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Mental Health Awareness Week: A spotlight on the construction industry

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Male site workers in construction are three times more likely to commit suicide than the average UK male. This shocking mental health statistic is a vivid reminder of the difficulties faced by many working in the construction industry every day.

Troubling data from the Office of National Statistics found that between 2011 and 2015, of the 13,232 in-work suicides recorded, those within the skilled construction and building trades made up 13.2% – despite construction accounting for little over 7% of the UK workforce.  

Why construction?

The construction industry lifestyle is undoubtedly both challenging and stressful. Long and demanding  working hours, working away from home on site for weeks at a time and the lingering unease in the industry, particularly following Carillion's recent collapse, are just some of the factors contributing to poor mental health. In a workforce that is predominantly male, specific risks associated with male mental health also need to be considered. The "tough guy" image widespread in the construction industry is very much to blame. Asking for help and opening up about emotions are just not things that come naturally to many of those working in the industry. The combination of these factors results  in many suffering in silence.

Know the signs

Whilst poor mental health can manifest itself differently from individual to individual, the Construction Financial Management Association has set out some useful signs to look out for that can indicate poorly managed or untreated mental health conditions:

  • increased lateness, absenteeism and presenteeism (showing up to work physically, but not being able to function);
  • decreased productivity due to distraction and cognitive slowing;
  • lack of self-confidence;
  • isolation from peers;
  • agitation and increased interpersonal conflict among co-workers;
  • increased voluntary and involuntary attrition;
  • increased feelings of being overwhelmed; and
  • decreased problem solving ability.

What can employers do?

The statistics as they stand are clearly unacceptable – mental health needs to be made an urgent priority by all employers in the construction industry. Emily Pearson, Head of Workplace Wellbeing at Be. The Centre for Wellbeing (a mental health charity based in Newcastle upon Tyne specialising in corporate mental health and workplace wellbeing) has provided the following steps that all employers can take to actively improve the health and wellbeing of their workforce.

1. Culture check - Undertake a culture check to establish the culture of the workforce and where there may be particular pain points for staff due to job design and work related stress;

2.  Culture change – A change in the culture surrounding mental health needs to start at the top. Leadership teams can show commitment to creating a culture change towards mentally healthier workplaces and workforces by signing the Time to Change Pledge or by investing in a Workplace Wellbeing Strategy to create culture change in a safe and structured manner;

3. Mental health safety net – Employers should ensure their employees have access to and are aware of support available through counselling and therapy services;

4.Up-skilling and education – Team leaders responsible for supporting employees should have sufficient knowledge and skills to be able to spot the signs of poor mental health and to provide support and guidance;

5. Peer support – Employers should up-skill and educate employees so they can look out for any peers who may be struggling with their mental health. Knowing how to start the conversation and knowing how to safely signpost peers to mental health services can make a huge difference at the early signs of mental health difficulty;

6. Reduce stigma – Employers need to reduce stigma, raise awareness, change attitudes and provide knowledge to empower employees to look after their mental health and wellbeing; and

7. Embed and repeat – It is essential that employers continue to provide these interventions, services and training in order to embed culture change – not just tick the mental health box.

Commercial factors

Employers need to prioritise mental health in the workplace for commercial reasons too. Unrecognised and unsupported mental health issues can have a massive impact on a company's revenue.

According to the National Building Specification, mental health issues account for people taking almost 70mn days off sick per year – the most of any health condition – costing the UK economy between £70bn and £100bn a year.

What can everyone do?

Established in 2016 by the Health in Construction Leadership Group with the support of the British Safety Council, Mates in Mind, aims to make sense of the options and support available to employers and individuals. As well as providing guidance for employers, it also provides useful tools for employees.

But the easiest thing that we can all do is talk. If you are concerned about a colleague, ask them if they're ok. See if they want to go for a walk or a cup of tea at lunchtime. Generally create a safe environment so they can open up to you if they need to.

Even if you don't suspect a colleague is struggling, be careful of the language you use anyway. Insensitive words or phrases can increase the stigma surrounding mental health and make it even harder for the people around you to feel like they can talk about any issues they're facing.

Physical health and safety is already taken extremely seriously in the construction industry however statistics suggest that the most dangerous thing on a building site is the human mind. In a time where suicide kills more people in the construction industry than falls from height, it is only right that mental health and safety is given the same level of thought, time and investment as other site hazards to ensure that the workers in the industry are truly protected.

The industry has taken steps to reduce the stigma around mental health and to improve support but there is more that each and every one of us can do just by being aware of the signs and encouraging people to talk. Do not underestimate the impact you can make just by talking to someone. You could change someone's life.

By Solicitors Kara Price and Sarah Wales at transatlantic law firm Womble Bond Dickinson

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