COVID-19 - How to Support Construction Workers' Mental Health

Mental health is an important issue in UK construction. Contractors, developers, and civil engineers are committing themselves to improving workers' wellbeing, but the robustness of fledgling initiatives could be greatly tested by COVID-19.

The pandemic has caused widespread anxiety related to site shutdowns. In a recent industry coronavirus survey, for example, many subcontractors and main contractors expressed worries about the risks of mixing with others while commuting to work and working onsite. Yet the closure of building sites could mean pay cuts, furlough-related inactivity, social isolation, and joblessness fears.

During the lockdown, whether their sites remain open or closed, firms must work harder to support their workers' mental and emotional resilience.

When conducting a construction risk assessment and embedding a strategy, managers need to pay attention to staff make-up, company culture, and attitudes towards mental health. Sickness absences must be managed, and staff with mental health difficulties must be provided with appropriate occupational health and HR support.

Preventative Measures

Preventative measures include, but are not limited to:

1. Set the Foundations

Risk assessment: Employers have a legal duty to protect employees from stress at work by assessing the risks and acting on the findings. Visit the HSE website for guidelines on formulating a mental health risk assessment. Advice can also be sought from specialist companies that help construction employers optimise their employees' mental health.

Staff survey: Optimise mental health policies by surveying employees regarding their needs. Maximise survey participation by considering the following:

  • Issue invitation emails and reminder memos to employees.
  • Print and distribute leaflets – many staff might not have access to email.
  • Encourage participation during toolbox talks.
  • Use multiple formats to promote the survey. Drum up attention with posters, newsletters, intranet postings, and reminders added to email signatures.
  • Gain employee confidence. Make it clear the survey is anonymous. Detail how their feedback could improve their working lives.
  • Make the survey easy to complete. Keep it short and to the point, using clear, concise language.
  • Recruit supervisors and influential employees to promote the survey. Workers are more likely to complete a survey when they feel confident their supervisor values their opinions and see company influencers supporting the initiative.

2. Take Action

The construction site risk assessment and staff survey should pinpoint areas of concern. Practical next steps include:

  • Create a safe working environment for employees, with suitable equipment.
  • Train staff effectively. Provide them with clearly defined roles and realistic targets.
  • Control the hours worked to ensure they are not excessive. Be confident that employees are able to manage their workloads.
  • Allow employees to take appropriate breaks. Provide them with designated areas for rest and relaxation.
  • Protect staff from bullying, harassment, and discrimination, whether from colleagues or third parties.
  • Put in place confidential employee assistance programmes.

3. Review Your Processes

Mental health strategies must be flexible to respond to the workforce’s needs. Optimise your policies and processes by auditing them regularly:

  • Conduct regular mental health screenings.
  • Consult staff on issues that concern them.
  • Enable employees to raise concerns through appropriate channels.
  • Promote good mental health practices regularly, including by dovetailing with annual campaigns such as Stress Awareness Month and Mental Health Awareness Week.

Tailor Your Plan

The occupations associated with construction work present specific challenges when structuring and implementing a mental health wellbeing policy. For example, working from height is a high-risk activity — almost one in five construction industry deaths involve roof work. Employers must consider how working from height amplifies the risk for workers with mental health difficulties.

Construction risk managers also need to consider how the following issues might affect uptake of available help:

  • Spreading the word. As they are not office-based, site workers could have little or no access to an employer's intranet, HR department, or occupational health staff. This can limit their awareness of available support.
  • Lack of training. Workers need to feel assured that supervisors, site managers, and others will listen compassionately and keep their personal information confidential. Mental health training for managers needs to run parallel with resources made available to workers.
  • Knowing vs doing. There is a difference between knowing what is good for you and doing something about it. During periods of stress, depression, anxiety, or extreme fatigue, employees could find it difficult to muster the emotional resources to talk about their issues and to create change in their lives. Consult with your company occupational health or human resources department for advice on dealing with this issue.

While the COVID-19 pandemic is temporary, mental health — good and bad — is always with us. There is not a more appropriate time for construction companies to work with their employees to improve their long term wellbeing.