What’s the work life balance of engineers? For some it’s great, and for others it’s horrible. It depends on multiple factors.
Like every line of work, there’s no set in stone rule.
So to best answer this question, I’m going to go over the following factors:
- Employer types
- Position types
- Your personality as an engineer
All these factors matter, in determining the demand for your engineering job. My global view in answering this question will hopefully give you the insight you need.
You can then make the best rational decision for yourself on where to work.
Keep in mind though, I’m going to make many generalizations. Because of course, there are always exceptions.
How do we define a good work life balance for an engineer?
Before we press ahead, it’s important we define what a good work life balance is. Otherwise, this discussion will be meaningless.
There’s no hard rule for how to define a good work life balance. We’re all wired differently, and have varying time management skills.
Plus, each of us has different goals in life.
So, there’s no rulebook on how to live life.
Personally, I work A LOT. I love what I do. I can’t remember the last time I worked only 40 hours a week.
So, I’ll have a completely different view on this question than many other engineers.
On that note, I know some engineers who think even 40 hour work weeks are too much. They prefer working only 30 hours per week.
So, to find the sweet spot, we’ll assume 40 hours per week is a good work life balance for an engineer. This also means you don’t bring work home with you when the workday ends.
1) Business owner
This goes without saying. If you’re a business owner, you won’t have a good work life balance, engineer or not.
But in engineering, you’ll be managing the business side of things, and the technical work. Thus, your mind will constantly need to switch between technical and many other types of work.
This is a challenge in itself. So, this lifestyle isn’t for most people.
Not only will you work long hours, but you’ll bring your stress home with you every day too. So even if you get off work early, you’ll still remain connected to your work in some way.
2) Open minded employers in high tech
In high tech, newer engineering fields, you’ll find improved work life balance. For the most part.
It’s important to note, I’m talking about established companies like Google and Apple. Not startup companies.
So, once you complete your work, you can jet home. Or, you can work from home permanently.
For example, Twitter allows all its employees to permanently work from home.
All the engineers I know who work at these places, say this gives them much greater freedom.
Of course, there are exceptions.
Tesla and SpaceX are notorious for their long work hours. So, you’ll have little time to spend with your family each day.
At these types of places, the grind never stops. Why should it, you’re on a mission to take humanity to Mars.
3) Startup companies versus large established companies
Working at a tech startup, the work culture promotes working late long hours. These companies want to make “it big.”
I know, most of these companies go bust. But the mantra of working more is better, is still very sticky in these lines of work.
Plus, many of them have limited funding, with a short runway to get product-market fit.
Thus, deadlines are aggressively set. At the same time, everyone around you works from early morning until late at night.
Hence, peer pressure!
So clearly engineers won’t have a good work life balance in these positions.
Typically at larger companies, you’ll have a much better work life balance. But, everything moves at a molasses pace.
Again, exceptions are companies like Tesla and SpaceX. The mission at these companies is much greater than at most other places.
Plus, Elon Musk runs these companies like startup companies.
So, you enter these companies with the expectation you’ll work long hours.
4) Design engineer versus operations engineer
Your exact engineering role plays a big factor in your work life balance. Per your field of engineering, operation engineers will typically have busier schedules.
Because if something stops operating, you need to quickly figure out why. Then you need to solve the problem.
You’re like a doctor on call!
While a design engineer doesn’t have great pressure to complete work fast. Designs are typically on a more relaxed schedule.
Then again, sometimes you need to juggle 5 designs at once. Hence the generalization I was talking about earlier.
5) Traditional engineering fields
I find traditional engineering fields are more old school. I’m talking about the following fields of work:
They expect their engineers to come in at 8 and leave at 5. But if you need to stay longer, then so be it.
These companies are stuck in the old work model. So if you’re sitting at your desk doing nothing but twiddling your thumb, you still need to be present.
But if it becomes busy, you’ll be taking work home with you no doubt.
Of course, you can just do your regular 40 hours. But if you’re not good at maximizing your 40 hours, as most aren’t, then you may get the boot.
Positions that involve a lot of fieldwork will have long hours by nature.
You’ll be troubleshooting critical equipment, that needs fixing ASAP. Not only that, you’ll need to do a lot of traveling to sites.
Then there’s work that involves your permanent presence. I’m talking about the work of some petroleum and mining engineers.
Imagine if you’re a petroleum engineer stationed in the middle of the ocean for months on end. You may not see your family for a long time.
Different strokes for different folks.
7) Defense and government work
Engineers tend to have a better work life balance in government positions.
In California, there are many agencies that monitor how employers treat their employees.
This by default makes government positions much laxer. Government employers follow strict guidelines, without much wiggle room. This compared to private companies.
8) Union work
If you become part of a union, then you’ll have a good work life balance as an engineer.
Your union will protect you from long workdays. Thus, you won’t stand alone against your employer, if your hours bump up.
This level of support goes a long way, to keep your work life balance in check.
9) Moving up the ranks in a company
If you’re at the bottom rung in your company, more times than not you’ll have a great work life balance.
But, as you climb the company ladder, your responsibilities and pay will increase.
This added responsibility requires greater demand on your time. So you’ll need to be at the office more.
You’ll always feel your behind though, no matter how much you work.
This is one reason many people reject promotions. They don’t want to destroy their work life balance. All for what, an extra $1,000 per month? Not worth it to many.
10) Employer’s level of flexibility
You need to research employers to find who offers employment flexibility.
Some engineering companies give you a lot of flexibility in your work. For example, you can come in and leave anytime you want.
The only catch is, you need to finish your work on the given deadline.
For engineers who are highly efficient and self-motivated, this work model works great. Because they can finish what takes an average engineer 40 hours, in 20 hours.
11) Sales engineer
You may not be doing too much actual work every week. I’m talking about meeting with customers and answering emails.
But the required traveling alone can be brutal, especially if you have a family.
You’ll be traveling from city to city, and then state to state. The flights and hotel stays can get old fast if you’re not wired for this type of work.
12) Your level of ambition
Are you an ambitious person who wants to milk the profession? If yes, you’re not going to have a good work life balance as an engineer.
You can’t have your cake and eat it too.
If you want max money and accelerated career progression, you’ll need to work at least 60 hours per week.
And if you want to do interesting work on top of that, then say goodbye to your work life balance.
To do interesting work with a great salary is a rare opportunity. Not only that, these positions are highly competitive.
Plus, in these types of workplaces, you’ll find more type-A personalities. So to keep up, you’ll constantly need to raise your output bar. It’s kind of like keeping up with the Joneses.
13) How fast can you work?
- Do you work slow?
- Does it take you longer than normal to pick up new concepts?
If you answered ‘yes’ to either question, you probably won’t have a good work life balance as an engineer. No matter where you work.
A project that takes an average engineer 12 hours to complete, takes you 24 hours. If you do the math, you’ll always be behind no matter what you do.
Even if you work in a cushy job, you may still have someone breathing down your neck. Because they’re waiting for you to finish your assignment.
Companies will take what you give them
It’s important to note, companies will expect a certain level of productivity from you. Assuming the workload is high.
But if you’re a super-fast worker, you may still find yourself in a bind. Because as fast as you finish your work, your company will feed you more work.
In these instances, put your foot down!
If you’re paid a salary, don’t allow a company to get 2X productivity out of you with no pay bump.
The other strategy some use is to sit on their work once it’s complete. This opens up more free time in your schedule.
At the same time, it’s not an issue to tell your boss, “I can’t take on any more work now. I already have too much on my plate as it is.”
At your workplace, find the output of the average engineer. Then emulate them, and you can then coast.
Of course, if you’re not trying to move up the ranks.
14) Are you passionate about your work?
We all are searching for something we’re passionate about. If you find it in your work, then there’s nothing wrong with that.
Of course, if you’re not hiding behind your work to mask a personal issue. But that’s an entirely different subject, not appropriate for this discussion.
So, if you find something you love, then it’s okay to work more. Because in the end, we’re all looking for that one thing that makes us want to wake up at 5 AM every day.
That type of passion is hard to find, and if you find it, don’t ever let it go. Hold onto it tight!
I remember the late great Kobe Bryant was notorious for waking up at 4 AM to workout. He did this from his high school playing days through his stint in the NBA.
He worked out hard, day in and day out. Even when he reached the top of his profession, and he had all the leverage in the world.
15) Are you an awesome engineer?
The better engineer you are, the more pull you’ll have in your workplace.
And if you’re a superstar engineer, you can even set your own work schedule.
It’s kind of like those high in demand prima donna entertainers. If they want the yellow and green Skittles taken out from their candy bowl, someone will do it.
In engineering, it’s not to that extreme, but you get the idea.
My point is, make yourself a better engineer. Showcase your worth to your company.
In short, make yourself irreplaceable. Your company will then bend over backward to accommodate you.
This is how you gain more power, to then have leverage. In engineering, being awesome at what you do is a leverage play.
If you’re not awesome at what you do
More times than not, no one will give a shit if you stay an extra hour or two every day.
If your sole goal is to impress management, you may not accomplish that. In fact, your employer may just think you’re slow at what you do.
Of course, if your extra hours show your added productivity, you may get a promotional boost. This is something some companies look for.
“Do engineers have good work life balance?” wrap up
There’s a type of job for all people. You need to find the best fit, given your personality and goals.
But at the same time, the world is becoming more competitive. This means you need to fight tooth and claw to keep your position.
The better you are at what you do though, the more control you’ll have in any employment position.
And if you’re average, you become replaceable. You take what you get.
So, learn to become a better engineer if you want greater job security and pay. As well as better control over your schedule.
Without improving yourself, you won’t be able to check off all the boxes for your ideal position.
What do you think of the work life balance of engineers? Which type of position do you think offers the best work life balance for engineers if you have a family?
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Koosha started Engineer Calcs in 2020 to help people better understand the engineering and construction industry, and to discuss various science and engineering-related topics to make people think. He has been working in the engineering and tech industry in California for over 15 years now and is a licensed professional electrical engineer, and also has various entrepreneurial pursuits.
Koosha has an extensive background in the design and specification of electrical systems with areas of expertise including power generation, transmission, distribution, instrumentation and controls, and water distribution and pumping as well as alternative energy (wind, solar, geothermal, and storage).
Koosha is most interested in engineering innovations, the cosmos, our history and future, sports, and fitness.