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FEATURE: 'We carry on until we feel broken' – survey shows stress at crisis levels

Joseph Flaig

There is more conversation about mental health and well-being than ever before – but do companies need a more fundamental approach for a happier, healthier workforce? (Credit: Shutterstock)
There is more conversation about mental health and well-being than ever before – but do companies need a more fundamental approach for a happier, healthier workforce? (Credit: Shutterstock)

“It got to the stage where I couldn’t take it. I froze in the meeting, started shaking and I had to come home.”

Mike had been pushed too far. Under pressure to sign off an energy budget cut he saw as “impossible,” he had a breakdown. His GP signed him off work and restricted him from returning unless the employer put in place a recovery plan and took him out of the stressful environment. In all, he was out for three months. 

“The whole experience completely shattered my confidence,” he says. “I find stress, even now, difficult to deal with.”

The former consulting engineer occasionally has flashbacks to being kidnapped in India while on an earlier job. But, he says, “it didn’t have the same impact as this experience later in my life”. 

Mike is one of 163 readers who took part in a Professional Engineering survey on mental health and well-being, which reveals shocking levels of stress among engineers. More than three-quarters (77.8%) said their work is often stressful, while over half (53.7%) said workplace stress has had a negative effect on their mental health or well-being. 

People experience stress in different ways, but certain symptoms came up countless times. Sleepless nights are common, while many said family and friends bore the brunt of anxiety and anger arising at work. “People closest to you tend to bear the snappy remarks or the lost temper,” said one senior manager. 

Feelings of failure led to a downward spiral of depression for some, while the reported physical health problems included dizziness, dermatitis and haemorrhoids. One person lost spatial awareness of their own body, feeling “16 feet off the ground” while cycling. Another reader was even advised that stress was the leading cause of their blood cancer. 

‘We carry on until we feel broken’ 

While serious personal and health issues bleed into engineers’ everyday lives, the most immediate impact is often at work. 67% of people surveyed said they have gone to work despite feeling emotionally or mentally unwell, while 42.3% said poor mental health or emotional well-being has affected their work. 

Common effects included people feeling unable to make decisions after having the confidence knocked out of them, and some struggled with meetings because of anxiety. It can also lead to an unhealthy approach to working hours, potentially making the problem worse. 

“If you have a bunch of stressed-out people who don’t know how to explain, or they are too ashamed to announce they have an issue, that can lead to presenteeism – being there far more than they are supposed to,” says Jo-Anne Tait, academic strategic lead and PhD researcher on the mental health of engineers at Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen. 

Difficulty discussing mental health and well-being with colleagues and managers was reported by 38% of survey respondents. 

Workplace stress statistics

“Engineers do have a habit of burying stuff,” says Matthew, a project engineering manager who had depression at a previous workplace. “We just put our heads down and carry on until we feel broken.” 

He adds: “Engineers work to stressful deadlines sometimes, and people just focus on delivering the product rather than looking after themselves.”

For some, a ‘macho’ or masculine working environment makes it difficult to be open. “There is sometimes an attitude that one should ‘just suck it up’,” says a principal engineer, while another member adds: “I think more people are suffering than we would imagine.”

Action plan

With stress at crisis levels, the survey showed a growing awareness among employers. Companies often offer Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs), including assessments, counselling and referral services. 

Mental health charity Mind offers an online tool to create Wellness Action Plans, drawn up by managers and employees to enable conversations about mental health and identify potential triggers. The charity says managers should encourage staff to speak to GPs when needed, and says other practical solutions include flexible working hours, buddy systems and exercise classes.   

Some advocate a more radical shift. Dr Mark McBride-Wright runs the EqualEngineers organisation. After carrying out a survey of 875 engineers which found that men were three-and-a-half-times more likely to have self-harmed or considered suicide than women, he now runs training sessions at companies to encourage men to join in the mental health conversation. 

Taking inspiration from the “massive” changes to safety culture over the past 40 years, McBride-Wright thinks companies should approach mental health with a similar system to the stringent health and safety measures that have reduced the number of workplace accidents. He encourages businesses to become more ‘joined-up’ and to adopt a similar framework to the warning signs and clear instructions that help prevent accidents at every workplace. 

“Industry has become safer because we have developed a culture where people can say when they see things that are unsafe,” he says. The same approach to mental health could save lives. 

Cause and effect

Although employers are more likely to offer assistance than ever before, surveyed members did not always think it was useful and some criticised it as ‘lip service’ to the issue. A more fundamental and concerning trend was people being put in ‘impossible situations’ by employers, where they were unable to complete tasks within constraints. 

One member says their stress was “largely due to executives not being prepared to accept the limitations of the organisation, and hence making unrealistic delivery demands… it is obviously difficult to be positively motivated when the challenge placed before you is insurmountable, and your seniors appear not able to accept that. It would be more effective to tackle the sources of stress – lack of contingency, poor planning, overly-optimistic executive forecasting – than spend even more of our hard-earned time carrying out tick-box exercises.”

The same story was repeated many times. Many felt companies focus on the effects of stress rather than the causes, such as cuts to resources. “If you tell them it’s difficult to do something or even it can’t be done, they don’t want to hear it,” says one project manager. 

Listen to the engineers

To provide relief and prevent a perpetual cycle of employee burn-out, companies should consider a more engineering-led and sensitive approach to difficult tasks. People are a company’s most valuable resource, and should be protected as such.

“Employers should see promoting good mental health as more than a legal obligation, and part of being a responsible employer is sending a clear message to staff that they are valued and appreciated,” says Emma Mamo, head of workplace well-being at Mind. “Tackling the causes of stress and poor mental health at work will benefit all staff.”

The solutions are not always clear, but a good start for any boss dealing with a potentially difficult situation is to listen to the engineers. Preventing stress before it happens and treating staff with compassion and support will create better businesses and happier, healthier workers.

IMechE support

The Institution of Mechanical Engineers helps members and their families with counselling, social visits and other specialised support. To apply for assistance or to help, contact the team on 020 7304 6816 or email supportnetwork@imeche.org


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Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. 

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