Construction workers ‘deserve to go home safely’

Vania Goncalves 2 Mar 2017 EUROPE

Stress, depression or anxiety is significantly affecting our society. According to mental health charity Mind, 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health issue in any given year and, according to the Centre for Mental Health, at any one time 1 in 6 workers is experiencing depression, anxiety or stress — and construction workers are not immune to it.

Heavy workloads, long working hours, extensive travel, family separation, fear of redundancy, job insecurity and low pay are some of the stress factors affecting them.  

The UK construction industry employs around 2.1M people, of which 350,000 have already experienced a mental health issue, a figure based on research by the Office for National Statistics (ONS). A survey carried out in 2016 by UCATT, which merged with Unite on 1 January 2017, provides further evidence of this problem.

The survey among construction workers members of the union revealed that 64% of the respondents were suffering from stress and 76% said they had at some point suffered stress in the workplace. Furthermore, 35% of respondents said that they were suffering from a mental illness or had suffered from a mental illness.

“The industry itself is waking up to these quite startling statistics and trying to do something about it,” says Bill Hill, chief executive of the Lighthouse Construction Industry Charity, which funds and supports the Construction Industry Helpline.

The Construction Industry Helpline delivers emergency financial aid to construction workers and provides assistance to those who are feeling anxious or depressed. The 24/7 helpline was created three years ago and has already recorded a sharp rise in demand.

“The number of calls is increasing year-on-year. The calls that are increasing quite dramatically are the ones about other issues [including stress, depression or anxiety]. When we started, the other issues calls were around 10% and the financial calls were at 90%, and now it’s almost 50-50. I believe that maybe in three years’ time it will be 90% of other issues calls and 10% financial,” says Hill.

This significant increase in calls reported by the Construction Industry Helpline does not erase the fact that there is still a stigma when talking about mental health in the construction industry.  

Hill says: “It’s going to be a very long journey to change the culture [in the industry], because construction is very macho, and it’s a very macho environment where men particularly don’t feel comfortable talking about their feelings as they think that it’s a weakness.

“Optimally we want everybody to feel comfortable talking about what is going on with them. It’s going to take a long time to break down some of the established traditions in the industry, but if we don’t start now, when are we going to start?”

And the union agrees. “There is still a generally perceived stigma about mental health, and workers may not feel able to raise concerns for fear of losing their job. We would expect employers to provide support to their employees who have mental health problems,” says a Unite spokesperson.

Several cases of depression, stress or anxiety have led to many taking their own lives and the statistics are pretty scary. According to the Samaritans, every 90 minutes someone in the UK and Ireland dies by suicide, and research suggests that in the construction industry people could be 10 times more likely to die by suicide than from on-site accidents, says Mates in Mind.

Gail Cartmail, Unite acting general secretary, says: “The way construction is organized is a direct contributor to the high number of suicides in the industry. If the industry was truly serious about improving the mental wellbeing of its workers then it would end the predominance of precarious employment that fuels individual’s insecurity and debt. Instead of valuing the workforce, the construction industry on the whole has a very poor record in looking after the mental well-being of its workforce.”

Hill adds: “We know that this is a huge problem and even from a financial point of view there are many [working] days lost every year through mental illness. If we can make people more comfortable and happy at work, there will be a higher productivity and they will enjoy themselves at work so much more.”

* Source: Centre for Mental Health.

Tackling mental health

A new programme set to address mental health in the construction industry was recently launched by the British Safety Council and the Health in Construction Leadership Group at the second CEO health summit of the Health in Construction Leadership Group (HCLG).

The Mates in Mind programme is designed to raise awareness and promote positive mental health within the workplace, according to Joscelyne Shaw, the programme director.  

The programme aims to give managers the tools, information and training to make construction a healthier workplace and help them start conversations with staff about their mental wellbeing and address the stigma associated with mental health.

Unveiling the details of Mates in Mind, Steve Hails, director of health, safety & wellbeing at Tideway, an executive member of the Health in Construction Leadership Group and chair of Mates in Mind, said: “At the heart of it is a three-tier approach, starting with 45-minute general awareness training for operatives that will begin the conversation about mental health. Its third most advanced form is a two-day programme to train volunteer mental health champions who will support workers suffering from mental ill health. We are looking for 100% support from the industry for this initiative.”

The programme will also include a 3.5-hour training course to increase awareness of mental ill health — targeted at foremen, supervisors and managers.

Shaw says: “The training course/modules have already been designed and tailored to the needs of the construction sector. The materials are being tested by a pre-selected group of organisations before they are fully rolled out industry wide.”

Companies participating in the testing include Thames Water, Heathrow Airport, Balfour Beatty, Careys Group and Willmott Dixon. Mates in Mind is being supported by Mind, Mental Health First Aid England and the Samaritans.

The programme, expected to be rolled out in the spring, aims to reach 75% of the construction workforce by 2025 and engage 100,000 workers in a conversation about mental health in the first year.

A similar programme was launched by the Lendlease Group, a multinational property and infrastructure company based in Sydney, and with regional offices in New York, Singapore and London, in October 2014.

The Global Health and Wellbeing Framework aims at building awareness, providing readily accessible tools and resources, implementing an approach to recovery and maintenance for people, and to lead to the development of mentally healthy workplaces in the industry.

Lendlease’s group head of sustainability, Geoff Dutaillis, says: “We believe every person who works with us, and for us, has the right to return home in the same way they arrived at work, if not better. Over the last several years, we have evolved and extended our notion of caring for people to include their mental health.

“We partner with expert organisations around the world to roll out some very successful programs to raise awareness, educate, support and better understand mental health, with the expertise of our partners like beyondblue, Mates in Construction and Mental Health First Aid, and I’m proud to say we now have over 850 Lendlease people trained in mental health first aid across our global operations.

“Our goal is to have a trained Mental Health First Aid officer on every site and project, to provide support to all our people including our extensive contractor workforce. The primary responsibilities of the 850 Mental Health First Aiders are to assess and assist in a crisis, listen, give support, encourage professional help and encourage engagement with other support networks.”

Enough support?

The Construction Industry Helpline, Mates in Mind and Lendlease’s Global Health and Wellbeing Framework are some of the initiatives and programmes that support construction workers suffering with mental health issues. But is this support enough?

Shaw says: “There are now an increasing number of campaigns in the industry and generally across the society that are raising the general awareness of the issue and making it more commonplace.”

There seems to be significant support across the industry, but not all of the construction workers affected are seeking it. Hill says: “I believe the support is there, but it is very difficult to get the culture right to be able to access that support and that is one of the biggest problems. If everybody who is suffering accessed that support then there wouldn’t be enough.  

“ [Construction workers] feel uncomfortable about accessing it, so what we are going to do is create a culture where it’s okay to feel down and talk to somebody about it.”

He adds: “If we can help people get more mental resilience or personal resilience, then we will help them focus on their job, and if they are focusing on their job and not on their problems, then there is less chance of them causing an accident or being in an accident and the ultimate thing that any construction company wants is for all of the workforce to go home safely. Everybody deserves to go home safely.”

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