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Volunteer work: juggling passion and burnout

Written by: Sophie Warwick

While I was a structural engineer and co-founder of a Non-Profit organization, I often found myself on the verge of burnout while juggling two different callings that I was both extremely passionate about. On one hand, I was a dedicated structural engineer with a full workload, but on the other I was an advocate for gender equity in the workplace – change I needed in my role as an engineer. Navigating all of work and life’s demands while balancing impactful volunteer work is very rewarding, but it can also be extremely tiring. To learn more, I sat down with Elaine Samuel, engineer and Past President of Society of Women Engineers (SWE) Toronto, and Mikayla Morrey, engineer and former Sponsorship Director of Women in Consulting Engineering (WCE) Vancouver, and now a founding Co-Chair of Women in Consulting Engineering (WCE) Calgary.

Tell me about your career path and your role as an engineer.

Elaine: I did both my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in civil and environmental engineering at Western University. After completing my Master’s in 2016 I took a few months off to travel and then started job hunting when I got back. I started my current job as a consulting engineer in early 2017 where I mostly do engineering studies, modelling, and master plans for municipal wastewater systems.

Mikayla: I attended Queen’s University for my Bachelor’s of Applied Science. After graduation I moved back home to Vancouver and worked for three years designing the structural components of electrical substations. I was looking for a more challenging opportunity, so I decided to take the leap and change industries. I currently work in the WSP buildings group in Vancouver as a structural EIT and greatly enjoy the fast paced, challenging, and creative projects we deliver for our clients!

How did you first get involved with volunteering and what inspired you to volunteer in gender equity work in your industry?

Elaine: Building community and supporting women have always been themes throughout my time in engineering. Back at Western I had been involved in the women in engineering group and this continued when I left university. My initial involvement in SWE Toronto started by attending events in their first year (2017-2018), not volunteering. At the time, my friend and roommate Olivia Gillis and I were having lots of living room discussions about being young women in engineering. We started a blog called EngGirlProblems (EGP) where we shared some experiences and then expanded to writing articles about common issues women may face in the workplace and some approaches to address them. EGP was more of an attempt to build an online community where other women in engineering could discuss tough challenges with others. In 2019 the SWE Toronto group approached us to run communications and marketing for the group and we accepted. SWE TO was growing really quickly that year and I enjoyed the group so much that I stayed on to become Vice President (2020-2021) and President (2021-2022).

Mikayla: When I moved back to Vancouver after graduating, I suddenly found myself alone. After being surrounded by a tight knit engineering community for four years, I was struggling to adapt to my new corporate 8-5 job. As one of the two female engineers in my department I had no senior women to provide mentorship, nor a community that could relate to the unique challenges women face in the engineering consulting industry. During this time I attended the first WCE Winter Social, and half an hour in I knew I had found something special. The energy in the room was electric, being able to connect with so many women who could empathize and relate to similar experiences was incredibly validating and comforting. I knew I wanted to be a part of an organization that created the opportunity for this community to exist, so I applied to the board and was appointed Sponsorship Director.

Burnout is becoming more prevalent in the workforce and has been especially exasperated in the last few years as a result of the pandemic. How do you navigate juggling a busy, and I imagine often high-stress career, while running a successful non-profit?

Elaine: Right now I am technically Past President for SWE TO, which is more of an advisory support role for the current board so my volunteering commitments are much lower than past years.

I have always kept a fairly busy schedule of extracurriculars and volunteering so I evaluate what’s on my plate about twice a year. I reflect on my goals and things I feel passionate about and pick one or two focus areas like SWE and dance to do for the year. I have over-loaded in the past and have learned (the hard way) that I don’t have to do everything, or everything at the same time. So when opportunities come up, I re-assess and make sure my focus areas are ones that are fun and work towards my goals. Given everyone else is in engineering, the volunteer group at SWE TO is very understanding of the pressures in our careers and the ebbs and flows that consulting can bring. I was able to manage tough weeks by sharing boundaries or upcoming deadlines with the team, letting them know ahead of time when I would have more or less time for meetings in a given week. Communication is key!

Mikayla: Managing the workload and responsibilities of my engineering career and my role as Co-Chair of WCE Calgary has been challenging to say the least. It’s like learning a new skill with a steep learning curve, the first few months are the most difficult and it feels so overwhelming. With time I’ve learned it’s not realistic to constantly expect perfection in all my roles. It’s a balancing game, and it’s not always possible to keep everything in perfect equilibrium. Sometimes my engineering projects demand most of my attention, while other times I need to invest more time and energy into WCE. I’ve learned to lean on my team when I need support and not to expect myself to do both jobs simultaneously. I still find myself a victim of burnout during busy times; but delegating, taking breaks, and having a supportive community allows me to tackle the challenges my roles present.

What inspires you to keep going when you feel fatigued juggling two important and impactful roles? How do you ensure you allocate space and time for your own needs and hobbies?

Elaine: At the peak of my volunteering time demands, I would block off times where I would do SWE meetings or tasks. I had a dedicated evening per week, which was somewhat flexible, and I tried to limit or schedule calls to times within that evening. In my free time I dance, so I had blocked off Tuesday evenings for example as a day I wouldn’t schedule any volunteer calls or tasks. I encouraged and supported my board to take vacations from volunteering as long as it was clearly communicated ahead of time. I choose my activities carefully and will say no or wind down on commitments if something else comes up that is more aligned with my needs. I make sure when I let go of commitments that there is a replacement, and I am not leaving the group unsupported.

Mikayla: Juggling the two roles can be exhausting, both physically and mentally. Especially during the pandemic when I was doing everything in isolation, the exhaustion was amplified. What keeps me going is remembering the feeling I experience at every WCE event. The energy of being surrounded by a community of diverse women, connecting through shared experiences, is invigorating. It makes every late night, every email, and every meeting so worthwhile. As long as other women feel the same energy and excitement when a part of the WCE community, I remain dedicated to facilitating the space for it to happen.

I am still learning how to manage balancing my own life and my professional commitments. I am a strong believer of making weekends, especially Saturdays, my time. I mute all business and WCE notifications and take the time to recharge with my family and friends. It provides a much needed break from busy weeks, and I can go back to work Monday refreshed.


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