Understanding the Mental Health Needs of Engineers and Creating a Culture of Compassion at Work

As a profession, engineering has always been characterized by its rigour, emphasis on productivity, resiliency and hard work. Only in recent years, after seeing the impact of this on engineering students and graduates, have institutions begun to shift their emphasis on mental health. In collaboration with Spin Master and the University of Toronto, OSPE hosted a virtual panel discussion focused on mental health in engineering, its importance, and the challenges of addressing it in workplace settings or institutions. Shivani Nathoo, EIT, who served as moderator, was joined by Dr. Alison Olechowski, PhD, Assistant Professor, Mechanical Engineering at the University of Toronto, Herman Chan, P.Eng., Director, Product Development at SpinMaster, and Laura Milsom, Director, People and Culture and Modern Niagara Group Inc.  

What barriers are there to improving mental health in the workplace?

Panelist, Laura Milsom, explains that some of the primary barriers to improving mental health in the workplace and in institutions include the lingering stigma of coming forward with a mental health concern, the very way in which mental health is viewed and understood, and the ability—or lack thereof— of employers to respond appropriately. Milsom explains that despite how much more awareness people have of mental health, even more so because of the pandemic, there remains a fear among individuals of how others will perceive them after coming forward. “What is the impact going to be on my career? Will people think that it’s affecting my performance? Is it a piece of baggage that’s going to follow me around,” posits Milsom.

She goes on to explain that there needs to be a deeper understanding of how mental health is understood. “I think the way we look at mental health really reinforces the stigma,” says Milsom. “We see it as a dichotomy—you’re either well or unwell—rather than a continuum that actually is really where we live, generally moving up and down on that continuum, sometimes daily.” And, as Milsom says, “many managers don’t know how to respond when an employee comes forward.”

The assumptions surrounding mental health, cultural differences, and the family experiences of individuals can also lead to a lack of vocabulary around this topic, making it all the more difficult for people to have open conversations on mental health with those around them.

How can engineering culture contribute to poor mental health?

As panelist Alison Olechowski, P.Eng., discusses, anecdotally, we know that engineers are often stereotyped as perfectionists, who are highly solution oriented. However, these stereotypes are grounded in the experiences of real engineers and engineering students. “Many of the stories that we’re proud of about engineering, or that we were proud of in the past, had to do with how tough things were, [they were] sort of about suffering through,” says Olechowski. “Even if you’re a graduate student and you have qualifying exams [we were told] ‘they’re hard for you because they were hard for me when I was a student.’”

What can leaders do to improve mental health in workplaces and institutions?

All our speakers agreed that leading with compassion is the best way to combat stigmas around mental health. “As a leader, what I try to do is make sure that I am showing that it’s okay to be vulnerable,” says panelist, Herman Chan, P.Eng. Consistent with Chan’s sentiment, we know that for real systemic change to occur, leaders need to model the behaviour they want to see from their teams. “As someone who is not a mental health expert you don’t necessarily need to provide input, sometimes just to invite someone to express so you can listen, sometimes that helps,” says Chan.

Panelist, Alison Olechowski, P.Eng., expands on this point by emphasizing the importance of having regular informal conversations with your team about yourself. “At the University of Toronto, I’m part of a special program called ‘iLead’—which is engineering leadership—and every meeting you have with them […] usually starts with a check in where we go around the room and everyone says how they’re doing, and what they’re bringing into the meeting,” says Olechowski. “Doing it every time really does start to establish this sense of trust where people will just give you a real sense [of their true mental state].”

The promotion of Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) are another key method for employers to care for the mental health of their teams. “EAPs are confidential, short-term counselling services for employees whose personal difficulties may be affecting their job performance” (Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety). Shivani Nathoo, EIT, notes that many organizations also have employee benefits that may cover opportunities for therapy but she herself came across a barrier when trying to take advantage of this. “Some of the plans have very limited scopes in terms of who they cover. So they may only cover registered psychotherapists, but in Ontario five different colleges can perform psychotherapy, including social workers and nurses. So that’s one resource that people should really take advantage of, but also employers, expanding that to include social workers and other people, because it’s very hard to get an appointment with a psychotherapist, but it might be a lot easier to get an appointment with a social worker.”

Having a care plan for mental health can also help alleviate some of the fear and stigma that stops employees from coming forward. Milsom uses the analogy of a physical injury like a sprained ankle to show the gradations of possible responses from an employer. She says that when a person falls and suffers a minor sprain, the appropriate response may be to just ice their ankle. But in worse cases, it may be necessary to stay off it for a few days, or get crutches and stay off it for weeks, or in acute situations one might need surgical intervention. Milsom’s assertion is that just as one would respond to a physical injury with appropriate levels of care, mental health requires an appropriate care plan. “Mental health is much the same, in some cases people might just need a day off. But if the concern isn’t addressed it only gets worse.” The presence of a wellness plan allows one to know how to care for themselves no matter where on the gradation of mental health they might be at a given time. “I look at my plan and if I’m in ‘green’ then everything’s fine and my plan is to eat right and get decent sleep and maybe exercise,” says Milsom. “But I know if I’m declining into yellow or orange then I need to do X and Y and Z. And so you’re not trying to help yourself while you’re in red.”

How can OSPE help?

OSPE is committed to fostering diversity and inclusion in the engineering community. We know that inclusive places, where employees feel a sense of belonging, and are respected and valued, have better mental health and wellbeing outcomes. A list of mental health resources can be found here.

OSPE’s own corporate training programs offer courses on leadership and management to help engineering employers foster trust amongst their employees. The upcoming Future of Engineering Conference is slated to include panel discussions on emotional intelligence, the future of engineering workplaces after COVID-19, multiple talks on overcoming barriers to inclusion at work, and will be an opportunity to connect with like minded leaders in industry, government and academia to collaborate and learn together. To watch the entire panel discussion on mental health in engineering, visit our ENGtalks page or click here.

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