Paul Sheerin

A RECENT roundtable with Scottish Engineering’s member companies has brought some reflection on one of the more rapid changes in attitude in our engineering industry, and more broadly in society.

Our guest speaker was talking about their involvement with a men’s suicide prevention charity, catching us all unaware in sharing that the reason they meet at seven pm on a Monday night is because it’s a statistically significant time for death by suicide in men.

Our guest speaker was the inspiring Tracey Rundell, head of marketing and communications at Altrad Babcock, and we had asked her to share the journey she had led promoting good mental health and wellbeing support for its full workforce.

With this programme starting in 2019, Altrad Babcock was an early adopter considering the deeper focus and understanding that has emerged much more quickly since Covid lockdowns, and the success it has built clearly came from patience, and belief in the value of the programme.

An early observation it made was around the dynamics of a heavily male dominated workforce, and their reticence initially to really take part.

One of the successes Altrad Babcock had for that was connecting with both construction industry charity Mates in Mind and Andy’s Man Club, the charity referred to above which was set up by the mum and brother-in-law of Andrew Roberts, who sadly took his own life aged just 23 in 2016.

The group was set up by the founders to find a purpose and understanding for their loss, and as a result now enables groups to meet nationwide, providing a judgement-free, non-clinical space to speak freely about your mental health.

I’m not sure it’s a conversation that the majority of our sector would have embraced five or more years ago; for sure there were those early adopters, and a fair bit of physical health promotion that in hindsight somebody knew would be a pathway to better mental health and wellbeing. They just didn’t want to scare us away, and cleverly dressed it up as something more palatable.

When I discussed this article with a respected industry colleague, his reaction was strongly supportive, having in his own words been part of a culture for decades where mental health issues were seen as a sign of weakness, self indulgence, and as a result were career limiting.

In a bid to get a better handle on where we are at, I spoke to our friends at Headtorch who are especially active in helping manufacturing companies from large to small build impactful programmes for their organisations.

Its executive chairman Angus Robinson told me that indeed post-Covid had seen a seismic shift in understanding the importance of building structured programmes where the outcome of the action taken can be measured.

However, as businesses continue to regrow post-Covid, he is also seeing the impacts of organisations becoming stretched.

Whilst there is no loss of appetite to undertake these activities, the reality of lack of time and resource is slowing the rate of progress companies can achieve, and this is at a time when workplace mental health should be a business priority – the evidence for increased productivity, staff retention and profitability is proven.

My final cause for consideration on this topic this month was an invite to an excellent event organised by the Scottish Association for Mental Health (SAMH) charity, another organisation active and appreciated in our sector, and one I thought I knew reasonably well.

Well, I didn’t know it was one hundred years old this year, predates the NHS, and was founded by Dr Kate Fraser who clearly was a special pioneer to have swum against what I imagine would have been a strong tide to achieve all that in 1923. As impressive then as it is now.

I think about SAMH being in place for that length of time and wonder did our sector, and I along with it, just have our collective heads in the sand until recently? Were we behind the curve, perhaps in part because of our historically high proportion of men dominating our industry?

Whether that’s true or not, the change in attitude to mental health and wellbeing feels like a societal shift, a welcome one that has no longer become a conversation stopper, more a conversation starter, and given that the best thing we can do for our mental health is talk about it, that’s a good thing.

Paul Sheerin is the chief executive of Scottish Engineering