...scope of expertise or add tasks and deadlines that could accelerate the risk of mistakes. In the Hong Kong study, engineering ethics collide “with real-life situations,” says Yip. “We have fast-track schedules and tight budgets, and under these constraints, sometimes engineers experience pressure to make trade-offs” between doing what’s best for the company and violating ethical codes, she adds.
Some worry about how much the recession will chip away at ethical engineering practice. Michael Shirley, a Waterloo, Ind.-based automotive engineer and chairman of the National Society of Professional Engineers’ board of ethical review, is worried about the do-more-with-less mentality of business managers. This notion creates a kind of fear in people, he says. “ ‘If I don’t do this, I’ll lose my job,’ is what some engineers feel,” he points out. In such an environment, engineers asked to produce a design or render an opinion are susceptible to overextending themselves, Shirley says.
Tony DiGioia, co-owner of Pittsburgh-based engineering firm DiGioia Gray Associates, says he’s “unhappy with how much pressure is put on engineers, as if they were manufacturing a cup.” He says employers “need to allow the engineers to do their thing” and to “search out clients who recognize good-quality work and are willing to pay for it.”
DiGioia tries to avoid burnout among his firm’s engineers by keeping their work within their capabilities. Continued training and education are good ways to stymie burnout, he says. “The more of a rapport you have with your employees, the more you can address these things,” he notes.
Darnell has asked why, in the face of the overwhelming evidence of stress- related illness, companies don’t offer more vaction days, flex time or other ways to foster employee recharging. Managers need to be taught how to create a better life balance for employees, he says.
Darnell has been teaching practical stress-management approaches such as yoga, meditation, breathing techniques and mindfulness. “These are life-changing for some of these folks,” he says. “And with a few basic time-management techniques, they are much more productive and happy with their life and work. We teach not to reduce stress, which is very difficult, but to increase short recovery activities throughout the day.”
One promising solution may be job redesign. In a separate article published in another ASCE journal, Yip and Rowlinson wrote about a preliminary survey showing how job redesign helped alleviate burnout and minimize its multiple causes, such as long hours, role overload and ambiguity, conflicts, lack of autonomy and job insecurity.
The potential solutions seems simple. One company studied by the Hong Kong researchers changed its workday start from 8 a.m. to 8:30 a.m., discouraged overtime and provided an extra Saturday off for employees every two weeks. Since the firm was handling four projects at once, it was encouraged by the researchers to flexibly allocate staff among jobs to cope with peak demands and ease overload. In-house training courses clarified management roles and reporting structures.
Yip and Rowlinson say providing autonomy to workers by giving them greater decision-making abilities can help relieve a cause of burnout, but caution is needed in this area. “It has become popular among many companies today to change their organization structure by creating semi-autonomous teams, but once autonomous power has been put into place, it is difficult to retract it.”
Some engineers and project managers say leaving the industry may be the only recourse to relieve stress. “I have been offered a position” in a different sector, wrote one blog post responder. “I am accepting it to take back my life.”
But others are adamant that the aggravation is worth it. “You want shorter hours, a stable environment, family and medical leave time off?” wrote another poster. “I hear State Farm is hiring, but I’ll stick with what I love and risk dying early.”