The impact of the growing mental health ‘pandemic’ will be felt across engineering workplaces for many years after the COVID-19 crisis and economic recession is over, according to psychologists and counsellors.
A webinar jointly hosted by the Building Engineering Services Association (BESA) and the Safety and Health Engineering Partnership (SHEP) was told that 17.9 million working days were lost to work-related stress, anxiety and depression in 2019/20, according to the Labour Force Survey. That amounts to more than half of all working days lost in the UK.
The Health & Safety Executive (HSE) has reminded employers of their legal obligations to safeguard the health, safety and welfare of their staff – including their mental health – and to ensure those working from home are suitably protected from the potential impacts of loneliness and isolation.
Peter Kelly, senior psychologist with the HSE’s stress policy team, told the BESA webinar that coronavirus had disconnected people form their previously “very connected world”.
He said the Health & Safety at Work Act (1974) and the Management of Health & Safety at Work regulations (1999) clearly set out employers’ responsibilities including the need to risk assess for mental health problems. “You can’t say I didn’t know we had a mental health problem; you are required to know and to do something about it,” Kelly added.
Just as with any other health and wellbeing issue, employers are obliged to identify mental health hazards, evaluate them, act and then continue to monitor, he explained. This is especially important during the current crisis as people feel under pressure to perform, but many feel unsupported and unable to control their situation.
“Social distancing should not feel like social disconnection; people like going into work to see people,” said Kelly. “So, we need to create social connections. Even just calling up to say ‘hi’ can make a huge difference.”
SHEP’s Chris Buxton explained that the partnership had been set up to create a dialogue between the engineering sector and the HSE so that health and safety issues could be dealt with before they became serious.
“The HSE is not a police force and if we get to the point where they have to prosecute someone, we have all failed,” he told the BESA/SHEP webinar.
The webinar also heard from a firefighter who had suffered from stress and anxiety. Jonny Ward – also known as ‘the anxious fireman’ – said stress was a “normal human reaction”.
“It is not a disease. It is uncomfortable because it is designed to tell you that something is wrong, but that is natural. It prompts the fight or flight response and is part of being human. We are hard-wired to feel stress – and the modern world creates lots of situations that trigger that response.”
Ward explained that stress was an “acute response to high pressure situations” whereas anxiety “is much more insidious and is the fear of something that might happen in the future”. They are essentially the same mechanism, but anxiety is a chronic condition that can debilitate the sufferer over a very long period.
Reducing the “stigma” around mental health was key to addressing the growing problem in engineering professions and Kelly said advice and support needed to be tailored for different professions i.e. engineers had particular challenges and needed the support of a focused campaign.
“Honest and open conversations [between employers and employees] are the best solution and we need to get to that place in the work environment,” said Ward. “They can be challenging, but they are supposed to be. Ultimately, we need to be kind to each other.”
SHEP (www.shepuk.co.uk) is a forum of engineering trade associations, including BESA, which was set up in 2018 to engage, influence and inform the HSE to improve health and safety standards in the engineering sector. BESA is working through the SHEP forum to develop advice and guidance for its members.
The HSE has also made its ‘Talking Toolkit’ freely available to help managers create opportunities for concerned employees to discuss their problems and put coping strategies in place.
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