Making Restful Resilience a Priority

Taking time off is essential for well-being and to avoid burnout. These insights may help develop your strategy to take thoughtful, intentional breaks.

By Michelle Smith, SWE Editorial Board

Many people experience burnout at some point in their careers, but it seems especially prevalent for women in STEM fields. Multiple generations in the workforce have cited increasing levels of this phenomenon over the past few years. These experiences can escalate not only through tight deadlines and the need to increase work hours to meet project demands, but also by being a minority gender on the task. It can be isolating and challenging when work is at its peak.

In the late 18th century, the Industrial Revolution began making its way across the ocean from Britain to the United States. At that time, manufacturing laborers were working upward of 60 hours per week in difficult and sometimes dangerous conditions. Labor unions were on the rise, and “Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, and eight hours for what you will” became a familiar slogan.¹ In 1906, the eight-hour workday was incorporated in two large firms in the printing industry. The federal Adamson Act shortly followed, along with Henry Ford’s 40-hour workweek for his factory workers. Ford believed too many work hours negatively impacted his employees’ productivity. It wasn’t until 1940, however, that Congress revised the Fair Labor Standards Act to declare full-time work at 40 hours per week.²

Over the past half century, the typical household has undergone large changes. More than half of households now have dual-career couples.³ This is in vast contrast to 1940 when fewer than one in 10 households were dual career, allowing more time for family.⁴

Things have continued to take dramatic turns with the development of automation and computers and, recently, with the COVID-19 pandemic. Lines are easily blurred between the home and the work environment. Many people often work longer than their typical workweek because of demands and accessibility. Overwork, while attempting to balance regular living needs alongside those of a family and personal life, can often lead to feelings of exhaustion and being drained.

John Pencavel, Ph.D., an economics professor from Stanford University, discovered productivity per hour declines sharply when a person works more than 50 hours per week. After 55 hours, productivity drops so significantly that putting in any more hours would be pointless.⁵ Human capital can be adversely affected by constant use. The body and mind need time to rest for sustainable contribution.

Time away from work is viewed differently around the world. In the European Union (EU), for example, the Working Time Directive bans employees from working more than 48 hours per week, including overtime. There is also a minimum of four weeks of mandatory paid vacation in the EU and in Australia.⁶,

Workplace stress

Lack of time to recuperate from stress and fatigue can develop into feelings of burnout. The World Health Organization recognizes this in the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) as an occupational phenomenon.⁸

In the ICD, burnout is defined as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:

  • Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
  • Increased mental distance from one’s job or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job
  • Reduced professional efficacy”

So, how can one attempt to combat workplace stress from moving to these stages of burnout? It can be as simple as taking time for breaks and rest. While it may seem less productive, taking breaks can enable stress and cortisol levels to decrease, ultimately helping with focus and enabling new ideas to transpire when returning to a project. Taking a break, however, excludes such activities as checking social media or emails that may have popped into the inbox while working on other tasks.

A July 2022 Harvard Business Review article underlines the importance of recovery for fields characterized by extreme pressure, where errors can be costly or catastrophic:

“Consider a pilot on a critical mission or an athlete who has their entire career hanging on a single performance. These people learn quickly that physical and mental recovery is crucial for achieving and sustaining high performance under pressure. Pilots are even officially required to recover for defined time periods during and between duty to maintain safety standards.”⁹

Similar requirements can be true for additional occupations outside of engineering, such as nursing and trucking. So, with the analytical prowess needed for engineering on a workday basis, shouldn’t we listen to the science?

Interestingly enough, in past years academic institutions were at the helm of investing in the workforce by providing time off. Harvard was the first place of higher education in the United States to offer sabbatical leave for its faculty around the time of the Industrial Revolution. Cornell University and Wellesley College, the first colleges to offer women leave, followed shortly before the 20th century.¹⁰ Transfer to industry, and some, but not all businesses offer sabbaticals as part of their benefits today. Others use slower periods for intentional time off to ease business fluctuations.

Despite cultural and geographical differences in a global setting, thoughtful, intentional breaks can be an asset for any engineer. Taking the necessary downtime, whether it be multiple breaks throughout the day, additional time for family, or something longer, such as sabbaticals and vacations, positively contributes to wellness. For me, ensuring I include adequate sleep, take moments to journal my gratitude, and allow time for meditation are grounding as well. Doing so has granted me periods to recharge and consider all the positive possibilities within reach.

It is up to each of us to be our own advocates in health and for the work environment to support time off as an investment. Research confirms this “flexibility” as a need, and for organizations to uphold “interesting and engaging engineering work, advancement potential, and respectful workplaces” to attract and retain engineers.¹¹ As contributors to diverse teams, women bring their unique perspectives to problem-solving in all facets of engineering, and each of us can shine more brightly from well-deserved, restful resilience.

1. Brockell, G. (2021, Sept. 6). That Time America Almost Had a 30-Hour Workweek. The Washington Post (online):

2. Ward, M. and Lebowitz, S. (2022, Nov. 28). 100 UK Companies Are Scrapping the 40-Hour Workweek. Here’s How the Standard Work Schedule Became So Popular in the First Place. Business Insider (online):

3. Margolis, J. (2021, Oct. 11). Should We End the 40-Hour Workweek? Psychology Today (online):

4. Wittenberg-Cox, A. (2020, Oct. 13). The Rise, Resilience, and Challenges of 2-Career Couples. Forbes (online):

5. Sehgal, K. and Deepak, C. (2019, March 20). Stanford Professor: Working This Many Hours a Week Is Basically Pointless. Here’s How to Get More Done by Doing Less. CNBC (online):

6. Johanson, M. (2014, Nov. 6). Life in a No-Vacation Nation. British Broadcasting Company (online):

7. Your Europe (2022, June 23). Working Hours (online):

8. World Health Organization (2019, May 28). Burn-out an “Occupational Phenomenon”: International Classification of Diseases (Press release, online):

9. Meister, A., Cheng, B., Dael, N., and Krings, F. (2022, July 5). How to Recover from Work Stress, According to Science. Harvard Business Review (online):

10. Eells, W. and Hollis, E. (1962). Sabbatical Leave in American Higher Education: Origin, Early History, and Current Practices. U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. Bulletin, No. 17.

11. Fouad, N., Kozlowski, M., Singh, R., Linneman, N., Schams, S., and Weber, K. (2019, Sept. 23). Exploring the Odds: Gender Differences in Departing the Engineering Profession. Journal of Career Assessment 28(3). (online):


Michelle Smith (she/her) is a value analysis/value engineering engineer for Pentair in the Water Solutions Segment. She graduated from the University of South Florida with a Bachelor of Science in mechanical engineering. A SWE member since 2008, she has enjoyed working on outreach committees and currently serves on the editorial board.