When you think of the important attributes of construction workers, physical health is probably one of the first things that comes to mind. Builders have to be fighting fit so they can lift heavy loads and reduce the risk of injuries. But when it comes to mental health, the construction industry falls far behind.
Suicide kills more construction workers than falls every year. It’s harrowing but true. In fact, male construction workers are three times more likely to commit suicide than the average man in the UK.
But why is this? And what can be done to fix the systemic issues that have led to these appalling figures?
Why is mental health in the construction industry so bad?
Imagine you’re in a dangerous job – you could slip and fall, and your career would be over. Your job could always be in jeopardy (especially after construction giant Carillion went into liquidation in 2018), or you might not know when you’ll receive your next paycheck. Perhaps you have to be away from your family for long periods of time and you don’t have access to paid sick leave.
This is what construction workers are facing – and that’s just the men. Women often face poor or no toilet facilities on sites on top of all of that. It’s no wonder mental health in the construction industry is far below average.
One of the main issues seems to be the ‘tough bloke’ image in the male-dominated sector. Workers are expected to be physically fit above all else, and with limited access to HR resources, there’s a stigma attached to speaking up about mental health issues.
But what many don’t realise is how physical problems are connected to mental health. Minor injuries can cause musculoskeletal issues that cause physical performance to dip, and mental health takes a hit at the same time. Meanwhile 2,000 accidents a year means that people are unable to return to work, taking a hit in income.
This all creates a perfect storm, and that’s why 23% of construction workers are looking to leave the industry in the next 12 months.
The industry is capable of change, though – and things do need to change. It can’t continue with accounting for 13.2% of workplace suicides while only making up 7% of the UK’s total workforce.
What needs to change?
Workers are eager for structural changes – 64% want better physical and mental health and wellbeing support from their employers. The time has come for firms to offer robust mental health support for all their staff, but this will involve a culture shift.
So just how can change be brought about?
Finding mental health partners
One initiative making waves in mental health in the construction industry is Building Mental Health. A volunteer group made up of clients, contractors, designers, trade unions, regulators and more, its goal is threefold:
- Encouraging the industry to engage in and embrace the mental health agenda
- Making best practice and information readily and freely available
- Ensuring that the industry removes the stigma surrounding mental health through education
Construction firms are able to sign the Building Mental Health Charter to show that they’re committed to change, and the website also hosts valuable resources like frameworks, videos and training.
Another charity working in the UK is Mates in Mind, set up by the Health in Construction Leadership Group in September 2016. Its long-term goal is ambitious: the charity aims to reach 75% of the construction industry by 2025 through supply chain and trade body collaboration. Its core partners include MHFA England, Mind and Samaritans. Balfour Beatty, Heathrow and Willmott Dixon have all signed up as partner organisations.
Partnering with a mental health charity or initiative is a great place to start. These organisations can help you plan your framework and approach to shifting attitudes towards mental health, and they provide a confidential third party for employees to talk to.
Comprehensive mental health training is essential for tackling the crisis in the construction industry. Both employers and employees need to know the warning signs of depression and anxiety, and how to approach colleagues who may need help.
The most commonly cited indicators of declining or poor mental health are:
- Increased lateness or more days absentee
- Decreased productivity due to distraction and cognitive slowing
- A lack of self-confidence
- Isolation from peers
- Agitation and increased conflict among co-workers
- Increased voluntary and involuntary attrition
- Increased feelings of being overwhelmed
- Decreased problem-solving ability
Being able to spot these, and having an HR system to log them on with no repercussions, will encourage reporting and conversations, leading to a more open environment.
Changing the culture
This is easier said than done, but it’s a key point in shifting attitudes towards mental health in the construction industry.
The best way to do this is to start at the top and work down. Work with leadership teams so that they can provide comprehensive support to those below them, and then trickle policies down through the company. The changing attitudes of line managers will allow a more open environment – workers won’t fear coming forward with issues. Employees themselves can then be upskilled to recognise and support those who are struggling.
Some firms have gone a step further in changing their workplace culture. For example, Willmott Dixon has set up its own initiative, All Safe Minds, encouraging employees to reach out to colleagues, line managers or professional counsellors. Continuing to provide services and training will start a culture shift that is sorely needed to improve mental health in the construction industry.
Physical, face-to-face screenings
With physical and mental health being so closely linked, some experts have proposed the idea of offering free health screenings to contractors and subcontractors. In sessions, workers will be able to discuss their physical wellbeing and have a safe space to confide in a third party if they have any mental health worries.
This also has the added benefit of showing construction workers the links between the two. High blood pressure, for instance, is a physical symptom of anxiety.
These screenings are affordable and even the smallest firms can make use of them as part of a broader programme. They also come with the added bonus of confidentiality – no disclosures can negatively impact careers.
For the most change to happen, there are issues that need to be addressed at a national policy level. Campaigners are currently looking to get the Construction Skills Certification Scheme altered so that it includes mental health support, and many are pushing for Health and Safety (First-Aid) Regulations 1981 to include mental first aid.
These changes would see mental health provisions enshrined in law, making it easier for firms to form their own inclusive policies and be the change we need to see in mental health in the construction industry.