Warning – this article discusses suicide.
The current global challenges have induced an environment of uncertainty, exacerbating mental health issues across many industry sectors. This Men’s Health Week, it’s time to talk about it.
Talking about mental health statistics can be confronting, but for many, numbers don’t mean much on their own. It’s the real-life stories that highlight the mental health challenges many men face but don’t discuss.
Engineers Australia has hosted an Encouraging conversations on mental health within the engineering community webinar to normalise talking about mental health. One speaker Gerry Doyle FIEAust CPEng openly shared his mental health journey. Doyle is married to a loving partner, has five wonderful children, and is the respected CEO of engineering design firm Tonkin.
Yet several mornings a week, the first thought that entered his mind the moment he woke was, “Damn it, I didn’t die last night”.
During the webinar, Doyle voiced that he thought the world would be better off without him. “And there are still lots of times where I think that is true. But I’ve got to the place, over the past 10 years of dealing with depression and anxiety, that I can stand here in front of you and genuinely say that because I have lived with this for the last 28 years, I am a better human being.”
But stories like Doyle’s are not unusual.
A 2018 Swinburne University study called Measuring the psychological impact of work-related stress and related occupational factors in the Australian infrastructure construction industry, said the lifetime prevalence of depression in Australia is 16.6 per cent, but in construction, mining and utilities it’s around 25 per cent.
Levels of “mood disturbance” in these industries are 2.5 times higher than the normal population, and 45 per cent of respondents met the criteria for being burnt out. These numbers have likely risen since the COVID-19 pandemic and the current uncertainties the world is facing.
It’s the same globally. A report from October 2019 by EqualEngineers, called Masculinity in Engineering, said more than one third of engineers in the UK (37.2 per cent) describe their mental health as only “fair” or “poor”.
More than 61 per cent of engineers said their physical or emotional problems disrupted their normal social activities; 22 per cent had taken time off work as a result of emotional or mental health problems; and 89 per cent of those who felt they had a disability believed it was invisible to others.
Most concerning was the fact that 22.5 per cent of engineers have considered harming themselves or taking their own lives, with men 3.5 times more likely to have had such thoughts.
Leading from the top down
“I think I’m probably one of the lucky ones,” said Doyle, after opening up about his battle with depression, which stretches back to when he was a teenager.
He has spoken publicly about his situation in order to help educate the industry, including as part of Engineers Australia’s webinar, and chaired Consult Australia’s Striving for Mentally Healthy Workplaces program.
“I’m in a position, and have the support around me, that enables me to stand up and speak about it — and I can say what I’m going through without fear of repercussions,” he said.
But it’s not always the case for everyone.
During the webinar, an engineering student while grateful to Engineers Australia for providing a safe space to normalise talking about mental health, expressed concerns that speaking out about mental health could be met with stigma in some workplaces.
“If you are in an organisation that doesn’t know how to deal with mental health, move,” Doyle said during the webinar. “I believe there are workplaces out there where mental health is taken seriously. People are developing more of an understanding of what the triggers for someone struggling are and how business can support that.”
Kerrie Adaway, Director and Principal Consultant at Lysander, who joined Doyle in the Encouraging conversations on mental health within the engineering community webinar, believes developing a workplace culture where people feel comfortable talking about mental health starts from the top down.
“For people to be able to receive the support they need and to be in an environment where they can put their hand up, it’s certainly driven by leaders like Gerry. Someone who can see there’s a need to be able to create a sense of authenticity and vulnerability at work,” she said in the webinar.
Adaway has spent the past two years developing a preventative approach to mental health using the Swinburne University research as a base. Adaway and her team identified six factors that were contributing to the mental health crisis in the industry: pressure, influence, promotion, relationship, role and change.
“In every instance when you look at this list, these things are influenced by leadership or culture at play. By engaging people in these areas and giving them the opportunity of having a voice … people can proactively come together to address mental health challenges they are experiencing, but also address the factors that are creating the mental health challenges in the first place,” Adaway said.
“If you look at the statistics, the construction industry, which encompasses some of the engineering industry, is one of the highest-incident places for mental illness. It’s related to the pressure, the stress, and the demanding nature of the job,” Doyle said.
Long hours and constant stress are real problems that Engineers Australia is looking to help address. In their policy directions paper Enhancing productivity in infrastructure delivery, the industry peak body supports calls for a blackout on tenders during the Christmas holiday period. A blackout would allow engineers and project teams time for recuperation and reconnection with family and friends.An action that recognises the wellbeing of project teams is vital to a project’s success.
Five-point plan for employers to encourage mental health conversations
- Train staff on the prevalence and warning signs of mental illness. Create a safe culture for discussion of the problem.
- Investigate sources of work-related stress and look at strategies to minimise or eliminate it. Support staff to identify and manage personal sources of stress in their lives.
- Be aware of the cost of mental illness to the business.
- Understand the benefits, in terms of talent attraction, staff retention, community value, and more, of positive mental health practices in the business.
- Work with industry bodies and mental health institutes to continue to further the cause, both within and outside your organisation.
A version of this article was first published in January 2021 and has been updated with new information.