Thursday, 7 May 2020

The Case for the Engineering Community to Take Action on Mental Health

Bertie Knight, Cohort 2018

Given the restrictions on our day-to-day lives at the moment, our collective mental health is unfortunately in a very vulnerable place, which is why I figured now would be a good time to write about it. Many people who we meet day-to-day can struggle with mental ill health, even without us realising it. In fact, according to NHS England, roughly one in four adults will experience a mental illness at some point each year in the UK.[1]

Here, I share the reasons I think workers in the engineering community can be susceptible to mental health problems, and what I think the engineering community should do about it.

1. Engineering is currently an industry dominated by men

The sad reality is that only around 12% of engineers in the UK today are women. Though this is certainly not the condition I like to see in the engineering community, it’s still what we’re currently dealing with.

Data on mental health across genders show that women are more likely than men to show symptoms of mental health issues, and men are less likely to seek medical help.[2] This is why men account for 78% of recorded suicide cases in the UK of people aged 15 or over. A strong suggested reason for this is linked to masculine norms among men.[3] Because men are less likely to access psychological therapy or disclose their issues to family and friends, they become more likely to resort to potentially harmful means of coping such as drugs and alcohol.[4] Since the vast majority of engineers in the UK are men, the issue of people bottling up their problems is going to be more prevalent than in industries with more gender balance. Therefore, I believe stronger mental health infrastructure could do the engineering community a lot of good.

2. The engineering community is about to be a lot younger

In my previous blogs about a talk I gave last September and the reasons I think aspiring engineering leaders should get politically active, I wrote on why the engineering community needs to get considerably bigger in order to tackle the climate crisis. If we’re going to meet the need to recruit substantially more engineers, then the obvious strategy would be to recruit more young people through apprenticeships and universities. In the optimistic view that this is what the UK and rest of the global north are about to do, then the engineering community is naturally about to look a whole lot younger in just the next few years.

Most entrants to education and training at the moment belong to generation Z - that is, people born after 1997. Lots has already been written about the poor mental health state of the millennial generation which precedes generation Z.[5] Worse still, over the past 15 years Britain has sadly seen a 48% rise in anxiety and depression among its children. That’s an especially unfortunate reality when coupled with the fact that roughly half of mental health conditions are established by age 14 and three quarters by age 24. With this in mind, if the engineering community is about to welcome a big influx of young people, it’s clearly more important now than ever before to have systems in place to aid with their mental health.

3. Engineering can be a Stressful Job

Although stress in and of itself isn’t a mental health condition, it’s still closely connected to depression, anxiety, self-harm and suicide, as well as physical health concerns such as cardiovascular disease. Of course there are loads of career choices out there that can be stressful. Any jobs involving tight schedules, long hours, and difficult clients are naturally going to have more consequences with regards to mental health, so engineering certainly isn’t unique in this respect. It’s also worth noting that the amount of stressfulness that engineering work will bring is of course a function of what your job involves, what discipline you are in, how your colleagues and superiors treat you, how well trained you are, and what support is available, etc.

From understanding deliverables, to paperwork, to simply having to do lots of different things all at once, engineering can be tough. It’s also a career that can involve a lot of time spent in front of screens emitting blue light, which has been linked to problems with mental health and disruption to circadian rhythms.[6] With the understanding that engineering can be a stressful career, surely there’s a risk that engineering leaders need to recognise. It’s also in the interests of the engineering sector to do this, because engineers who are well, physically and mentally, can do a better job.

What Can the Engineering Community Do?

Right now, I have three ideas that I would like to see implemented more broadly across the sector, even if they may already exist in some companies. First of all though, I think that this is something that professional bodies should consider commissioning research into. There’s unfortunately little, if any, research out there specifically on mental health in engineering, but at the end of the day engineers are meant to be problem solvers and mental health remains a pretty big problem on a societal scale. So if there’s anything that the engineering community can do to make the mental health outlook of its members more positive, I still think it’s something that’s worth pursuing.

My Ideas:

Mental Health Days
- Minimum 2 days annually for engineers to take off if they are feeling overwhelmed or burned out as is being pushed for by the mental health foundation.[7]

Workplace Openness and Awareness - Have more employers who are educated in seeing the signs of mental health conditions, as well as introducing strategies for helping employees seek help.

Counselling/Therapy Subsidies - Subsidies from engineering firms to incentivise employees to seek private therapy rather than having to wait months on the NHS.[8]

If you would like me to go into more detail about what these ideas are, how we can leverage/implement them and what their effects could be, then please leave a comment and/or share this blog to show that you are interested to find out! I’d love to hear from people about what they think the engineering community can and has already done on the mental health front!

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