While the physical safety of workers is prioritised on building sites, mental health is often disregarded, 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 sickness in the construction sector between 2013/14-2015/16, with more than 14,000 self-reported cases and 400,000 working days lost yearly.
Cited as the “forgotten health and safety issue” by mental health charity Samaritans, Prime Minister Theresa May recently committed to tackle the challenges around mental health, noting that it is “something of a hidden injustice” with “unacceptable stigma”.
And with 80 per cent of construction employees likely to suffer from some type of work- related stress, the relevance 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.
An estimated 5,250 men between the ages of 15 and 49 take their own lives each year, making suicide the biggest cause of mortality among this demographic. And with 10 to 15 per cent of those expected to work in construction, workers in the male-dominated sector are six times more likely to die from suicide than a fall from height — data that have proved to be a “massive industry- wide wake-up call,” says Hill.
Although the Lighthouse Club was originally established in 1956 as a philanthropic organisation, it has now evolved into a resource for persons in the construction industry in need of financial assistance, advise on health and safety issues, and emotional and legal assistance.
The committed industry charity has gone from strength-to-strength, raising more than £15 million, assisting 16,000 families in the UK and the UK and delivering 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 adds there is also a correlation between mental health and worksite harm. “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 what should construction firms look for and how can they help when it comes to spotting mental health issues? “The key thing is change,” adds 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.
“Signs that something isn’t right include unusual behaviour, such as outbursts of anger or excessive drinking or smoking.”
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\s“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,” adds 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.”
Working with the Considerate Constructors programme, which offers 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, the Lighthouse Club has recently set up a free telephone hotline that offers services on occupational health and well-being, in recognition that talking about problems with colleagues or support workers on site can be intimidating.
And with posters now visible in about 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.
The Lighthouse Club is utilising mindfulness practises in conjunction with Building Site to Boardroom (BS2B), one of a number of programmes aimed at raising awareness within the industry.
It was created in 2015 by a group of ex-builders to teach construction workers how to use mindfulness approaches to reduce stress and improve their overall well-being, productivity, and efficiency through video animation and four core values – personal responsibility, equal dignity, personal integrity, and authenticity.
According to Hill, the software, which construction workers can use on their phones, uses cartoon characters to help those with mental health concerns stay focused.
“Because of the industry’s macho image, there is always some resistance when talking about mental health,” explains David Lee, director of BS2B.
Working his way up the building ladder for 27 years, Lee knows a thing or two about finding the right tools to make life simpler on the inside, as he says, “As a builder, I discovered there were plenty of tools to make life easier on the outside”
Having suffered with depression, Lee turned to alcohol as the burden of demanding workloads and project deadlines intensified. But understanding this was impacting on family life, he asked 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 authored a book entitled The Hairy Arsed Builder’s Guide to Stress Management to help others deal with their own challenges.
Passionate about increasing awareness of good mental health, Skanska was one of the first construction businesses to promise to eradicate discrimination by signing the Time to Change pledge in partnership with the charities Mind and Rethink Mental Illness.
Mental Health First Aid England has trained around 200 of the company’s employees, who have formed an informal network of ambassadors who offer assistance to anyone in need of talking during times of stress or anxiety.
And with mental health a taboo subject across the sector, Dylan Roberts, director of health and safety at Skanska, believes people find it difficult to ask for help.
And it’s hard to tell when someone is struggling, he adds.
Together with other industry leaders, Skanska has launched Mates in Mind, a first-of-its-kind UK-wide initiative to improve mental health in the construction industry.
With the help of the British Safety Council, the Health in Construction Leadership Group (HCLG) — a group that includes construction customers, contractors, trade groups, professional organisations, the HSE, and labour unions — the initiative was officially launched this past January.
“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 directed to support programmes or specialist help where required,” he adds.