true high impact risks are for a project. She can then go about creating mitigation strategies to avoid or shift the risk, or develop procedures that govern response and recovery actions should a particular high-impact risk come to pass.
The first step in designing a way to mitigate stress in your engineering career then, is to develop a stress register for you.
Using A Stress Register To Mitigate Stress In Your Life
Developing a stress register for your life is similar to developing a risk register for a project. Let’s unpack the steps involved in creating one:
Your stress register will list all of the stressors (self-generated and external) you identify. You will then grade each one in terms of the likelihood of occurring and seriousness of impact on your personal or professional life, as well as initial plans for mitigating each high level stressor, and the subsequent results.
The stress register will include:
- An identifier that the risk is primarily personal or professional;
- A description of each risk and how it will affect your life;
- An assessment of the likelihood it will occur and the possible seriousness/impact if it does occur (low, medium, high);
- A grading of each stress according to a stress assessment table;
- An outline of proposed mitigation actions (preventative and contingency response).
Your stress register must be reviewed and updated at a frequency that matches the churn in projects at work and changes that face you in life. If you are faced with a heavy churn rate or a lot of different activities, a monthly review might be appropriate. If only one or a small number of projects are underway in your life, then once every six months might be more effective. Thekey point is that you review your stress register to keep yourself acquainted with the sources of stress in your personal and professional life and how you will mitigate them.
Stress Mitigation Actions You Can Implement With Little Drama
You’ve built your stress register, identified the high-likelihood/impact risks, and now have to outline mitigation actions to prevent or respond to a stressor that does occur. What now? Here are a few stress mitigation steps I use to keep the stress in my life to a dull-roar:
Pay Attention to Your Breath. Seems simple enough, but it’s not. When stress hits you, your subconscious registers it as a fight-or-flight situation. This occurs automatically, even if there isn’t someone pointing a gun at you. Get cut off on your drive to work – fight or flight. Hear about a foreseen problem causing a week delay in construction on a project – fight or flight. Turns out that even if you observe other other people in a heated argument, that too will trigger a fight or flight response.
A very simple, highly effective breathing drill you can implement anywhere takes one minute. A couple of years ago, I came across it in Jason Selk’s book, 10-Minute Toughness The Mental Training Program for Winning Before the Game Begins, and quickly added it to my stress mitigation tool box. I’m glad I did, because I use it every day. Here’s how you execute it:
Step 1: Take a controlled breath where you breath in for 6 seconds, hold for 2, and then exhale for 7 seconds. In your head, count the rate of the breath. This is a centering breath and the intention is to control your heart rate and allow your mind to focus and work more effectively.
Step 2: Repeat three more times, throughout, reminding yourself of the feeling of being calm and in control.
Good Sleep, Diet and Physical Training. If you’re a regular reader of the Engineering Career Coach, then you know that both Anthony and I are committed to rituals as a way to set ourselves up for success. These are foundational actions each of us exercise so that, if everything else goes to hell in our day, we’ve at least covered the fundamentals. As it turns out, we’ve found that we tend to mitigate things going to hell because we’re practicing our rituals.
What are these magic rituals? No, sorry to say it’s not a seance or some other mystical practice we’ve hit upon. It’s the same stuff you’ve heard before and the same stuff that you may have tried to build a habit around before: good sleep, good diet, and exercise.
In the realm of stress mitigation, you can’t build more resilience than by getting adequate and effective sleep, eating a nutrient rich diet, and doing PT every day. I recommend checking out these resources:
- Sleep: Sleep Smarter: 21 Essential Strategies to Sleep Your Way to a Better Body, Better Health, and Bigger Success by Shawn Stevenson
- Diet & Physical Training: Here’s the deal….each of us has our own body chemistry, personal goals, and issues to manage when it comes to diet and physical training. What’s right for one person is completely wrong for another. I’ve invested a lot of time over the past decade experimenting on myself with regards to foods and exercises. Why? I didn’t subscribe to the mainstream information found in the food pyramid or steady state cardio. I’m somewhat reluctant to share any one resource with you, simply because….well, it isn’t simple. If you’re VERY interested in learning what I do and why, leave a comment and I’ll write in a future article about what I do, why, and what my sources are.
No Bitching Zone. Can I use that word in a blog post? Well, I just did. Here’s the deal, it’s really easy to get sucked into a cycle of complaining and griping. In my first professional position, I worked in an office full of engineers who spent a good portion of their work day complaining about one injustice or another. Their spitefulness was a serious downer, and I did everything I could to not spend time in the office.
Earlier in this post I wrote about the contagiousness of stress. It turns out that simply listening to people complain will drive up your stress level as well. I’m at a loss for figuring out what situation warrants complaining as a legitimate means for influencing another person to your perspective, or for solving a problem.
If you work in an office with other people, agree to a set time or a specific space that becomes the “no bitching zone”. Within that zone, no one – for any reason – is allowed to complain about anything. Period. Then do the same thing in your household, especially if you share it with others.
Instead of complaining, I recommend introducing a gratitude practice into your stress mitigation tool kit.
Shift Your Mindset. Instead of thinking or verbally sharing with anyone who will listen how busy and stressed-out you are, start thinking and saying “how excited I am to have so many opportunities to grow and help others”. Sure, it sounds pollyanna, but to my previous point about complaining…does complaining about how busy and stressed-out you are help anyone? It certainly won’t help you and as I’ve already highlighted now twice, all of us are prone to the effects of secondhand stress.
Shift your mindset by looking at your present situation and asking these two questions:
How am I helping others here?
What is happening here? Does this support me or anyone else in achieving their mission?
Conduct a Stress Audit. This is step number one in creating your personal stress register. Spend some time brainstorming about all of the stressors in your personal and professional life. This includes stressors linked to such mundane things as having to rush through the airport to make a flight, or running out of a favorite beverage or food. Seriously, list them all. And most certainly hit the most likely stressors such as finances, job advancement, or specific issues that are prevalent in projects you work on.
Use this stress register template to help guide you through the audit.
Design A Process To Manage Stress
Stress is going to be be ever present in your life, just like stress is always present in the buildings we design. Structural engineers learn how to design the building in such a way that the structure distributes the loads placed on it. They also design in factors of safety to account for variances in fabrication and materials.
So must you design your own process for managing stress. Some of the stress you’ll experience will be dynamic – linked to a specific incident like losing a client, facing a job interview, or being behind on a key proposal submittal.
Some of the stress you’ll experience will be static, like a dead load. Purely stress that comes about through inertia or self-infliction.
Whether you’re dealing with dynamic or static stress, designing a process to manage the stress in your life, and your engineering career, will pay you dividends over and over.
Christian J. Knutson, P.E., PMP
The Engineering Career Coach