The wellbeing of a contract engineer
Virginia Williams, Published: January 25, 2020 - Updated: January 28, 2020
Are you looking after your mental health as a contract engineer? You don’t have to look far to know that mental health is fast becoming a significant concern for Australians, and globally. It is likely you have been impacted by mental health concerns at some stage in your life, whether it be yourself or a work colleague, friend or family member.
Given the amount of time we all spend at work, mental health issues often arise in, and impact, the workplace. In fact, ‘…mental health issues are the leading cause of sickness, absence and long-term work incapacity in Australia, with a huge 20 percent of suicides linked to work.’
This is even more pronounced in the engineering industry. In Australia, the engineering industry has the second highest rates of suicide among white collar workers (we’ll explore this more in a future article).
Know the risks
If you are a contract engineer, the risks can be even more pronounced due to the high-pressured nature of the job – but this doesn’t mean you’ll become a statistic. There is huge opportunity to positively gain from a contracting lifestyle, provided you take care of yourself, and seek out opportunities where contractor wellness is supported and taken seriously.
Investing in mental fitness and self-awareness has also been shown to increase brain elasticity and neural pathway creation, leading to increased creativity and innovation and decreased stress hormone production.
We are starting to see a genuine rise in contract engineers, with the ABS estimating that up to 20 per cent of the workforce is now engaged in non-standard work arrangements – professional contractors and consultants are among the fastest growing of these! If you are looking to take advantage of this shift in work styles, then it will pay to look for opportunities where mental health is taken seriously.
Understanding the risks: contract vs full time lifestyle
We can’t deny the many wonderful advantages of hiring a contract engineer or contracting as one. This new type of working is helping many people create lives and careers that they desire. Many have switched from conventional employment to find success as contractors. Benefits include: flexibility, better pay, and more exciting projects to name a few, however, this can also leave many contract engineers vulnerable to workplace stress.
Over the years in engineering talent recruitment, I’ve seen first-hand how contractors can experience a lack of belonging that naturally comes with feeling like you’re part of a team. As contractors they remain guests in their client’s workplace, and can innocently be left out of social activities planned for full time permanent employees. This leads to workplace isolation, which is a precursor to stress and mental health issues.
In addition, contract engineers tend to be very passionate, intelligent high-achiever types who tend to overextend themselves, often working very long hours as pressure builds up on their projects or to meet deadlines. This kind of working style is accepted and even encouraged by many workplaces – whether you are contracting or working as a permanent employee. Working this way tends to cut into your social support network and time spent with family and friends.
Combine these with the financial and career pressure of lining up their next opportunity as their contract nears completion and you can understand why contracting can impact mental health and wellbeing.
Are you on autopilot? Notice the signs of stress
Engineers who contract for organisations usually find themselves at risk of work-related stress and mental health issues due to the aforementioned reasons.
Constant stress leads to chronic stress and burnout, which can also lead to other mental illnesses. In fact, Safe Work Australia reports 92 per cent of work claims that are related to mental health come from stress.
Many workers worldwide get so used to daily stress and working on autopilot that it can be hard to identify detrimental behaviours, patterns and working conditions until it’s too late.
In the short term, stress can significantly affect your productivity, efficiency and decision making, which can exacerbate the cycle.
Significant stress, particularly caused by the factors that contract engineers can face, has now been identified by the World Health Organization as a genuine syndrome and dubbed as an occupational phenomenon. It’s described as a health concern that accumulates as burnout which is a syndrome ‘resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. What’s worth noting is that ‘The Australian mining sector has an elevated industry prevalence of stress and high stress related productivity impairment costs.’
Whilst your employer has a duty of care and legal obligation to support your wellbeing, it’s important you look after yourself as well and notice when the following signs and symptoms start to present and take both proactive and preventative measures as well as manage the symptoms:
- body aches (particularly unexplained)
- heart racing
- anxiety and panic attacks
- feeling unusually or constantly tired
- inability to concentrate or make decisions.
Your employers should be helping
Implementing wellness programs and initiatives to address every employee’s or contractor’s wellbeing helps them be mentally fit, happy and more productive, but it also positively impacts the business as a whole: both culturally and financially. It’s time that leaders and organisations become aware of their obligation.
“Employees are more productive, present and committed to their roles when they are mentally healthy. This is particularly true in the professional services industries like design and engineering, where talented workers are employed to devise sophisticated solutions to complex problems.’ – Engineers Australia
While contract engineers should commit to effective prevention techniques, employers should also consider investing in wellness programs to manage work-related stress and improve business outcomes. We are slowly seeing organisations take initiative with small-scale programs such as free massages or meditation classes for employees, but instances of these are rare. Many are already seeing the financial, cultural and personal benefits of such programs.
We all must work to push through the stigma surrounding mental health and the investment required to build a healthy society.
Embedded Expertise has developed a Wellness Program available to its contractors, ensuring they are supported the whole way through their contract, and beyond into the next. If you’d like to learn more about the program, please contact us below.