Michael Riley discusses mental health in field engineering
Michael Riley is a Senior Operations Manager for British Gas Field Engineering. He has 240 people in his team covering service, repair and installation of gas appliances, boilers, kitchen appliances and smart meters. He highlights the importance of mental health for service engineers who mainly work alone.
All field engineers meet people during their working day. They may meet one or may meet twenty. One thing remains the same though: they must smile and not bring any of their personal life or issues in to the meeting with them. For an engineer in the field, every day needs to look like a good day. It needs to look like a good day to everyone and definitely to the customer. Everyone has problems in their personal life, at least at some point. When you are out in the field and work alone, these can become magnified.
Michael has worked for British Gas since 1992, except for a brief stint in the middle when he joined Thomas Cook Airlines.
Why did you leave to join an airline?
I had trained to be a commercial pilot and then failed the medical because of an eye problem. It was still a dream and so I joined Thomas Cook Airlines. I met lots of people and so could ask about whether anyone had got through the medical to be a pilot despite having an eye problem. As usual, someone knew someone, who knew someone, who could give me an answer. The answer was not what I wanted to hear but it closed a door and stopped me being restless. I had been honest with British Gas when I left and so their door was open for me to return.
My time at Thomas Cook was very fruitful for another reason. I met my wife, and we now have three children.
Is there a particular person who has inspired you?
Yes, there is. Recently the person I have admired the most is Tyson Fury, the Boxer. His story around his mental health and how it affected him. Where he suffered and was on the verge of taking his own life and the pain and the mistakes he made. To get the help he needed and then to speak openly about this to encourage men to ask for that help. His leading by example and sharing has helped many men to seek help in their darkest times.
How have you balanced working and studying as well as having a family?
I must admit it is not something that has come easy. I have been lucky that a lot of my studying was before I had children. However, for my most recent studies I have had an amazing wife. She has been the backbone of the family and has been there all the way.
What has been the most useful thing you have learnt:
I have just completed my NCRQ level 3 Managing Safety. I have really been impressed with how the learning has been delivered. The content will prove useful in any role. (East Cheshire Training and Assessment Centre – delivers training for engineers in Stockport, Manchester and across the North West of England).
What about whilst working?
Making mistakes or failing at something is part of learning. It gives invaluable skills in how to be resilient, reset and start again with a fresh perspective or on a new journey.
Reactive and proactive balance
A lot of your time is reactive. How do you make time to be proactive?
The last few years the role has been extremely reactive with huge changes within the organisation, new ways of working and a period of instability.
I adopted a planning phase which is looking forward 12 months and what goals I personally must achieve. This requires me to set time aside to look at what I can do to help with the goal and start to put things in place. Someone once said to me:
“You can’t eat an elephant all at once.”
and it has always stuck. With this a more Agile approach is needed as the reactive parts of the role can impact the path you are on.
Do you ever get out in the field now?
Since Covid hit in March 2020 I have been mainly at home. I have found ‘Teams’ meetings have taken over the traditional ways of getting out and seeing people. In fact, if people see a gap in your calendar, you do find they will put something in there for you. It always makes me wonder how we used to be out in the field so much! I do believe that socialising and meeting people is an important part of how we as humans communicate and keep good mental health.
Which other people in the workplace give you support?
We do have our own health teams that can offer support as and when you need it. I have used this support several times in the past. So, I am a great advocate of using the tools and support that people need in this space. I think it is important to recognise when people need help and offer the helping hand. It is hard to spot when someone is struggling. However changes in their personality, physical issues, and other stressors that you notice should be met with support and understanding. It is key to talk to the person to understand why the changes have occurred.
The challenges post Covid
A lot of people have found that the effect of Covid over the last two years has been that all the issues and problems of day-to-day life have been amplified.
Michael has worked in a lot of different roles during his time at British Gas. With this depth of experience, he feels that he can understand the pressures and stresses that different members of his team are under. Part of his job is to pour coffee, listen, and highlight the resources available to his team.
Just as he was honest with British Gas when he wanted to leave for a period, he is also honest with his team about his own mental health.
He doesn’t want any of his team to suffer in silence or to feel that there is a stigma around admitting a problem with mental health.
How do you transfer your passion for mental health into the workplace and to support the wellbeing of your team?
Just being honest and leading by example. That will land with people well and hopefully they can understand that everyone has good and bad mental health at different times in their life. I hope that if everyone shares the examples and people talk more openly then the warning signs of bad mental health can be picked up in any peer group and help the individual.
How do you look after your own mental health?
I have tried to always exercise; however, it has been a bit sporadic. My wife lost her job at Virgin Atlantic during the pandemic and has since retrained to teach yoga and meditation. I have recently started on a small step journey to try yoga and meditation. I will have to let you know how that works.
What should all members of a team be doing to support each other?
As I said earlier it is important for a team to recognise if any of the individuals in the team have behaviours that have changed. If they are showing signs of stress, anxiety, or physical issues, then reach out to support them. If it is concerning, then raise the issue so that the individual can get the help. I have experienced some traumatic incidences where the right support at the right time could have altered the course. It is important for everyone to know how mental health can impact someone and the signs to look out for to point them in the right direction. Mental health first aiders, professionals and workplace health professionals can help.
What are the three things which you would recommend every field engineer to do to support their own mental health?
Look after themselves physically, take time for themselves to help reset, and get space to think clearly.
As a team leader what has been your biggest challenge to date?
The biggest challenge to date has been the last two years with all the changes to working. Covid has pushed working from home to be the new normal. As we are coming out of that period, then the importance of being out and about in the field will be amazing.
World Mental Health Day is 10th October every year: