While the physical safety of workers is prioritised on construction sites, mental health is often overlooked, reports Claire Cameron
But according to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), stress, depression or anxiety accounted for almost a fifth (18 per cent) of work-related illness in the construction sector between 2013/14-2015/16, with more than 14,000 self-reported cases and 400,000 working days lost annually.
Cited as the “forgotten health and safety issue” by mental health charity Samaritans, Prime Minister Theresa May recently promised to tackle the issues around mental health, acknowledging that it is “something of a hidden injustice” with “unacceptable stigma”.
And with 80 per cent of construction workers believed to suffer from some kind of work- related stress, the significance of mental health in the sector has really come to the fore in recent years, explains Bill Hill, chief executive of the Construction Industry Charity the Lighthouse Club.
Suicide is now the leading cause of death in men aged 15-49 with an estimated 5,250 taking their own life each year. And with 10 to 15 per cent of those likely to work in construction, workers in the male-dominated sector are six times more likely to die from suicide than a fall from height – statistics that have proved to be a “massive industry- wide wake-up call,” says Hill.
Originally set up as a benevolent fund in 1956, the Lighthouse Club has since diversified and now provides financial assistance, welfare and wellbeing advice, as well as emotional and legal support to those working in construction.
The dedicated industry charity has gone from strength-to-strength, raising more than £15 million, helping 16,000 families in the UK and Ireland and offering a “beacon of hope” to those who need it.
“Mental health is an issue that can affect any of us and demands the same level of attention from our industry as physical health,” says Edward Hardy, chief executive of the Considerate Constructors Scheme, which says all employers should have systems in place to recognise issues within their workforce and a support structure for employees to offer help and guidance.
Hill agrees and says there is also a correlation between mental health and onsite injury. “If somebody’s mind is distracted for even a split second while they are driving or using plant and machinery, it could cause also cause physical damage because their mind isn’t on the job,” he says.
But when it comes to identifying mental health issues, what should construction firms be looking for and how can they help? “The key thing is change,” says Hill.
“If somebody is usually quite lively and chatty and over a period of weeks becomes quieter and more introspective then there is something going on in the background.
“Unusual behaviour like outbursts of anger or if someone is drinking or smoking more than usual are also signs that something isn’t right.”
Challenging the stereotypes and stigma of mental illness by getting the industry talking is the key, explains Hill, and identifying workers who have signs and symptoms of stress, anxiety, depression or are heavily addicted to alcohol or drugs is important because these can be
“lead-in factors to suicide”.
“The reason why the suicide rate is lower for women is because they talk to each other and have that support network,” says Hill. “Men are conditioned in a certain way and it’s even tougher for them to make that breakthrough to talk in an industry that is so macho.”
Recognising that discussing a problem with a colleague or support worker onsite can be daunting, the Lighthouse Club has recently worked with the Considerate Constructors programme – which also provides a ‘go-to’ series of practical resources so that workers do not “feel ashamed or embarrassed to seek help” through its Spotlight On…Mental Health campaign – to set up a free telephone hotline which offers services on occupational health and wellbeing while also supporting and giving advice to sufferers of stress and addiction- related illness.
And with posters now displayed in around 9,000 construction sites, the 24/7 helpline “is available to anyone in the construction industry and can deliver mental first aid over the telephone,” says Hill.
Working with Building Site to Boardroom (BS2B) – one of a number of initiatives raising awareness in the sector – the Lighthouse Club is also utilising mindfulness techniques as a way forward.
Set up by a group of former builders in 2015, the online training programme uses video animation and four core values – personal responsibility, equal dignity, personal integrity and authenticity – to teach construction workers to use mindfulness approaches to help reduce stress while improving wellbeing, productivity and efficiency.
Making use of building trade cartoon characters, the app, which workers can use on their phone, can help those suffering with mental health issues to stay focused, explains Hill.
“Because of the industry’s macho image there is always some resistance when talking about mental health, so we concentrate on developing emotional and inner wellbeing,” explains BS2B’s director David Lee.
And, having spent 27 years in construction working his way up from labourer to contracts manager, Lee speaks from experience when he says: “As a builder, I discovered there were plenty of tools to make life easier on the outside but not so easy to find the tools to make life easier on the inside.”
Having battled with depression, Lee turned to alcohol as the pressure of demanding workloads and project deadlines increased. But realising this was impacting on family life, he looked for some support and advice.
“I stopped drinking nine years ago and attended workshops where I discovered the coping methods I needed, which I could then share with fellow workers,” explains Lee, who has written a book entitled The Hairy Arsed Builder’s Guide to Stress Management to help others deal with their own issues.
Passionate about raising awareness of good mental health, Skanska was one of the first construction companies to commit to end discrimination by signing the Time to Change pledge in association with the charities Mind and Rethink Mental Illness.
Around 200 of its employees have now received training from Mental Health First Aid England to form a network of onsite
ambassadors who provide informal support to anyone needing to talk during times of stress or anxiety.
And with mental health a taboo subject across the industry, Dylan Roberts, director of health and safety at Skanska, believes people find it difficult to ask for help.
“It’s also difficult to spot the signs of someone who may be struggling,” he says.
Skanska has united with other industry leaders to launch Mates in Mind – the first UK-wide programme to promote positive mental health across the construction sector.
The scheme, launched in January and supported by the British Safety Council, is brought to the industry by the Health in Construction Leadership Group (HCLG) – a collective of clients, contractors, trade associations, professional bodies, HSE and trade unions.
“Mates in Mind aims to upskill individuals within the industry to be aware of the potential causes, triggers and symptoms,” explains Steve Hails, director of health, safety and wellbeing at Tideway and chair of the board of the Mates in Mind charity.
“The programme will give the necessary support so that individuals can be signposted to support programmes or specialist help where required,” he adds.