Is Being an Engineer Stressful? 6 Stress Triggers

Is being an engineer stressful? It can be when a mistake can kill someone or cost tens of millions of dollars in damages.

As a longtime engineer, I’m going to go over 6 factors I believe drive stress levels the greatest. And the more of these boxes you check off, the more stress you’ll have.

#1 Engineering role

The type of engineering you do matters. But also, your role as an engineer.

Some engineers only do low-level paperwork, where they sit in an office and push paper. If this is your job, there aren’t too many problems you can cause. But, if you have one of the following roles, your mistakes can be devasting:

  • Top-level engineering manager: signing off on the important design and budgetary decisions
  • Design engineer: designing integral project components

Say you design bridges. A faulty design can lead to death and destruction. And it’s not like a surgeon who makes a mistake, and a single person dies. Bridge failure can lead to hundreds of lost lives and millions in damages.

The cost of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge was $6.4 billion.

Now, one design engineer’s work won’t dictate the entire design. But a single poor decision can have a ripple effect throughout the entire design process. It’s why the ethical principles in engineering are so highly emphasized.

Quality assurance and maintenance engineers

Quality assurance and maintenance engineers fall into the high-stress work category as well. Imagine having to check a rocket before launch. You need to make critical decisions quickly while under great pressure, with all eyes on you.

Then imagine working on an oil rig, where a high-pressure pipe ruptures. You need to address the problem before a fire starts, sitting alone floating in the ocean. The lives of everyone on the oil rig hinge on each of your decisions and actions.

Important Note: the lower-ranked you are, the less stress you’ll experience. Because your higher-ups will check your work before it goes out. Your decisions will remain internal to your company.

#2 The employment company

stressed our engineer

If you’re a business founder, your stress levels will be sky-high. You need to manage designs, payroll, business operations, and everything under the sun. The juggling act in itself is stressful.

Even employees though can have high stress. The following are common complaints I hear from various stressed-out engineers:

  • “I’m constantly given new projects. I can’t breathe.”
  • “Management doesn’t listen to anything I say. My suggestions always go ignored.”
  • “A design process doesn’t exist. The design workflow is a cluster fuck with nothing organized.”
  • “I work 60-plus hours every week without any boost in pay.”
  • “I travel too much from state to state. It’s exhausting.”
  • “Working in the middle of freezing weather makes me miserable.”
  • “My daily commute is 2 hours each way on traffic-jammed highways.”
  • “I take on too much risk as an engineer, and my salary doesn’t match.”
  • “No senior support exists to bounce ideas off of and to get input from.”
  • “My boss is a dick.”
  • “Why won’t my company just hire another engineer or two? I’m doing the work of 3 engineers.”
  • “My phone is constantly blowing up with emails at all hours, 7 days a week.”

Not surprisingly, the company you work for is a huge driving force in your stress levels. Many of these items I listed are job-specific.

#3 Domain expertise 

If you don’t know your subject material, engineering will be challenging and stressful.

Look back to when you took a difficult exam in school and stared at a problem blankly. The time quickly ticked away, as sweat poured down your face.

Job stress is kind of similar.

If you don’t know how to do a design, your stress levels will skyrocket. A design element, which should take 15 minutes to address, takes you 8-plus hours. Then throw in you’re on a tight deadline with hundreds of other things to do. You’ll want to kick yourself for wasting so much time.

Even more, if you do happen to finally finish the design element, you’ll remain stressed. You won’t know if you did the design right or not.

#4 Competition from other engineers

Through globalization, competition is only increasing. More and more engineers will nip at your heels for your position. If this wasn’t enough, automation is kicking into high gear. One engineer can do the work once done by 10.

And with the cost of living soaring, the pressure to keep a job heightens. Even more so if you have a family to support. This can result in the following, which can lead to stress:

  • Arriving to work early
  • Staying late at work without overtime pay
  • Taking work home on weekends
  • Not taking vacations
  • Going the extra mile to please everyone
  • Constantly studying to keep up with the latest technologies

stress from juggling many responsibilities

#5 A bad client 

A bad client can be downright draining and soul-wrenching.

Typical minor stressors from a client are small scope changes. But more extreme is when a client constantly breathes down your throat. They want to make large scope changes without paying you extra. Then they nitpick each of your design elements after agreed-upon decisions.

Engineering projects have inherent stress sources. But with the client stress source added, the entire experience can become unbearable.

#6 Work interest

If you hate your work, you’ll naturally become stressed. You’ll want to be anywhere but at work, and your work output will suffer as a result. For example, you’ll do the following:

  • Not respond to emails and calls in a timely manner
  • Not complete projects on schedule
  • Half-ass work
  • Become an ass to others in the office

In return, your boss or management will constantly breathe down your throat.

What’s more, in engineering, you need to constantly learn. Without an interest in your work though, you won’t study on your time off. As a result, you’ll further struggle, and your stress can build up. And all the other issues I discussed in this article will manifest.

“Is being an engineer stressful” wrap up

As an engineer, you do your best to ensure public safety. In the same vein, you need to accept you’re not a superhero. You’ll make mistakes.

Every engineer experiences stress at some level in their career. For some, it’s when they size a small wire. For others, it’s when they prepare a rocket for launch into outer space.

Frankly, if you never experience stress, something may be wrong with you. Or, you do low-level work. Because let’s face it, when your work puts lives at risk, you need to operate at a heightened focus level. And stress or pressure will help elevate you as required.

Is being an engineer stressful for you? How do you overcome the work stress you experience?


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