Speaking Out, Staying Well

Article by Jon Walton CEng MIChemE

Jon Walton reflects on the changes in approach to mental health and wellbeing across the engineering sector over the last 20 years, and how slowly, but surely, men are learning to speak out.

AS WE celebrate International Men’s Day today, and consider this year’s theme of Positive Role Models, I’d like to reflect on how industry attitudes towards men’s mental health and wellbeing have changed for the better since I graduated as a chemical engineer.

Many of us will remember a time when it was standard practice to leave our home life at the door, to be focused exclusively on the job at hand and push aside any stresses or worries. While this was commonplace at the time, we’ve come to learn that it was detrimental to a safe and functional workplace.

Human factors – stress, fatigue, or issues outside of work – can result in incidents in the workplace, and are a key focus at Air Products. Our experience is that this is particularly challenging in an industry that is still broadly male-dominated. Within engineering, just asking “how are you?” can make a male employee immediately tense up.

We need to re-learn what it means to be healthy and define how that goes beyond just physical fitness. We must drop the concept of “work self” and “home self”, and ensure employees understand that it’s ok to admit when “outside of work” is impacting “at work”.

Changing with the times

We’ve seen an increase in external pressures, and employees are more alert to how external stresses can have a knock-on effect on their work, and directly affect health and wellbeing. When employees feel they’re not supported at work there’s likely to be an increase in missed deadlines, lapses in concentration and even an increase in sick days. As a sector, we’re much better now at understanding it’s counterintuitive for people to leave their problems at home, and that the pressure to do so only makes things worse.

Looking inward

As a sector, it’s vital that we approach discussions around mental health and wellbeing with purpose. What does that mean? Well, for Air Products it means really focusing on understanding why employees behave the way they do and what the impact of that is on health and safety.

There’s an element of human psychology to this. People want to feel listened to and heard so we’ve ensured a regular two-way dialogue is in place with every staff member, giving them the space and opportunity to speak about their mental and physical health and how that could be impacting their work.

Practically, this means a weekly routine catchup with the entire team, giving us the opportunity to share what’s happening within our workstreams and also have face-to-face time with each other, especially important post-Covid when so much work is now done remotely or across our different sites.

Beyond those weekly sessions I have a monthly one-on-one meeting with each team member. This is performance-related to an extent, but it also allows for a two-way discussion about what they need from me as their manager. For example, do I need to adapt my style of support to better suit their needs? Is there something they require that will help them achieve more? Recognising that one size doesn’t fit all, some people prefer to respond more regularly as part of our weekly team meetings, whilst others need a more one-on-one approach allows for me to get the best from my team. It’s about recognising that positive mental health is a collective responsibility, and providing ample opportunities for individuals to find their words and be open about the best form of communication for them.

Employees need space and opportunity to speak about their mental and physical health and how that could be impacting their work

In their shoes

Empathy and avoidance of blame is key to this. For me, being able to share real examples of how anyone can struggle has been the most useful tool to date. Often, I draw on my own experiences to do this. It can be reassuring for the team to know that perhaps someone senior to them has had a similar experience, particularly when you reinforce that it’s not about the mistake, but the lessons that can be learnt from it.

Ultimately, no one should feel that the mistakes they make as a result of personal pressures or struggles will hold them back. Using examples from my own career and then highlighting how I’ve been able to use those experiences and still advance within the company has been invaluable.

Bridging the gap

This more holistic approach to communication has also helped us bridge the gap between generational differences in how men communicate. I’ve been part of a workforce where older generations of men bottle up their worries and stresses, and I’ve also seen how younger generations are more willing to speak up and address their issues and concerns. Personally, I sit between the two, so I’m working hard to become part of how the younger cohort interact, speaking openly about my experiences and engaging more personally with colleagues.

Beyond the work we’re doing as a business, I think the emphasis we’re seeing in the media on mental wellbeing is making a big difference too. Over the course of my career, I’ve seen the conversation shift. High profile people now speak openly about their own circumstances, and yet if you look back just ten years that was very rare, almost taboo in fact. This is a huge step toward encouraging men of all ages to speak up and ensure their mental health is taken seriously, no matter their age.

Being able to share real examples of how anyone can struggle has been the most useful tool to date. Often, I draw on my own experiences to do this.

Supporting each other

Of course, the theory of all this is one thing, but what about the practical side of things? We’ve learnt that there are some very simple steps everyone can take to support each other, from asking “how are you, really?” to reviewing management approaches to best suit the individual.

Get to know each employee individually. Make sure you understand how they like to engage, consider their background, age and life stage, and make sure you tailor your management style to them.

In those daily safety conversations that we all have, take the opportunities to link health and wellbeing with safety, being present in the moment and concentrating on the task in hand.

We’ve only just begun

Physical and mental health are on a level playing field at Air Products – in fact one of our HR partners is dedicated to ensuring wellbeing is a focus for the entire business. Mental health is being given the level of focus and credibility it’s always deserved.

We’re now working hard to be more adept at dealing with different issues, making sure all our employees have access to the tools they need to deal with life’s challenges regardless of where they occur.

No man, after all, is an island. We all need support at different stages of our lives and with so much time spent at work, it’s the obvious place to provide it. My hope is that our sector will continue on a positive journey in this regard and that it will soon be commonplace to speak freely about problems, without fear of it being career-limiting. If we can get there, I’m confident the sector will be a happier, safer place.

Article by Jon Walton CEng MIChemE

Health and Safety Manager for UK and Ireland, Air Products

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