Guest blog: Time to Reflect on the Wellbeing of our Engineers

By Jo-Anne Tait – Academic Strategic Lead, School of Engineering, Robert Gordon University

Students’ mental health is a deservedly hot topic in higher education. But is the conversation more difficult when it comes to engineering? Are the challenges greater?

When I am asked about the topic of my PhD I have noticed the responses are interesting. Engineers for the most part look puzzled, and wonder why I might think this is worthy of investigation. Some even show signs of annoyance that this is even a thing. Non-engineers on the other hand, their eyes open wider in fascination and regale me with tales of the (not so positive) habits of the engineers they know.  

I am studying the mental wellbeing of engineering students. I believe there is something wrong with how we approach this topic in engineering education in relation to future engineers. In fact, it appears we don’t really approach it at all.

I was a geologist by trade before I entered engineering academia, teaching drilling engineering students. Nearly 20 years later, I look after the teaching, learning and student experience in a School of Engineering. I see my job as helping the engineers of the future and I take it very seriously.

I realise I am preaching to the converted somewhat but in case anyone isn’t clear, engineers are absolutely vital in addressing global challenges: energy, sustainability, transport, infrastructure, and medication are just a few.

But despite the importance placed on the role of the engineer in our future, the UK has a serious shortage of engineers. This phenomenon is echoed in the U.S., China, South Africa and Germany with reports of demand far outstripping supply. Calls for education reform are growing and there has been an increase in the diversification of engineering education through degree apprenticeships and widening participation activities.

From my seat at the table I am seeing a worrying rise in mental health and wellbeing issues in engineering students. Often by the time I am made aware of a student’s situation it is at or near crisis point rather than earlier, when more support might be possible. I raised my concerns and discovered that, anecdotally, engineering students sought help in far fewer numbers than students of other disciplines. Further reading told me this was not unusual in engineering higher education and so I began to dig further.

Given the mental health and wellbeing of university and college students has been the subject of considerable discussion nationally and internationally it might surprise you to discover that engineering students are not well represented in this literature. It certainly surprised me, given the challenging and competitive nature of engineering degree programmes and the male-skewed gender balance of the discipline.

Men, and young men in particular have a higher risk of suicide and the incidence of schizophrenia in males is reported to be significantly higher than in females. Young adults are at higher risk of developing serious mental illnesses and it has also been reported that female engineering students report even poorer mental wellbeing than their male counterparts. An American institution found that engineering students had a higher prevalence of mental health problems than the general student population, were less likely to use mental health services than students from other disciplines, were “significantly less likely to report suicidal ideation” and there was a “significantly decreased likelihood of seeking help”.

The NUS reported well over half of students reporting mental distress attributed this to heavy workload and coursework deadlines and engineering courses are well-known for heavy workloads and assessment schedules.

So, engineering students are potentially at higher risk of suffering from poor mental wellbeing, and are also less likely to seek assistance than students of other disciplines. To me this points to an unmet need of engineering students and so I decided to undertake a PhD in this area. I chose to focus my efforts on engineering students because I feel that is where I may have most impact, but it is likely the problems I am identifying in students also exist in the engineering profession itself.

 A recent report on masculinity in engineering highlighted over a fifth of respondents reporting having had to take time off work because of mental ill health. Distressingly, the report also notes that nearly a fifth of respondents stated they had lost an engineering colleague to suicide. When asked if they experienced stress, sleeping issues, thoughts on self-harm or being bothered by feeling anxious, depressed, irritable or sad, 77% of participants answered yes.

By investigating the mental wellbeing of engineering students, I am hopeful that we can uncover a unique insight into a population that has been overlooked in mental wellbeing studies and may be at increased risk of mental ill health and poor mental wellbeing.

Given the shortage of engineers in the UK, it is time we looked more closely at the mental wellbeing of our engineers, both current and future. Because, increasingly, more is expected of engineers. They need to be more mentally agile and more able to drive change and innovation than ever before.

For that they need to have skills we don’t always shine a light on so much in university engineering education: resilience, empathy, active listening, self-preservation, conflict resolution and, essentially, metacognition.

I appreciate we are some years away from a UKSPEC review, but one way of encouraging engineers to look after their mental wellbeing is to support metacognition activities more explicitly through the UKSPEC’s section D, to include development of intrapersonal skills. Placing an importance on this at the heart of what it is to be a professional engineer will feed through to AHEP and AQAH requirements and may be a way to support institutions in working towards building a supportive environment for engineering personal development.

Meanwhile, let’s try to normalise conversations about mental health and wellbeing and support our engineering colleagues and friends whenever we can.

And for my part, I will continue to support engineers and engineering students by finishing my PhD and providing some recommendations!

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