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What’s Causing the Increase in Mental Health & Well-being Challenges for our Maintenance Workforce?

June 20, 2022

What’s Causing the Increase in Mental Health & Well-being Challenges for our Maintenance Workforce?

Mental health continues to be a major issue in the workplaces of our MAINSTREAM community. This rated as the #1 challenge in the annual MAINSTREAM State of Asset Management Report.

Many companies reported that the issue is greater than it’s ever been and getting worse. Poor mental health can have a significant impact on an individual’s health, attendance, performance, engagement, and safety.

Several Causes

The significant increase in mental health and wellbeing challenges over the last few years are a result of job insecurity, high job demand and pressure to perform, lack of empathy and understanding from leadership, and the imbalance between effort and reward. But by far the biggest reasons for this increase, according to the research, are the ongoing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, and relentless organisational change.

Ongoing effects of COVID-19

During the pandemic, whether it was mining, manufacturing, power generation or transport, almost all companies applied the strategy of having critical operational and maintenance people working on site in A and B teams, whilst non-critical operations, management and corporate functions completed much of their work from home.

After two years, the us vs them divide that often existed between operational teams and corporate teams has become amplified. Due to people being sick from Covid or having to isolate because of close contact restrictions, the long and sustained hours and overtime required, has changed some organisation’s approach to reliability and equipment maintenance.

Examples include choosing to run machines to failure because it was a better strategy. Another example, common in booming sectors like food and beverage, logistics and pharmaceutical manufacturing, was the huge expectation by leadership for increased performance to keep up with unprecedented demand.

A maintenance superintendent from a large Power Generation company summed it up, “One of the major impacts on our maintenance staff is the feeling of being isolated. It’s all very well working on Zoom or Microsoft Teams to discuss work tactics and tasks, but you miss out on all the spontaneous communication and banter that happens when people are working together all the time”

Relentless Organisational Change

The extended period of feeling unsettled and overwhelmed through Covid is now colliding with another force – relentless, continuous organisational change.

Whether it’s a new ERP system, digitizing asset management, restructuring, or improvement initiatives, people’s ability to be resilient is waning. Even projects which used to be seen as continuous improvement projects are now seen as major change projects and must be managed and dealt with accordingly. The ongoing messaging from leadership about the move to automation and the adoption of new technology is overwhelming.

A lot of the people, especially the trades, feel threatened and insecure. It’s causing stress. This has a direct impact on the organisation’s ability to safely manage, operate, and maintain assets, because when operators become stressed, they step away from the process. When they step away from the process, safety becomes a concern.

Poor Change Management

Changing people’s perception of major change through communication or training is difficult. Change management is not about the technology or the tool, but rather building resilience and agility in our people, and transforming the way they see change. This helps to alter attitudes and behaviour.

Things will go wrong, and goal posts will shift when large process re-engineering and technology projects occur. By investing in understanding our people’s perception, and then incentivising them, they will deal with the broader change much more comfortably. Good change management is a risk mitigation strategy.

Erosion of Resilience

We’re not as resilient as we thought we were. This is a wake-up call. There are lots of other macro-factors confronting our asset, reliability, and maintenance workforce – upheaval in the energy sector as coal mines getting decommissioned, machines replacing jobs, and even war. Resilience must be taught to leaders, managers, and our workforces.

Companies must find the sweet spot between working from home and on site. Because we now have a convergence between people’s personal lives and their work lives. There’s no going back to what it used to be, but we know we need to connect as human beings with emotions more than we have over the past two years.

The Fly-In, Fly-Out model is breaking

Mental health has also become a real challenge for the FIFO workforce. This workforce is vital for the Australian economy. Mental health, and other issues like bullying and harassment, are not being given enough attention by leadership. Since the FIFO workforce became a phenomenon, separation from loved ones has always been a problem. Add Covid and relentless organisational change to this and you have a FIFO workforce at a higher risk than the general workforce of developing stress, depression, and anxiety.

Practical solutions

Several companies have implemented practical initiatives that are working to combat the increase in mental health and wellbeing including resilience courses, implementing work/life plans, counselling services for employees and for contractors, and training around being able to talk freely about taboo subjects such as suicide. Mental health awareness, good nutrition and exercise are all examples of education being offered as part of onboarding of new people and new contractors.

Finally, there are very practical and easy-to-implement initiatives like working out balanced rosters that continue to allow people to do some of their work from home, insisting that everybody has their cameras on when they are in zoom meetings, coffee catches ups over zoom that address non work topics, and even fun monthly trivia competitions over virtual platforms that foster camaraderie and friendship.

A lot of interesting work is being done at both a practical and strategic level across Asset and Maintenance teams. Some of the best examples will be covered at the MAINSTREAM Conference in August:

  • Canadian Senior Reliability Engineer, Rob Kalwarowsky will share his brave and very personal story of working as a reliability engineer in the Oil & Gas industry, his depression and suicide attempt, and why he used that pain as his purpose to pivot into leadership coaching and mentoring others.
  • Senior Consultant at The Potential Project (and former head of program management and transformation for Endeavour Energy) Jenny Steadman, will talk about science behind mind training and provide practical mental strategies for improving wellbeing and staying resilient at work.
  • Felicia Tristanto, Manager Strategic Asset Management at Ventia, will present on how failure and vulnerability are important ingredients to prepare your workforce for the future.
  • A workshop on ‘Integrating Wellbeing into Everyday Work’ with Justina Stromnes, an Organisational Psychologist.

You can read more about these speakers at MAINSTREAM.

Further Reading

The State of Asset Management Report 2022

March 30, 2022

The State of Asset Management Report 2022

Developing Women Into Operational Leadership in Asset Management

June 20, 2021

Developing Women Into Operational Leadership in Asset Management

Maximizing the Success of your Digital Transformation Journey

March 2, 2022

Maximizing the Success of your Digital Transformation Journey

22 March 2023

Esplanade Fremantle, Perth

See you there!