Stigma around mental health still discourages people from speaking up, but by offering a more supportive environment, construction employers can better promote mental wellbeing – and the health of the business too
THE construction industry takes great care in protecting staff from visible risks, ensuring all precautions are taken to maintain the physical wellbeing of its workers.
Despite this, construction is still one of the most dangerous sectors to work in thanks to the big presence of a risk that isn’t visible: employee mental health.
“Safety is one of the biggest concerns in the construction industry, and since one of the biggest risks to workers in construction today is that posed by mental health problems, addressing them needs to be at the top of an employer’s list of priorities,” says Daniel Ure from Vizwear, an online retailer of personal protective equipment (PPE).
“Unfortunately, there’s still a stigma around this topic, which causes too many people to keep their issues to themselves. This can lead to disastrous consequences, which is why it’s so important for employers to protect their staff.”
The state of mental health in construction
In the UK, mental health issues lead to over 70 million sick days per year. Whether it’s anxiety, depression or stress, mental health causes more sick days than any other health condition and costs our economy between £70 billion and £100 billion each year.
However, struggles with mental health can have much more serious ramifications – and in no other industry is that quite so evident as in construction.
Data from the Office of National Statistics found that between 2011 and 2015, the highest number of suicides were found in skilled construction workers. With over 1,400 in-work suicides, this sector makes up over 13% of those recorded, despite construction only accounting for 7% of the UK workforce.
Construction News created a survey along with Mind Matters to identify any changes to mental health in construction between 2017-2018. Although 67% of respondents believe awareness has improved over this period, the results show no real improvement to mental health in the industry and that 81% believe there is still a stigma.
While mental health issues can affect anyone, men are particularly vulnerable: 76% of recorded suicides in the UK are committed by men, with suicide being the biggest cause of death in men under 35.
And with men making up 89% of the workforce, this is a particularly problematic issue for the construction industry.
The working lifestyle of a construction worker can take its toll. Workers will often work long, demanding hours and can spend their days away from home for weeks at a time. Without a private, safe space to unwind, all the stresses of work add up and make it difficult to switch off.
The working environment – where speaking about emotional or mental issues has historically been stigmatized – is also to blame, as the ‘macho’ image of construction workers makes it difficult to talk about mental health.
Thankfully, there are several positive initiatives employers can take, as well as registered charities and support groups dedicated to the wellbeing of construction workers.
What are the signs?
Unlike physical injuries, mental health issues are difficult to spot and are often kept secret. However, there are a few common telltale signs when someone is struggling with their mental health:
- They find it difficult to problem-solve
- They are easily distracted and are less productive than usual
- They lack self-confidence
- They are easily agitated and create conflict amongst co-workers
- They feel easily overwhelmed
- They are increasingly late or absent from work
- They often isolate themselves from others
What can employers do?
The best way for the construction industry to tackle the importance of employee mental health is from the top. Business owners and management need to implement the same safety standards they take towards physical health and safety and use them to safeguard mental health.
There are several steps that managers can take to create a positive work environment for their staff so that mental health can be comfortably addressed, rather than hidden away.
- Create a supportive culture
The first step for a manager is to evaluate the culture of their workforce to detect any potential pain points for staff. This can range from employee workloads to how staff communicate with each other throughout the business.
By putting their business under a microscope, managers can build a strong, supportive work culture from the ground up. This will help to establish mental wellbeing as a crucial value of the company, meaning open discussions about employee mental health will become the norm.
- Educate employees
By making education a priority, employers can help to remove the stigma of mental health and ensure their staff understand the negative impacts that can affect anyone.
This can range from providing easily accessible information for your staff to hiring third-party organisations, such as Mates in Mind, to come in for regular staff training days.
With a team of knowledgable employees, a company will find it easier to combat any dangers and empower their staff to support each other when facing difficulties with their mental health. Improving awareness creates more opportunities to spot early signs of coworkers struggling and creates an overall healthier workplace environment.
- Be open and available
Mental health is a private matter to many people, which makes it difficult to speak about openly. Without establishing a clear and open line of communication, it’s much more likely that workers will keep their troubles to themselves.
By letting employees know that they always have someone to talk to, they are much more likely to come out of their shell and identify any health problems like anxiety or depression early enough to put in place counteractive measures.
It can be difficult in construction as employees don’t often have a static working environment, so site managers should take it upon themselves to establish regular catch ups with staff to evaluate their wellbeing.
- Be vigilant
Tackling mental health takes a lot more than running a one-off seminar. Many mental health issues take time to be resolved, which means companies need to be aware of their staff’s needs all year round.
By continuing to offer training, guidance and support to their employees, mental health care will be embedded into a company’s culture and will become a natural part of its safety protocol – not just ticking a box on a form.
- Put a support system in place
Spotting the early signs is important, yet employers also need to ensure they create a safety net for their staff. Companies need to make sure that helpful information is readily available for employees so that anyone struggling with their mental health knows where to turn to receive support through services like counselling and therapy.
When it comes to protecting your employees’ mental health, there are a few resources available for extra support.
As of January 2017, the Health in Construction Leadership Group (HCLG) established Mates in Mind, its own registered charity whose sole purpose is to raise awareness and provide support for the mental wellbeing of construction workers.
Mates in Mind have a goal to reach 75% of the construction industry by 2025 and offer training courses based on four key elements: Awareness & Education, Guidance & Support, Communication and Research & Development.
If you work in construction and need urgent help or support in regards to your mental health, there are also a number of confidential services and advice lines available:
- Construction Industry Helpline 0345 605 1956 – provided by the Lighthouse Construction Industry Charity, the helpline advises on a range of matters including occupational health and wellbeing, support and advice for people with stress. The services can also provide emergency financial aid to the construction community in times of crisis
- Mind 0300 123 393 – provides advice and support to anyone experiencing a mental health problem
- Samaritans 116 123 – confidential 24-hour support for people who are experiencing feelings of distress, despair or suicidal thoughts
“Despite construction’s reputation for poor mental health, there are actually a lot of support systems in place to help protect the workers,” says Daniel from Vizwear.
“Communication is still the biggest obstacle between employees and management, which is why confidential advice lines are so important. By giving construction workers the opportunity to discuss their mental health in a supportive environment, they can take positive steps without the need to speak publicly.
“If more workers make use of these services, they will feel more comfortable speaking to their employers about their mental health, which is the first step to making real change in the industry.”