- A former engineer who asked to remain anonymous for privacy reasons shared his burnout experience.
- He says his 10-year career was perfect on paper but came with a lot of stressful responsibilities.
- After having a panic attack at work, he made a change.
This as-told-to essay is based on a transcribed conversation with a 35-year-old blogger from Toronto about leaving the engineering world to pursue blogging full-time. He asked to remain anonymous to protect his identity. Insider has verified his former and current employment. The following has been edited for length and clarity.
Just six months ago, you could’ve asked me whether I’d see myself working as an engineer for the rest of my life, and the answer would have been a resounding “yes.”
Even when I was a child, my favorite subjects at school were math and science. All my friends were also into science and math, and we all applied to engineering school and became engineers together. And did I mention my father was an engineer?
On paper, it seemed like the perfect career path for me. It wasn’t, but that took me a long time to realize.
I started my career working in traffic modeling, which in part consists of collecting traffic-count data at critical intersections and projecting existing traffic volumes to the future.
I ended up doing acoustics — which in my role involved environmental noise control, indoor and underwater noise modeling, and noise-exposure assessments — for about 10 years. Acoustics piqued my interest because it involves many types of projects, and I got to travel to different locations across North America.
The first signs happened early in my career. I felt highly stressed due to massive workloads.
I was working 50 to 60 hours a week consistently and more when deadlines were approaching. I worked odd hours, too, juggling different time zones, across projects in Australia and Africa.
I was also often leading more than 10 projects at the same time. This meant I had to neglect less urgent tasks (and pay for it later) to take care of fires.
All the projects I was involved in seemed so uninteresting and dry. It felt as if all that mattered was schedule and cost (and the developer’s agenda).
In 2018, about seven years into my career, I changed companies to get involved in larger-scale, hopefully more interesting projects. I changed companies again at the start of 2020. I landed with a very nice team, a great mentor, and a nice salary increase.
All of this should have helped with motivation, and to some extent it did
The new position came with more responsibilities — and the stress that comes with that.
I was now in charge of teams of typically three to five people and significant components of work. I didn’t anticipate that I would need to get the job done with scant resources.
After a year of pondering the nature of the engineering industry, I realized that this was the rule rather than the exception: Most projects have aggressive deadlines but not enough people to meet them in a reasonable way.
Throughout my career, I’d worked with engineers from different firms and engineering disciplines who would often complain they were overworked and needed more people ASAP. Back then, I didn’t pay too much attention, as I was too junior for it to affect me. But as a senior engineer, I found myself with 100 to 150 emails a day and a calendar chock-full of meetings.
Delegating tasks wasn’t so straightforward, either. My team usually borrowed juniors from other departments to help us complete the work. Sometimes to delegate a task, I needed to carve out one or two hours to explain some of the theory before explaining the task itself.
After a few months or a year, the juniors would return to their respective department, taking away all the knowledge they had gained in acoustics. I don’t blame the firm for this — there’s a real shortage of engineers specialized in acoustics, and regardless of the shortage, the projects needed to be completed.
It seemed like every day I was falling more and more behind my tasks even though I was working hard
I started to feel dissatisfied with some of our assessments because due to a lack of time and resources, everything felt rushed and quality suffered. I felt as if I’d lost control of my working (and personal) schedule. Even finding 15 minutes to have lunch felt difficult.
As a result, my stress skyrocketed. I found myself constantly thinking about work, whether in bed while trying to sleep or in social gatherings or on weekends. My mind was constantly churning, trying to solve tomorrow’s or next week’s problems.
The arrival of the pandemic exacerbated the situation
My laptop was always staring at me, and I always felt guilty signing out at the end of the day or not checking emails over the weekend. There was always so much work to do.
Then life threw a curveball at me this spring: I experienced a full-blown panic attack while working.
It was a very disconcerting experience, and I realized my stress levels were not sustainable. That realization is what drove me to change career paths. Upon returning to work, I broke the news.
My immediate supervisor and his manager were very understanding; health and safety is ingrained in the firm’s culture. I left on positive terms with the possibility to return later.
I love coffee and tea, so I started a blog about it
I discussed with family, friends, and a therapist my thoughts of leaving my job to blog full-time. They supported me in my thought process and helped me realize that quitting engineering was the right choice for me and that there was no shame in it.
My partner started the blog part-time in November 2020, and it’s based on affiliate marketing. For example, we review a certain coffee type or coffee machine in a post, which includes product links to a vendor’s site. If the user clicks the links and makes a purchase, we get a small commission.
One apprehension I had in launching my business was not wanting to feel as if I’d ‘lost’ 10 years of my working life
But these years were not lost because I gained invaluable skills, experience, friendships, and life lessons.
It’s also thanks to my engineering career — I was making $112,000 by the time I left — that I was able to afford and purchase a property, which I refinanced to access its equity so I can support myself and my new blogging career.
I know it will take some time before I see some significant revenue. In fact, I might never make as much money as I did as an engineer.
We’d need much more traffic than we get now. It will take months before we see any meaningful revenue.
But that’s OK: Making lots of money is not my goal in life.
Ultimately, I feel at peace with my choice, as I listened to my mind and body and have stayed true to myself. I already feel much less stressed (and irritable) than when I practiced engineering.
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