While the construction industry has made significant inroads into safety in recent decades, there has been less focus on the ‘health’ in health and safety. However, in recent years the industry has united to improve focus on health, and one of the areas in which we have seen increased attention is mental health.
Research into mental health in construction is still in its infancy, but what we know is that this is a significant issue. Data published by the Office for National Statistics in March 2017, Suicide by occupation, England: 2011-2015, showed that, during this period, over 1,400 construction workers completed suicide and the rate of suicide among lower-skilled workers was almost four-times higher than the national average. These represent known suicides, where a coroner has ruled a verdict of suicide, so it may mask a higher figure. Furthermore, we know that in many cases, people who complete suicide had never reached out for support, according to Mental Health Analysis Profiles: OECD [Organisation for Economic and Co-operation and Development] Working Paper No. 81, by E Hewlett and K Horner, published in July 2015.
There are numerous factors specific to construction work which exacerbate poor mental wellbeing. From tight deadlines, often with penalties for non-compliance, to long commutes, low rates of pay, job insecurity, isolation and fatigue. There is also a high percentage of foreign nationals working in the sector where English is not their first language, so cultural and language barriers can make it difficult for foreign nationals to access support. Less understood is the impact of mental health on areas like safety, turnover, job satisfaction and absence.
It is also important that we better educate employees in mental health. There are many misconceptions and misunderstandings, and these have fuelled much of the stigma. From everyday stressors which each and everyone of us face and react differently to; to common mental health issues, or neurotic conditions, extreme forms of normal emotional experiences such as depression, anxiety, phobias and obsessive compulsive disorders, which affect around one in six in any given week; to severe mental health problems, that is psychotic conditions which interfere with our perception of reality and manifest themselves in conditions such as schizophrenia, bi-polar conditions or clinical depression, which affect around one in 100 people.
There are various professional support services available within the construction industry. For example, the construction industry helpline, which among other services provides telephone access to counsellors and is freely available to anyone in the industry. Employee assistance programmes (EAP) are common, although less prevalent than in other industries, as well as occupational health services.
However, for construction organisations to truly address mental health in construction, changes to culture and business practice are needed. While communication and confidentiality concerns play a factor in use of professional support services like EAPs, one of the biggest drivers is human nature. We generally only reach out for help at a point of crisis, which, in some cases, can be too late.
Importantly, wellbeing is the responsibility of both employees and the organisation. It is not enough to simply offer benefits, training and support to workers without looking at the actions and behaviours of the organisation.
Successful approaches to addressing mental health are those which are embedded into the culture and take a joined-up approach. For example, employers could create environments where people feel safe in talking about their feelings or problems, starting with leaders and managers opening up the forum; implement and adhere to a mental health plan, with policies which support, not penalise people who are struggling; enable leaders and managers to better understand how to spot the signs and to support their people and help them understand how their actions impact the wellbeing and performance of their teams; equip people with a better understanding of mental health and encourage open conversations which ensure everyone knows who and where to turn to for support, whether co-workers, managers or professional support services; help people to recognise the impact of stressors and address them early; provide staff with access to appropriate support tools; provide good working conditions and promote effective people management, addressing factors such as job control and work demands, for example, which have a key influence on worker wellbeing and performance.
One of the first steps organisations should look at is to make their people feel comfortable talking about mental health issues, and to adopt a ‘no-red card’ approach: if they are struggling, there is no shame, they will not be penalised, but supported.
So how do we know when we have got it right? The construction industry is still in the early stages of addressing the issue, but the desire to get it right is tremendous. As programmes and approaches evolve, so does the need to better ascertain the effectiveness of our approaches, from routinely monitoring employee mental health and wellbeing, to robust absence data capture and management.
Stephen Haynes is the programme manager for Mates in Mind, a charity set up for and by the UK construction industry