UK construction workers are turning to drink, non-prescription drugs use and even self-harming because of high levels of mental distress, a situation compounded by continuing stigma around seeking professional help.
These are the early conclusions from a study of the mental health of self-employed construction workers and those working in small firms carried out by Mates in Mind and the Institute for Employment Studies (IES).
Intense workloads, financial problems, poor work-life balance and Covid-19 pressures on the supply of materials were all combining to significantly raise stress and anxiety levels, the survey of more than 300 workers has concluded.
This mainly male workforce has long been known to contain workers who are reluctant to talk about their mental health, Mates in Mind has warned.
The preliminary survey findings also suggested that almost a third were now living with elevated levels of anxiety each day.
The construction workers, including bricklayers, ground-workers and plasterers, told the researchers that the continuing stigma of mental illness often prevented them from discussing their anxieties beyond close friends or family members.
Health within construction
“We have a real concern that the data shows that sole traders and those working in smaller firms with more severe anxiety were least likely to seek help from most sources,” said Sarah Casemore, managing director of Mates in Mind.
“This means that too many construction workers every day are going under the radar and are not seeking support from healthcare professionals or mental health charities. This represents a real hidden crisis which threatens the viability of a major sector of the UK economy and many of those who work in it,” she added.
The study, funded by a research grant from B&CE Charitable Trust, is investigating both the extent of mental health problems within the construction sector and the extent to which new, more accessible, forms of support and guidance on mental wellbeing can be offered to individuals experiencing distress, depression, or anxiety.
The Office for National Statistics has estimated that the suicide rate among construction workers is already three times the national average for men, equating to more than two construction workers taking their own life every day.
The situation is compounded by the fact that occupational health provision within the sector is patchy, with the Constructing Better Health scheme shutting down last year because of the pressures on the industry from the pandemic. Another challenge from a health and wellbeing perspective is that so many within the sector are either self-employed or work for small contractors, or both.
Stephen Bevan, head of HR research development at the IES, added: “We have been concerned to find that so many construction workers are finding it hard to disclose their mental health problems and that these are also causing them to lose sleep, develop severe joint pain and exhibit greater irritability with colleagues and even family members.”
The full research findings are expected to be published in January.