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How can we solve the £100 billion mental health crisis within UK construction?

How can the construction industry improve mental health? Discover how to help struggling workers, boost productivity, reduce absenteeism and improve staff retention.

For every £1 spent on staff wellbeing, employers get back £5 in terms of productivity1. It’s time for construction to catch up with more progressive industries.

Construction is in the middle of a mental health emergency and the statistics are shocking. Every working day in the UK, two construction workers die by their own hand according to construction charity Building Mental Health; meanwhile an additional 26% — one in four — have thought about taking their own lives.

It’s been called the ‘silent epidemic’: Work-related stress, anxiety, and depression are taking their toll on building site staff, with many of them feeling unable to talk about their symptoms to colleagues and supervisors. More than one in 10 (14.3%) construction workers take time out because of mental health issues or elevated stress levels. And almost three in five don’t disclose their mental health problems to employers. The figures could be conservative estimates due to the limited amounts of people surveyed, and workers’ traditional reluctance to talk about the issue.

Workers’ inability to open up about their mental health means that many are resorting to self-medication: A recent study found that construction workers and supervisors are more likely to abuse prescription pain medication, cocaine, alcohol, and marijuana than people in other high-stress occupations.

These worrying statistics are a consequence of construction’s macho culture, in which workers pay a price for the stigmatising of mental health issues and an entrenched reluctance to seek help when they are struggling.

The ‘suck it up’ attitude has had its day, though. The industry is ripe for change.

Why is construction’s mental health record so poor?

Difficult working conditions

Construction is a tough job that has the potential to trigger and exacerbate anxiety and depression. Long hours, irregular pay, and working conditions that have traditionally been cold and dirty are among the challenges affecting employee wellbeing. Additionally, the ‘hire and fire’ nature of the job can leave workers with worries surrounding their ability to support themselves and their families, leading to feelings of worthlessness.

Piecework

Nearly half of all UK construction workers are self-employed and paid by productivity: the number of bricks laid for bricklaying or work per square metre for plastering. Slow workflow can trigger worker stress and there can be burnout from taking on too much. Weather-related site shutdowns or delays in the delivery of materials can also elevate stress levels.

Bullying

Banter might build camaraderie but, when it spills over into bullying, it can have a devastating effect. Bullying can also involve tactics such as verbal, non-verbal, psychological and physical abuse, as well as humiliation. Workers who experience bullying are twice as likely to experience suicidal thoughts. In the UK, one in five construction workers have been affected, of which a third didn’t discuss the subject with peers or managers. The behaviour is labelled as banter, according to more than a quarter (28%) of employees.

Lack of support networks

Working in the construction industry can involve a lot of long distance travel, as well as extended amounts of time spent away on site, away from families, friendship groups, and other support networks.

Implications for construction companies

Absenteeism

In UK construction, stress, anxiety, and depression account for one-fifth of work-related illnesses, resulting in a staggering 70 million sick days per year at an estimated annual cost of £70 billion-£100 billion.

Accidents

A large-scale study carried out in the mid 2000s indicated that people reporting high levels of stress experienced a higher occurrence of accidents at work. Furthermore, higher stress is significantly associated with lower productivity.

Legal action

All employers are legally bound to ensure that their employees are not exposed to unreasonable harm at work, both physical and psychological. This includes protection from bullying, harassment, and stress. A failure to take reasonable measures to prevent injury to workers – whether physically or psychologically — could leave employers open to legal action.

How to help workers: construction mental health charities

More than half (56%) of construction professionals report that their workplaces have no mental health provision, so there is a way to go.

Organisations are working to promote change, however.

Education

The industry-backed Mates In Mind dedicates itself to improve mental health across construction and its related sectors. Mates in Mind educates staff, managers, and leaders to help them understand their roles and responsibilities relating to mental wellbeing. It helps construction companies set up mental health programmes, works with them to create stress management policies, and develops programmes that connect workers with appropriate support.

Intervention

Another UK construction charity, The Lighthouse Club, wants to educate everyone in the industry to recognise the signs and symptoms of colleagues who are struggling and to help them start conversations. It also manages the 24/7 Construction Industry Helpline. Available on 0345 605 1956, it offers emergency financial aid to construction families in crisis, gives advice on occupational health and mental wellbeing, and offers support on legal, tax, and debt management matters.

Mental health first aiders

Building Mental Health encourages the industry to embrace good mental health. Its goal is to make best practice and information readily available, reduce stigma, and educate workers on where and when to seek help. It also arranges mental health first aider training.

How your construction insurance broker can help with worker mental health

As awareness of the benefits of good mental health grows, construction companies are partnering with their insurance brokers to increase the help they give to workers.

Self assessment

A broker might start by providing a mental health self-assessment to help companies measure where they are regarding the UK Government’s Thriving at Work report. The survey provided by Marsh is anonymous in order to protect participants’ privacy. This can offer an insight into employee wellbeing and provide a starting point to improve current practices.

Training

They might arrange training to help construction firms assess how staff will benefit from investing in mental health. Assessments and surveys could be undertaken to measure the current state of mental health and wellbeing, with analytics being used to develop reports to support future strategies.

Communication

They might also develop communication strategies and provide training programmes, workshops, and sessions on mindfulness, wellbeing, nutrition, and financial matters.

The benefits of good mental health in construction

A content workforce has an improved quality of life and helps to boost business performance. Workers who are mentally healthy are more productive, plus they are less likely to be involved in workplace accidents, which reduces the potential of investigations from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).

Firms promoting good mental health, implementing support initiatives and working to move out of a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ workplace culture are likely to benefit from reduced absenteeism and presenteeism (turning up for work when not fully functional), and greater employee retention.

Mental health provisions also help companies to comply with the Health and Safety at Work Act (1974) and to maintain cover under business liability insurance policies.

Encourage construction workers to talk

Workers are likely to appreciate the chance to open up, says Marc Preston, CEO of New Foundation Counselling, which offers mental health services for people in the construction and property industries. He says, “Prince Harry sought counselling while struggling to come to terms with the death of his mother and he makes a very good point: ‘The experience I’ve had is once you start talking about it, you realise you’re part of quite a big club.’

“And it’s true, whether you’re a prince, a CEO or a tradesperson, everyone has mental health. The acceptance of this simple truth will, I believe, revolutionise the approach to mental health. And it will remove the stigma that forms a barrier to dealing with this everyday issue.”

1 Deloitte - Mental health and employers: Refreshing the case for investment

 

Looking for help?

If you or someone you know needs support, Samaritans are available to talk 24/7 on 116 123. Calls are free of charge. They are also available on email at jo@samaritans.org. They aim to respond within 24 hours.