In many areas and industries, the social stigma around talking about mental health is gradually fading, with more and more companies now providing wellbeing programmes and other interventions. However, within the construction industry progress remains patchy, and this needs to change, argues Carl Laidler.
Work-related ill health is increasing in the construction sector, according to the Health and Safety Executive. There were 82,000 ill health cases in 2017-2018, up 2,000 from the year before. This cost the UK economy £160m in lost working days.
However, while physical health is very much on the construction industry’s radar, of real and growing concern is mental health. The same data shows stress, depression and anxiety has increased by 10% from 2016-2017, with a fifth of all cases of ill health in the sector stemming from mental health issues. Consequently, over 400,000 work days are lost each year.
About the author
Carl Laidler is director of screening programmes at Health Shield
The construction industry is vital to the UK economy. The country’s one million construction firms employ 2.4 million people and the sector contributes £113bn to the nation’s economy according to government statistics. It is therefore crucial that improving mental health among its workers becomes a priority.
Absence and productivity aside, even more worryingly, Office for National Statistics’ figures show the risk of suicide among low-skilled male labourers, particularly those working in construction, was three times higher than the male national average. Every working day two construction workers take their own life according to the Lighthouse Club construction industry charity.
What is causing mental health problems within construction?
There are a range of systemic issues in the construction industry creating a perfect storm of stress, anxiety and depression. The construction industry provides a challenging and pressurised lifestyle.
Long hours, demanding workloads, projects which are often short-term and far from home, as well as an underlying unease following Carillion’s collapse in 2018 and Bovis’ recent shock profit warning are just some of the factors contributing to poor mental health. Combine this with a predominantly male workforce, the majority of whom want to project a “macho” image, and it’s easy for mental health problems to take root and become overwhelming.
Across society there is a growing awareness of the benefits of discussing mental health issues, but this societal change is taking time to filter through the construction industry. Asking for help and opening up about feelings and emotions are not things that come naturally to many of those working in construction.
The nature of construction work also lends itself to an increase in mental health problems. Many construction workers are temporary or contractors and the lack of job security can contribute to stress and anxiety. Added to this is the fact there is often no paid sick leave, holidays or access to company health programmes, which mean it’s harder for them to get the support they need to fully recover if they are suffering from mental ill health.
Working in construction is also by its nature physical and often dangerous. Each year around 2,000 accidents leave workers unable to return to work, and many more experience minor injuries such as musculoskeletal issues that make work difficult. This in itself can increase stress, anxiety and the likelihood of depression, but long-term overuse of painkillers to deal with physical health issues can also lead to serious mental health problems.
What is the solution?
It won’t be easy to lose the stigma attached to talking about mental health, but gradually the industry is waking up to the issue. The Building Mental Health initiative has been set up by industry experts to provide support and advice to increase awareness of mental health in construction. It provides a range of resources to help support better mental health and has a charter that organisations can sign to show their commitment to raising awareness.
Last year, the initiative also joined with the Lighthouse Club charity to launch a helpline aimed at people who want to get more information about how they can help themselves or take the next step in seeking professional help. It is a preventative tool and provides support at the initial stages of a situation so the problem doesn’t spiral out of control.
Some of the UK’s largest construction businesses have also recognised the importance of dealing with this issue. Skanska has joined with other industry leaders to launch Mates in Mind – a UK-wide programme to promote positive mental health across the construction sector. Willmott Dixon has set up the All Safe Minds campaign to make sure that people working on its project sites across the UK are fully aware of the support network available in case they are suffering from mental health issues.
However, as worthwhile as these initiatives are, in the short term at least they are unlikely to overcome the stigma that many construction industry workers still feel about discussing their mental health. The sad truth is that large numbers of workers will never approach their employer, or even an independent service, to seek support about their mental health. This is especially true of older workers, who are not as comfortable talking about their emotions as newer recruits into the industry.
Incorporating mental health into physical screenings
Using physical screenings as the basis for discussing mental health issues may well be the solution. Regular physical wellbeing screenings offer a foundation to building a trusted rapport with healthcare professionals and can provide the worker with a valuable link between mental and physical ill-health. For example, there are physical indicators such as high blood pressure that can segue seamlessly into a discussion about stress levels and then to talking about how that individual can access support.
Another benefit is that screenings can be used by all types of companies and are affordable and accessible for even the smallest firms that are unable to provide a broader workplace wellbeing programme. Physical health screenings are confidential and, once confidentiality is proven, discussions about mental health can be broached without fear of reprisals.
For example, office fit-out and refurbishment specialist Overbury has been using health screenings over the past six years to provide a cost-effective solution for staff. John Coyle, director of health, safety and wellbeing there, believes screenings provide the personal contact needed to help direct workers to support before a situation spirals out of control.
“The key is that face-to-face health screenings give our employees and subcontractors the opportunity to talk to a practitioner,” he explains. “That enables them to be open without the risk of the employer being told. They are given advice and more importantly they are signposted to other support available to them, such as our confidential employee assistance helpline, through which coping skills and counselling are available.
“Many of our staff are in key roles like site management and they may feel that disclosure could negatively impact their careers. Health screenings help solve that problem.”
While screenings are confidential, Overbury can use anonymised data to highlight trends, such as stress, from which targeted programmes like its ‘transforming stress into resilience’ training can be developed. “We want to proactively help our staff and prevent problems from occurring wherever possible,” Coyle says.
With two people per day taking their own life in the UK, it is vital for the construction industry to find solutions to improving the mental health of its workforce.
HSE releases latest health and safety statistics for construction, https://www.healthinconstruction.co.uk/single-post/2018/12/06/HSE-releases-latest-health-and-safety-statistics
The construction industry: statistics and policy, House of Commons, December 2018, https://researchbriefings.parliament.uk/ResearchBriefing/Summary/SN01432
Suicide by occupation, England: 2011-2015, Office for National Statistics, March 2017, https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/deaths/articles/suicidebyoccupation/england2011to2015#main-points
New App launched to support Construction Worker’s Mental Health, November 2018, Lighthouse Club, https://www.lighthouseclub.org/helpline-app/
Building Mental Health, https://www.buildingmentalhealth.net/
Mates in Mind https://www.matesinmind.org/
All Safe Minds https://www.willmottdixon.co.uk/how-we-do-it/all-safe-minds