Mental health and mental well-being are important topics, particularly as one in four people in the UK have experienced some form of mental health issue this year. A study conducted in 2020 by the Construction Industry Rehabilitation Plan (CIRP) found a staggering 83% of construction workers have experienced a moderate to severe mental health issue. Historically there has been negative stigma attached to mental health problems, making it difficult for sufferers to speak out and seek help. With 792 million people worldwide affected by mental health issues and the study conducted by MATES in Construction, identifies as many as one in four construction workers are suffering with their mental health, it is time for an open discussion and action. Construction has a dangerous suicide rate among employees that is three times the national average. Of the total personnel working within construction, 87.5% of the workforce are male, so with suicide rates among men on the increase, there is growing concern that mental health conditions affecting construction workers has reached crisis point.
As one of the largest and progressive industries, construction must do more to recognise mental health. In this article Social Value Manager Elizabeth Lee, with support from Seddon, BAM, Willmott Dixon and Corus Group, will explore the top five challenges the industry must face to offer more support and improve well-being.
Changing the Culture
As a male-dominated industry, there are deep-rooted stereotypes that men should be ‘tough’, and ‘macho’ which can translate into high risk factors when it comes to talking about mental health. The industry needs to break down these gender stereotypes to encourage men to talk about how they are feeling and issues that are affecting them. The culture within construction needs to change and the rhetoric needs to shift from an obsolete definition of masculinity inferring men should ‘dust themselves down and just get on with it’ to a modern acceptance that men should ‘express their feelings and talk about it.’ As the sector strives to encourage and attract more women into construction roles, this will undoubtedly have a positive impact on diluting the prevalent male machismo culture and promote an environment where open communication and asking for help or support are normalised.
Adrian Blackie, Pre-Construction Director, commented: “I believe BAM is a very progressive company in tackling mental health and wellbeing in the industry. We have over 140 Wellbeing Champions across the BAM Construction organisation who are all trained Mental Health First Aiders. The Wellbeing Champions proactively promote health and wellbeing initiatives throughout the year to BAM employees and our supply chain partners. An Employee Assistance Programme from Health Assured and Smart Health are two notable benefits that BAM offers. The latter provides 24/7/365 support to BAM employees and their families with structured counselling sessions, online health checks and access to a GP.
In my opinion there is still a macho perception in the industry. People often say they’re okay when they’re not. Sometimes this is because they fear a mental health illness may harm their career. But it can also be because they don’t truly understand the feelings they’re experiencing.
During a local webinar to promote “Time to Talk Day” in February 2021, I asked a group of BAM employees if they had mental health and physical health. All said they had physical health but only 55% said they had mental health. If we can acknowledge that we all have mental health and it’s ‘okay to not be okay’, then I’m convinced we will eventually break the stigma that surrounds mental health.”
In 2019 a report commissioned by the Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB) revealed 26% of construction industry professionals had experienced suicidal thoughts. Data from the Office of National Statistics show 13.2% of suicides reported at work between 2011-2015 were people from the skilled construction and building trades, a concerning figure when you consider that construction accounts for just over 7% of the UK workforce. Three quarters of all registered deaths from suicides in the UK are men with the age bracket 45-49 years having the highest suicide rate. The construction industry has an ageing male-majority workforce, so it is crucial that construction companies raise awareness of mental health problems and develop an environment where employees feel safe and secure talking about issues that could affect their well-being.
The CIOB report, ‘Understanding Mental Health in the Built Environment’, also highlighted 56% of construction professionals work for organisations with no policies on mental health in the workplace. In the light of the COVID-19 pandemic where people have experienced issues such as social isolation, poor health or bereavement, or financial difficulties, construction companies must show their commitment to raising awareness and tackling the problem by introducing policies that are sensitive and considerate to mental health. The Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention is helping to raise awareness about the risk of suicide in the industry and provides companies tools and resources to create a safe environment. Implementing a mental health policy and conducting team meetings to openly discuss and encourage dialogue surrounding the topic firmly puts this important issue on the agenda and helps employees to feel supported.
Nicola Hodkinson, Owner and Director at Seddon, commented: “When it comes to offering mental health support in the workplace, it’s important to really know your people and build relationships with them. Acknowledging people as individuals is a must too, as everyone reacts differently to the same situation.
Following the loss of Jordan Bibby in 2017, a Seddon painter and decorator, we set up Jordan’s Conversation initiative with mental health charity, Mates in Mind. Jordan’s Conversation is a toolbox talk that raises awareness of mental health, which is overseen by an internal team of mental health first aiders, trained to recognise the signs when a colleague may need support. Ultimately, creating an open culture is key for creating a positive working environment.”
Construction companies have a responsibility to ensure a robust support network is accessible by all so that teams and individuals feel supported, and an open and safe working environment is created. It is common for people to suffer in silence with mental health issues, anxious about the repercussions or discrimination that may arise as a result of opening up and talking about a personal and often highly emotive subject. Companies should recognise that employees might not immediately feel comfortable asking for help, which is why it important to make resources available to teams, equipping them with a mental health toolkit so they know where they can turn to seek help and advice. Building Mental Health is a voluntary organisation comprised of individuals from the construction industry who advocate the Building Mental Health Charter; promoting best practice around mental health issues and sharing a process map designed for construction companies to raise awareness and support employees.
Introducing an employee assistance programme is a great way to offer support to employees, ensuring there is always a trained member of staff available to talk to who is qualified to handle mental health issues. All construction employees should be made aware of the Construction Industry Helpline, as well as dedicated mental health charities such as MIND. Consideration should be given to employment benefits packages that include professional counselling services, sick leave for mental health days and flexible working arrangements to accommodate therapy appointments around shift work. With more than 30% of all construction sites having no hot water, and no toilet facilities, improvements to working conditions needs to be made a priority to prevent adversely affecting and impacting the overall health of employees.
A career in construction can be very rewarding, but it can also be stressful and demanding, both physically and emotionally. Long hours, time away from loved ones, manual work, chronic pain from work-related injuries and the fear of seasonal redundancies can cause exhaustion, intense pressure, job insecurity; all contributary factors to poor mental health that can manifest as conditions like depression, anxiety, and PTSD.
Education is empowering, so it is key when addressing the deteriorating state of mental health within construction that companies educate their workforce about the diverse range of mental health conditions and the causes, as well as raising awareness and offering support to lead the way in reducing the stigma associated with mental illness.
Nathan Johnson, Assistant Business Manager and Mental Health Champion at Coreus Group, commented: “In recent years, the construction industry has seen a substantial shift in the attitude towards mental health, and the support available. This change is hugely positive and has already made good inroads in helping those most in need.
However, I believe there is a need for more focus to be placed on reaching people with early-stage support requirements before they reach crisis point. A key step towards realising this will come with an increased awareness of mental health, and how it is defined. Recognizing that mental health can be in a good, adequate, or poor state, just as physical health can, will in turn encourage people to take stock of their mental health more regularly, and reach out for support before an issue escalates.”
Mental Health Training
In recognition of the rising rates of poor mental health across the country, the Government have pledged a funding pot of £500 million for a Recovery Action Plan to accelerate the expansion of mental health services and provide people with the support they need. The construction industry must tackle the issue of mental health head on and engage with Government representatives and mental health professionals to identify risks and improve awareness through training and staff events. One recommendation is that the Construction Skills Certification Scheme (CSCS) is reviewed to include mental health support and the Health and Safety (First Aid) Regulations 1981 are updated to ensure workplaces make provisions for mental health first aid.
Statistics from Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England show 1 in 5 people take a day off due to stress but 90% of these people report a different reason for their absence. Mental ill health is responsible for 72 million working days lost and costs £34.9 billion each year. 69% of UK line managers say that supporting employee wellbeing is a core skill, but only 13% have received mental health training. Construction companies can pave the way for the future by educating and training managers and employees to spot the early warning signs of mental health disorders in their work colleagues to prevent serious issues further down the line. Making mental health a priority on the agenda is not just beneficial for the well-being of the workforce, but also improves business efficiency and reduces the associated costs of poor management of mental health conditions.
Zoe Anastasi, Project Manager (Designate) at Willmott Dixon Commented: “At Willmott Dixon we recognise we have a huge responsibility to our own people and the hundreds of partners that work on our sites every day across the country. In 2018 we launched All Safe Minds. This was a change in culture and attitude around mental health.
So far we have trained over 300 of our own people as Mental Health First Aiders and we deliver mental health awareness toolbox talks on our sites. We have also started to deliver these toolbox talks in schools and colleges, to raise awareness and breakdown stigmas with our next generation of construction workers.”