Poor mental health outcomes are prevalent in the construction sector and COVID-19 has induced an environment of uncertainty.
The statistics around mental health in engineering are chilling, but the real-life stories bring home the hard truth of a terrible affliction.
Take Gerry Doyle, for instance. From the outside he has a perfect life. Doyle is married to a loving partner, has five wonderful children, and is the respected CEO of engineering design firm Tonkin.
Yet, even prior to the COVID-19 crisis, several mornings a week, the first thought that entered his mind the moment he woke was, “Damn it, I didn’t die last night”.
Then there’s Adrian Daniels, Head of Workplace Health and Safety at Hydro Tasmania, who leads A New Mindset, the organisation’s award-winning mental health and suicide prevention program in partnership with OzHelp Tasmania Foundation.
In 2019, Daniels was travelling around the company’s remote power stations, speaking with colleagues about the program. One day, after his presentation, he was approached by a staff member.
“He was clearly a very strong man, standing over six feet tall, and he said that he wanted to thank me,” Daniels recalled. “He was very genuine in his thanks and appreciation. All he said by way of explanation was that programs like A New Mindset are what keep him safe. It gave me goosebumps.”
And what about the statistics? Actually, they show the stories above 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 coronavirus has added greater uncertainty to the security of jobs and income.
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.
Smashing the stigma
“I think I’m probably one of the lucky ones,” said Gerry Doyle FIEAust CPEng, 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, 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.
It’s these repercussions that Hydro Tasmania’s A New Mindset program is targeting.
“It’s about how we reduce the stigma,” Daniels explained. “We want to make sure people feel supported and feel comfortable to be vulnerable, and ask for the support and care that they need.”
How is this achieved? More than 70 per cent of staff members at Hydro Tasmania have completed a suicide-prevention awareness training session called Looking After Your Mates.
This coincided with work around diversity and inclusion, which helped to demonstrate and grow the organisation’s culture of support and acceptance.
The Looking After Your Mates course, Daniels said, taught his colleagues “the value of curiosity without judgement”.
It helped people to learn what to look out for or to identify things that don’t seem quite right.
“When we see certain patterns of behaviour that we can’t quite put our finger on, we now know not to automatically fall into judgement and assume that person is a little bit strange or weird or angry all the time,” he said.
“We’ve now been taught to approach that person to ask whether everything is okay. And if not, how can we help to support them?”
Work colleagues are not expected to provide professional support. Instead, they’re trained to refer people in need of help on to particular support mechanisms and programs.
The Swinburne University research statistics suggest work-related stress is a factor in the prevalence of poor mental health, with 64 per cent of respondents working more than 50 hours per week.
“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.
Alesha Printz, General Manager of Engineers Australia Victoria, strongly agrees.
“There are increasing demands on staff, including long work hours, pressure and increasing expectations,” Printz said. “There used to be more downtime. You used to be able to get a break between projects. And there are so many mega-projects these days. Engineers go from one to the next, working long hours.”
The study by Swinburne University revealed that engineers and other construction professionals have unsatisfactory levels of work-life balance and feel they have little control over how much work they do or when they have to do it. The report said the industry’s levels exceed population norms by 40 per cent for depression, 38 per cent for anxiety and 37 per cent for stress. Of course, COVID-19 has only exacerbated this issue.
“We know that we’ve got a real problem,” Printz said. “As an industry we need to start unpacking the problem of long hours and constant stress. We need to get real about why people are working such long hours, and ask why we’re not using our engineering resources more efficiently?”
Printz illustrates her point by telling the story of an early role as a project manager.
On her first day her manager said to her, “Everybody who works on this project begins smoking cigarettes and gets divorced”.
“Many engineers leave construction because of the long hours,” she said.
“Not only do long hours cause mental health issues, they’re also incompatible with family. We lose good people and, for those who stay, mental health becomes a risk factor. It hurts individuals and it hurts the industry, and it’s time for a change.”
Five-point plan for employers
- Train staff around the prevalence and warning signs of mental illness. Create a safe culture for discussion of the problem.
- Investigate sources of work-related stress; look at strategies to minimise or eliminate. 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.