Organisations in the construction sector should avoid over-medicalising mental health and explore peer-support if they want workers to seek help.
Research by the Institute for Employment Studies (IES) for mental health charity Mates in Mind found that feelings of stress and anxiety were widespread among construction workers at small businesses and self-employed tradespeople.
Forty-four per cent felt their high workload contributed to feelings of stress and anxiety, while 37% said they felt low because of their relationships with their business partners or colleagues.
Around a third felt family or relationship problems caused feelings of stress and anxiety, and 35% reported feeling low because of pressure at work.
“There is a very high prevalence of mental health issues in this sector, particularly anxiety and depression. People in this sector have up to three times the national rate of male suicide – it’s partly demographic, it’s partly occupational, but it’s really difficult to untangle the two,” said Stephen Bevan, head of HR research at the IES.
The study of 300 mainly male construction workers, the preliminary results of which were highlighted on a Mates in Mind webinar today (20 January), found that they would rather speak to a friend, family member or participate in an online course offered by a trade body than speak to a clinician about their mental health concerns.
Construction sector health
Asked about their actions when experiencing low mood in the past six months, 35% found themselves drinking more alcohol than usual and 16% had taken non-prescription drugs.
Fewer than one in five sought support from their GP for their mental health and only 3% had counselling or therapy.
Bevan said it was difficult to get this group the support they needed because of the nature of their work, and because smaller businesses often did not offer access to occupational health, counselling or employee assistance programmes that can sometimes be valuable.
“This is essentially a group of people who are not seeking mainstream support for their mental health,” said Bevan.
“[The data are] concerning on two fronts: that so few people feel that their GP is a trusted form of support, and that relatively few people will consider counselling or therapy as a way of support their mental wellbeing.
“Some of the conventional sources of support are not well-regarded, particularly GPs, although trade body and some charity resources may have a bit more impact. Although the support and use of these is relatively low, it’s certainly being used more than the clinical side.”
Employers may find that avoiding clinical language may encourage more construction workers to open up about their mental health and any support they might need, suggested Bevan.
“Talking about ‘mood’ is far better than talking about ‘anxiety’, which could be quite triggering and difficult for people to talk about,” he said.
Talking about ‘mood’ is far better than talking about ‘anxiety’, which could be quite triggering and difficult for people to talk about” – Stephen Bevan, Institute for Employment Studies
He advised organisations, trade bodies and charities to find people who were able to use the right language and open up conversations about mental health in a way that was “non-threatening” and “non-judgemental”.
Professor Dame Carol Black, who formerly advised the UK government on the relationship between work and health, said: “It’s disappointing to see so much anxiety. We hoped we were making progress, but I think the point is that this is a particularly hard to reach group of people.
“If they really feel they can’t go to their GP – and GPs are so overworked at the moment so they may not even get an appointment – we need to think about how we enable trade bodies, charities and organisations to support them more effectively.”
She suggested that construction firms might consider using peer support to get people to talk about their mood, particularly as more than 80% of the survey respondents said they had provided support to a family member, friend or colleague who has experienced stress.
Black also suggested offering employees a “holistic MOT”, which could assess their physical as well as mental health.
Asked about their physical health issues in the two weeks prior to completing the survey, 74% had poor or interrupted sleep that led to fatigue at work; 70% experienced back, neck or shoulder pain; 51% had headaches or migraine; and 47% experienced arthritis or joint pain.