on August 21st, 2008

Dear colleagues

1. Currently on the road in Southern Africa presenting a complimentary series of topics on lightning, process control, hazardous areas and new engineering learning technologies to generally great attendances. Thanks so much for the support. What really amuses (but stresses) me, is that although I try and prepare meticulously for each presentation one always has the curved balls thrown. Like today; no power in town, all day! This effectively nullifies my presentation (which requires power and telecoms). But the show has to go on. So alternative plans, involving access to a diesel generator at another venue, is the name of the game.

2. I notice with concern that burnout amongst engineers and technicians’, working around the world, has increased dramatically in the past few years. This seems to be due mainly to the increasing shortage of and pressure on engineering professionals. Burnout is insidious and ultimately devastating, personally and career-wise. Thanks to those of you who suggested ways of dealing with it.

A survey recently undertaken in the Australian construction industry showed that emotional exhaustion is one of the key results of burn-out. Competent engineers are being pushed to the brink and then are summarily dumped when they have been used up. Not necessarily maliciously, but because managers often don’t know how to deal with engineers and technicians who have been pushed to their limits. Interestingly enough, the burn-out survey also revealed that engineering professionals believe that they are making a good social contribution to the community, but are not being compensated adequately. Nothing new here. Andrew West pointed out:

“You can also overburden an engineer for a while and get increased productivity. And engineers are obliging types. They like to prove how useful they are and how important the things that they do. But at some point they are asked to do too much with too little.”

Paul Vermeulen pointed out the enormous administrative overload thrust on engineers when they could be more productively employed doing real engineering. This causes stress and frustration. Dewald Scholtz felt that:

“Engineers like to quantify and qualify and reason things out. This is useful and good, but not in excessive, unbalanced quantities. These activities need to be balanced by 'right brain' activities. I have found dancing, stretching, meditation, childlike games,…. conversations with highly spiritual people, making music (very badly, I must confess) and purposely doing things sometimes very different to my 'normal nature' very helpful”.

So what do we do about burn-out?
If you are working long hours under considerable stress, stop and weigh up the benefits against the possibility of burn-out. Watch your staff and peers for signs of burn-out and take corrective action. It is better to have a long term valuable member on your team than a shattered shadow. Strengthen yourself to fight burn-out with some of Dewald Scholtz’ ideas; dance, stretch, meditate, play games/sport, talk to people outside of engineering and make music Talk to your manager. Take some time off to smell the daisies.

And dealing effectively with burnout makes it more likely that; job satisfaction, job commitment and sustained productivity will result.

Notwithstanding the above, it is important to put vigour and enthusiasm into one’s life and work - as Jack London pointed out:

“I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry-rot..… The proper function of man is to live, not to exist”.

Yours in engineering learning


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