Comment: Engineering better mental health

The engineering sector has paved the way in creating innovative solutions to a series of intricate problems for decades. It has now turned its attention to supporting positive mental health – but is it equipped to tackle what is clearly one of the biggest challenges facing both businesses and individuals right now? asks Jon Walton, UKI EH&S manager at Air Products.

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It’s not surprising that this results-focused industry isn’t alone in feeling the external pressures affecting their workforce, and the importance of understanding, supporting and prioritising employees’ mental wellbeing. The need, in a post-pandemic world, to support employees with their mental health has never been stronger. Greater wellbeing means a happier, healthier and more productive workforce. The engineering industry at large has taken progressive steps towards talking more openly and making positive changes to the way mental health is approached - but there’s always more that can be done.

Mental health is something that should be considered every day. However, as we enter this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week (9-15 May), it’s a timely reminder for reflection and for us all to re-evaluate how we’re tackling this issue to support our colleagues across the sector. 

Invest in workforce wellbeing

One way we can improve our practices is by considering how we approach talking about mental health, especially in the workplace. Mental health often carries a negative stigma, which makes it harder for employees to open up. By listening to our teams’ needs, there’s a real opportunity to make a difference and change the way we think about and support positive mental health. Whether this is done through peer-to-peer facilitated conversations, weekly check-ins with management teams or mentor programmes, open and honest communication is one core way to remove the stigma and understand the individual needs for each employee.

Open communication around mental health is not only the right thing to do, but it also benefits the whole company. Enterprise Research Centre published a report in 2020 where it surveyed around 1,900 employers and found a direct link between productivity and mental health sickness absence. The report found that 55 per cent of these absences had an impact on company performance.  

Identifying triggers

The Covid-19 pandemic has undoubtedly put our physical and mental health to the test. Not only the devastating impact of losing loved ones or not being able to see friends and family, but also the implications in our professional lives– and how this still affects some people today.

The almost overnight shift from conventional ways of working to stricter workplace rules and then the transition back to the ‘normal’ working environment might have been challenging to some people. While lockdown and social distancing measures have been removed for some time now, it’s important to be mindful that some people may still not feel completely comfortable in social or working environments, and ensure that any anxieties or triggers are recognised and supported, in order to help everyone to feel and be their best at work.

When talking about mental health, it’s almost impossible not to acknowledge men’s mental health in particular. This has gained a lot of attention in recent years – and rightly so, as the suicide rates among men supersede women. As engineering is a male dominated sector, it’s an issue that can affect a lot of people in our industry.  

In 2019, a report titled ‘Masculinity in Engineering’ from Equal Engineers found that 37 per cent of engineers would describe their mental health as fair or poor, and over a fifth have had to take time off work to focus on their mental health.  

The report surveyed over 800 engineers and found that toxic masculinity creates a huge problem, with one in four believing society expects men to display showily or aggressively masculine characteristics.

The report also emphasised the importance of ‘creating parity of esteem between physical safety and mental health’ in the workplace. Air Products believes that supporting mental wellbeing, as identified in its Care framework, is integral to success and that not putting challenges in silos, but instead recognising that they are of equal importance and interlinked, is key.

Looking forward

The engineering industry is ever changing and strives towards more open communication around mental health. As engineers, we love finding solutions to problems and the pursuit of positive mental health is an incredibly important issue for us all to solve.

We need to access the right tools to drive ingenuity and find creative ways that truly resonate with people and genuinely help to tackle mental health in the workplace – for the benefit of both our personal and professional lives. The key to a healthy, happy and productive workplace is to shine a positive light on mental health, in order to create a better future for us all.

Jon Walton, UKI EH&S manager at Air Products