Carbon, heat, and pressure make a diamond, the hardest substance on earth and a symbol of value and beauty. The stresses and pressures on women’s careers and lives aren’t as constructive, however, and can result in challenges to mental and physical well-being. By sharing their experiences and approaches to healing, engineers and mental health experts reveal new ways to shine.
By Seabright McCabe, SWE Contributor
The statistics speak for themselves: Fifty-three percent of women surveyed in Deloitte’s report, “Women @ Work 2022: A Global Outlook,” said their stress levels were higher than they were the previous year and almost half felt burned out. While slightly more women rated their mental well-being as better than the year before, almost half said their mental health was poor or very poor. One-third took time off work due to mental health challenges, yet only 43% felt comfortable talking about those issues at work.
These findings show progress, but also how far there is to go. The conversations women engineers are having among themselves, and at forums such as the SWE annual conference — where the opening keynote and several panels centered on stress and mental health — are encouraging. Women are bringing these issues, and their coping strategies, front and center.
As a chemical engineer at a large refinery in 2013, Yanet Borrego was stressed. “I owned one of the most challenging process units where there were shutdowns for maintenance,” she said. “I was on from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., 13 days straight with one day off, and the work involved climbing reactors. It was a lot for a new person.”
An unsupportive senior manager soon compounded her stress, and she felt herself beginning to spiral. “He would lash out and apologize later,” she said. “In a refinery where there’s pressure to perform and everyone is stressed out, it [became] a toxic environment.”
Borrego knew she was in an unhealthy workplace but had worked five and a half years to land a six-figure salary. “Everyone thought I was successful, but I didn’t feel fulfilled,” she said. “There was something missing.”
And there was nowhere to turn for help. “Nobody was advocating for work/life balance. My schedule had flipped from nights to days with no time to adjust. As a new hire, you don’t feel worthy of asking for what you need. You think you have to put up with things in order to be seen as competent.”
One day, while working from home, Borrego took her mother on a quick trip to the grocery store. “We were starting up a unit at that point,” she said. “The whole time I was trying to shop, I was panicked that I would be called to do calculations without my computer.”
Then chest pain struck, and her left arm went numb. “I thought well, I’m having a heart attack; I’m going to die,” she said. “In that moment, I realized I had been tolerating my life, not creating it. It was a powerful awakening.”
At the emergency room, Borrego learned she’d had a panic attack. Two days later, she returned to work, asked for a transfer, and kept asking until she got one in 2015. “I ended up in supply chain, which was more people-oriented,” she said. “I loved it, but communicating I needed that change was really hard.”
Borrego focused on her long-term vision. “My panic attack made me realize I deserve to do what I love, to align with things that feel welcoming,” she said. “My past was all about getting jobs. Now I had a blank canvas. And what I love is understanding human behavior — helping people master themselves so they can make their environment align with who they are.”
Now a self-mastery coach, motivational speaker, and podcast host, Borrego helps high-achieving women gain the clarity, confidence, and courage to fulfill their potential. “I call it going from survival to creation,” she said.
Charting the course
“Women struggle with work/life balance and feeling worthy enough to ask for what they need,” Borrego said. “One of my clients needed a babysitter so she could focus more on work. She thought that meant she was failing as a mother, instead of the opposite — that she deserved to have people uplifting and supporting her.”
Another client — a chemical engineer whose managing director, a woman, kept putting her down in front of others — was afraid to address it directly. “Through our sessions, she realized that she was allowing her past to define her present, and found the courage to act,” Borrego said. “She spoke to her manager, who hadn’t realized what she’d been doing. By upsetting those boundaries, she gained respect, and the relationship improved significantly.”
When work stress is coupled with caring for children or others, Borrego recommends recognizing what’s in your control and what’s not. “There has to be a deeper practice of accepting what is, and finding the lesson to be learned,” she said. “When the most challenging situation has a purpose, it becomes motivating. It takes patience and living in the moment, and not the past or the future.
“Growth is a process that often feels unsafe,” she continued. “Setting boundaries and speaking up feels uncertain. But we don’t have to hit rock bottom to do something that aligns with wellness and mental health. Women often sell themselves short, minimize their light. But we are creators, and we have to stop being afraid of our power.”
Jennifer Hsia, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist whose practice helps people with racial and ethnic identity issues, particularly Asian and Asian American populations. She has also worked with women engineers and STEM professionals experiencing anxiety at work and in relationships, workplace discrimination, and toxic workplaces.
Dr. Hsia offers clients a space for validating and processing their experiences. “Just being heard can be a huge help for someone who’s really stressed out,” she said. “So often, we get the opposite message of: ‘Why are you being so sensitive?’ It’s almost like being gaslit.”
She frequently uses acceptance and commitment therapy, a subset of cognitive behavioral therapy, to help her patients learn to accept difficult thoughts, feelings, and experiences rather than challenge or change them, and then make choices based on their values.
She has also dealt with imposter syndrome — a belief that one’s success is not deserved or has not been earned — in her practice and personally. “It’s common among women, especially women of color, because so many workplaces are male dominated,” she said. “We’re trying to survive in a world that wasn’t made for us.
“We talk about the importance of intersectionality and multi-marginalized experiences,” she said. “As a Chinese American woman, there’s a cultural pressure to be modest that directly plays into imposter syndrome. We’re encouraged to downplay our accomplishments. That can lead to [thinking] ‘Maybe I don’t deserve this,’ or ‘Maybe they made a mistake by hiring me.’ Though there are ways imposter syndrome can motivate us, it needs to be kept in check so it doesn’t become debilitating.”
One way to keep imposter syndrome in check, she says, is to recognize it for what it is: just a thought. “Having a thought does not make it true,” she said. “While it may be true, it may also be false. If the thought related to imposter syndrome is not helpful in this moment, you can treat it as one of your [false] thoughts.”
Another strategy is to keep the parts of the thought that motivate you and discard the rest. “You can see it as a reminder to strive for better,” she said. “Keep the useful and helpful aspects and distance yourself from the unhelpful aspects.”
Beware of burnout
Dr. Hsia pointed out that while there has been a lot of discussion recently about the idea of quiet quitting, “that term ignores the real reason people check out, which in many cases is overwork and burnout.”
A recent study published by the Institute for Gender and the Economy — a research program housed at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto — found that women engineers regularly experience social identity threats at work through negative conversations with men engineers — for example, conversations that make women engineers feel incompetent or not accepted. In turn, women engineers experience mental exhaustion.
And a 2023 study by Lean In, “Women in the Workplace,” found that women who experience microaggressions ‘self-shield’ by muting their voices or code-switching — hiding important aspects of themselves. As a result, they are four times more likely to almost always feel burned out and three times more likely to think about leaving their companies, the report revealed.
“One day I was there and the next day I wasn’t,” Mary Verstraete, Ph.D., F.SWE, said of her retirement from The University of Akron in 2018. “It was a definite end point. One bit of advice I’d gotten was to go on vacation the next day, so I drove from Ohio to Myrtle Beach and just looked out at the water, decompressing.”
Retirement is a life-changing event with its own unique set of challenges. “There’s definitely stress involved,” she said. “Will I have enough money? What am I going to do with my time? A good way to deal with those anxieties is to be prepared. It really helped to know I wasn’t going to wake up, roll over, and say, ‘Now what?’ Or worse, ‘Oh no, what have I done?’”
To combat those potential pitfalls, Dr. Verstraete worked out a solid financial plan and a rough idea of what to do with her time, and she planned for her physical health. “That was part of the reason I retired,” she said. “Stresses in my late career got to the point where I worried about my health. Burnout is real, and retirement let me regroup and start taking care of myself. I got on a diet, started hiking more, and doing physical things. Because if you want a good retirement, you want it to be a healthy one.”
Learning to let go
One of Dr. Verstraete’s biggest mental health challenges after retiring was letting go of work. “I had been at the same university for 30 years, and so I’d hear what was going on without me and get upset when they changed what I’d developed.
“When you’re loyal to one place for so long, you take ownership of what you do,” she said. “I cared about the university, about my job, the department, the students. It took me a good year to go through that whole cycle, to break the rhythm of the academic year. I really had to make a conscious effort to step back.
“Getting used to retirement takes a lot of processing. Maybe it’s because we’re women and we tend to … well, I lived my job.”
There may be an element to the early days of retirement that’s similar to grief. “The process can seem awful at first,” she said. “But one day you do wake up and what you thought was lost is still there; it’s just in a different place.”
Talk to any retiree, and you will find a wealth of institutional knowledge, deep experience, and a mind eager to share them. But what happens if the phone doesn’t ring?
“I told people ‘I’m still around, call me if you need me,’” Dr. Verstraete said. “Part of the reason I took on being associate dean for my final two years was so that new people could reach out for help. Those calls didn’t come.
“I’m still active in our Women in Engineering program [which she created in 1993], and I volunteer with the alumni association,” she said. “But nobody from the college and university reached out, and I was disappointed that I wasn’t being tapped for that knowledge.
“There’s an assumption that retirees are out to pasture and don’t want to be bothered,” she said. “But it’s a wrong one, and it makes the door closing a little harder when people don’t reach out.”
Dr. Verstraete has always found an outlet for her energy in philanthropy. She’s a dedicated volunteer for several charities, including Habitat for Humanity, where she shares engineering skills and knowledge with younger people. “That’s something I’ve been passionate about for years, and retirement let me take more time to work with them,” she said.
Throughout her distinguished career, Dr. Verstraete mentored hundreds of young women, and she celebrates the lives and careers she has influenced. Many former students stay in touch, in person and on social media. “That’s what makes me happiest, to know I’ve had such an impact on them,” she said. “It’s my driving force, being able to help people out.” —SM
Avoiding burnout begins with recognizing it and then considering options. “The biggest sign I had was that even the simplest task felt overwhelming,” Dr. Hsia said. “At work or at home, things that would take less than an hour, I could not muster the courage to do. Whatever that signal is for you, it’s important to recognize it within yourself.”
Every stress is different, and it gets complicated, especially when parenting and relationships are in the mix. “There are no hard-and-fast rules for coping, but it can help to gauge where you are in different areas of your life, identify which one is the most off-target, and start there,” Dr. Hsia said. “Check in with yourself and with your values to reflect on what is important to you. Each person has their own values at any given time [and those] values can shift and change over time. Values are your compass to help you make decisions.”
And although she ultimately changed jobs to one that was less stressful, she recognizes that’s not always possible. “If that’s not an option, you can still do smaller things for yourself that bring you joy. Even if it’s doing something for five minutes. Deep breathing and relaxation, mindfulness. Take care of yourself a little bit. Because you can’t pour from an empty cup.”
Seven Tips for Managing Stress and Burnout
The National Institutes of Health reports that stress affects women and men differently. “Many conditions associated with stress — such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and anxiety — are more common in women than men,” the NIH’s In the Spotlight reports in the online article, “7 Steps to Manage Stress and Build Resilience.”
Here are the NIH’s seven tips for stress management and resilience building that are particularly beneficial to women.
- Recognize and counter signs of stress
Your body sends signals that it’s stressed, including difficulty concentrating, headaches, cold hands, tight muscles, a nervous stomach, clenched teeth, [or] feeling on edge, fidgety, irritable, or withdrawn. Knowing how your body communicates can help you deal with stressful moments. Learn to not only recognize but also to name these feelings, either to oneself or to a friend. Then, take action to counter their effects. For example, deep breathing, stretching, going for a walk, writing down your thoughts, and taking quiet time to focus can help induce relaxation and reduce tension.
- Take time for yourself
Make taking care of yourself a daily routine. It’s not selfish or self-indulgent — and it might require saying “no” to requests or prioritizing yourself along with your responsibilities. Start with small changes in your routine to help build resilience to stressful circumstances. Work in time to exercise, eat healthy foods, participate in relaxing activities, and sleep. In fact, including a regimen of exercise, which for some may include yoga or meditation, can be very important when feeling stressed. Also, take time to notice the “good minutes” in each day or to do something that you enjoy, such as reading a book or listening to music, which can be a way to shift your attention and focus on the positive rather than the negative.
- Try new routines
From scheduling bath and bedtimes to blocking off time to plan and prioritize tasks, additional structure can provide a daily framework that allows you to attune to your body’s signals. Then, you can take steps to potentially manage stress earlier than you once did.
- Stay connected and make new friends
Stay in touch with family, friends, and groups in your life — technology makes this easier than ever. Having or being a person to talk with can be reassuring and calming. Using video features can enhance the connection in telecommunication or online communications for some people.
- See problems through a different lens
Experts call changing the way we think about and respond to stress “reframing.” View sitting in traffic or around the house as an opportunity to enjoy music, podcasts, or pleasant views. Reduce anger in response to rude or aggressive behavior by imagining what might be happening in that person’s life. Keeping situations in perspective is an important way to boost stress resilience. Other steps include positive thinking and creating plans before you begin to resolve problems. You can practice reframing and get better at it over time.
- Seek help with problems
Many people experience the same day-to-day strains related to caregiving, relationships, health, work, and money. Look to friends and family, as appropriate, or other trusted individuals or resources for tips and information.
- Talk to a health professional
See a professional if stress is affecting your well-being, you feel you cannot manage the stress you’re experiencing, or stress has caused you to engage in or increase substance use. Seek appropriate care if stress is harming your relationships or ability to work. If you have suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 988. Lifeline chat is a service available to everyone 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In addition, if you need help locating a mental health provider, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) offers a site that can assist you at findtreatment.samhsa.gov.
People who have experienced traumatic stress (directly or indirectly experiencing life-threatening and dangerous events) should find a treatment provider who practices trauma informed care — see go.usa.gov/xvydm for details. Additionally, in times of disasters and other sorts of emergencies, the National Disaster Distress Helpline (call 1-800-985-5990 or text “TALKWITHUS” to 66746) can provide crisis counseling, emotional support, and referrals to care related to disasters and public health emergencies.
Avoiding imposter syndrome
In her book, Ditching Imposter Syndrome, author Clare Josa outlined four Ps: perfectionism, paralysis, people-pleasing, and procrastination. Any one of those traits can lead to a nagging feeling that you’re not good enough, that you don’t quite belong, and put you on the path to imposter syndrome.
Cary Kaczowka, a SWE member who received SWE’s Distinguished New Engineer award in 2023, spent her early career at Boeing, moving from New England to Seattle and eventually landing her dream job as an engineering manager. “I got to be super-technical, but I also enjoy organizational psychology and bringing out the best in people,” she said. “It was a phenomenal team culture.”
But even though Kaczowka enjoyed work and living aboard her sailboat, she ended up leaving that job. “I tried learning to love where I was,” she explained. “But for years, my heart was torn in two. I had this beautiful life aboard my sailboat on the West Coast, but my family was on the East Coast. I never felt comfortable fully planting roots. I wanted to go home.”
Kaczowka took a leave of absence to move back, regroup, and get her captain’s license, with an eye toward a potential alternate career. She is now a project manager at Raytheon Missiles and Defense Systems in Portsmouth, Rhode Island, and a sailing instructor.
“I thought mastering my boat’s maintenance would give me credibility with my peers at work and the confidence to do technical projects and project management.”
— Cary Kaczowka
“There are so many reasons to live on a boat,” Kaczowka said. “For me, a major one was to learn how to overhaul, maintain, and upgrade everything, from the engine to the rigging and systems.”
She named her boat the Sea Haven, and it was her gateway to new confidence. “The engine scared me, and that fear was rooted in my imposter syndrome,” Kaczowka said. “I thought mastering my boat’s maintenance would give me credibility with my peers at work and the confidence to do technical projects and project management.
“For example, one [work] project related to surface preparation, and in parallel I was rebedding materials on my boat,” she said. “All of the things I was talking about at work — surface contamination, keeping surfaces pristinely clean, and what materials prevent a good seal — also applied to working on the Sea Haven.”
So, the way to conquer imposter syndrome is to buy a boat? “Well, that’s what the guys do!” she said. “Why can’t we?”
Now that she had a boat, Kaczowka had another fear to conquer: sailing it. A week after buying the Sea Haven, she hosted an evening sail with women from Boeing, to force herself to leave the dock.
“I was freaking out,” she said. “I was so nervous, I forgot to open the seacock. I’m on my first sail and I’m overheating the engine! All these women engineers were saying, ‘It’s OK, we’ll figure it out.’ And we did, but then I was physically shaking, having to navigate back to the dock in the dark — another first. The Sea Haven has been years and years of firsts for me.”
After those experiences, Kaczowka felt more confident about handling challenges at her job. “You’re not going to crash your boat into a dock every day at work,” she said. “It puts things in perspective.”
Between jobs, Kaczowka met a sailing school owner who asked her to teach women about diesel engines. “Again, I didn’t think I could do it,” she said. “But her confidence in me drove my curiosity, and I found I could.”
Inspired, Kaczowka began collecting small diesel engines and created a hands-on engine curriculum for SWE’s WE Local events. She’s been expanding her workshops ever since, and at a recent conference in Hartford, her event drew a capacity crowd of 125 women.
Kaczowka hopes to continue her workshops regionally, present them at other WE Local events, and ultimately, at SWE’s annual conference. “But more than my specific workshop, I want to build more workshops that teach SWE members hands-on skills,” she said.
Though she usually teaches women, some men have joined Kaczowka’s workshops. “One electrical engineer told me, ‘This was great for building my confidence as an engineer,’” she said. “He was dealing with his own imposter syndrome. It was incredible to see his vulnerability and realize that we all have room to overcome our internal fears.”
If you’re dealing with early-, mid-, or late-career stress, SWE Career Stages affinity groups are available for members, offering conversations, support, and empowerment: swe.org/membership/affinity-groups/
• Deloitte. Women @ Work 2022: A Global Outlook, www.deloitte.com/global/en/issues/work/women-at-work-global-outlook-2022.html
• Lean In, leanin.org/women-in-the-workplace/2022
• Institute for Gender and the Economy, www.gendereconomy.org
• Ditching Imposter Syndrome by Clare Josa, ditchingimpostersyndrome.com/book/