Amid growing concerns over isolation, job insecurity and bereavement, the lockdown has sparked a surge in serious mental health issues among first-time patients. Stress, depression and anxiety have risen recently, especially with engineers continuing to work on essential manufacturing lines.
And, with news that more than a fifth of engineers take time off due to mental health, Alan Lusty, the CEO and founder of adi Group, a national multidisciplinary engineering business, argues that, while the pandemic rightly shines a spotlight on physical health, this Men’s Health Week, his industry should step up its game in addressing an issue that can affect us all in such trying times – mental health.
UK engineering is exemplary. We’re the problem-solvers. We’re the people that make things work. Our predecessors drove the Industrial Revolution and were pivotal role in building this great nation into a torchbearer so many others would follow.
And, I have to say that, although I’ve not been surprised in the slightest, the things I’ve seen in recent weeks have thrown into sharp relief how important engineers are in keeping society ticking over in some semblance of normality.
But we are not without fault – myself and adi Group included.
COVID-19 has put a keen focus on physical health. There is so much at stake and we’re all at risk. Maintaining social distancing is vital, along with taking scores of other careful steps to minimise our potential exposure to a virus wreaking havoc on humanity.
In many ways, British engineering has come up with new solutions that safeguard the public’s physical health. Sometimes complex, often quite simple, but each one is yet more evidence of our individual talent and of our collective invention.
But, despite our problem-solving endeavours and to add to the conversation about the coronavirus at the moment, this Men’s Health Week, I’d like to highlight a question to which, I believe, British engineering hasn’t been so effective at finding answers – mental health.
Change in thinking
Now, don’t get me wrong, much of the stigma attached to mental health has been removed in the last few years by greater acceptance. It is no longer the taboo it was in my younger days and people are more prepared to speak openly about their experiences.
UK engineering has without doubt moved with society and – in varying degrees – taken steps to accommodate mental health issues. But my argument is that we have to go further, that we have to get serious about it. We need to move from cure to prevention. And that’s no mean feat, I’ll admit.
Engineering is one of those strange sectors. There are so many misperceptions we have to battle against, for example, in bridging the glaring skills gap facing this country. It’s no longer about dirty work environments or greasy overalls and we offer high skill, high pay jobs that can be incredibly rewarding.
But the traditional sense that we are male-dominated remains largely true. While I would argue that needs to change – and I do elsewhere – it’s still the case that emotions can be bottled up in engineering and that people can pay a price.
My business, adi Group, has been fortunate. We lived through three recessions in the last 30 years and somehow we have emerged stronger from each. By no means has any of it been a walk in the park and I saw first-hand the stress and anxiety each downturn inflicted on colleagues and industry partners.
This time, however, the stakes are raised. Yes, there is great pressure on our economy but it comes as a consequence of an enormous public health crisis. Add those two dimensions together and you have a perfect storm for mental health.
I’m not for one minute downplaying the physical impact of the virus. Sadly, tens of thousands have died and likely more will. Thousands more have suffered terrible illness and relied on our wonderful NHS to pull them through.
But, in the middle of it all, the added pressure on our mental health takes its toll. The grief, the fear, the loss. Prolonged confinement for those shielding or furloughed. Worries over our jobs and our businesses, unprecedented work challenges for those lucky enough to still be in employment.
With any luck, the virus may not touch us all in the physical sense. But I’m willing to bet it will have – or perhaps already has had – some kind of impact on the mental health of every one of us. And that should be our wake-up call.
While we’re all now acutely aware of how to protect ourselves, our co-workers and other members of the public from a virus, I believe this period should be a watershed, washing away once and for all the ignorance around mental health and inspiring us to get ahead of it as an issue and as an industry.
Upping our game
As engineers, we’re as well-equipped with the imagination and the ingenuity as anyone to do just that. Indeed, many businesses I know, including our own, have put systems in place to offer help and guidance to our most important assets – our people.
But, I think it’s fair to say, there is still a great deal of work to be done. This pandemic and the horrors it has brought with it can teach us many things. One of the most significant lessons, for me though, is that we are all exposed to physical and mental health risk.
When the proverbial hit the fan earlier in the year, our responsibilities to each other at the level of physical health became all too clear. We took steps and we found solutions to new problems.
By now, however, it is also very clear to me that I – along with my business and the rest of us – also have real responsibilities on mental health. And, I believe, this Men’s Health Week is a great opportunity for everyone in UK engineering to get serious about it.