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A survey has shown that, since the pandemic, an average of two UK construction workers commit suicide every day.  Spending time away from families, using high-risk equipment, and the stress of self-employment can all contribute to deterioration in mental health.  In fact, construction is by far the worst sector in terms of mental health and the situation has reached a breaking point – so what’s being done about it?  Here we round up some helpful resources for workers and managers, and a course for anybody interested in providing mental health first aid.

What’s happening?

The statistics are horrifying.  Construction workers are three times as likely to take their lives as people working in any other sector.  90% of construction managers reported struggling with their own mental health; and after the pandemic in 2021, Construction News reported that 97% of construction workers said they’d experienced stress – and 25% had suicidal thoughts.

But poor mental health isn’t just cases of suicide and it’s important not to simplify it because there is a wide range of mental illnesses that can cause people to draw back, miss months of work, or even be hospitalised.

Anxiety can cause physical symptoms such as chest pains and breathing difficulties, among many others, and is difficult to diagnose, with many people failing to recognise the issue until it becomes severe.

It can be caused by personal issues such as financial debts and relationship breakdowns and, with around 50% of the construction industry being self-employed, loneliness and a lack of business training can also cause extreme stress and anxiety.  The conditions on-site – working away from home or with high-risk equipment – increase the risks to mental health.

Time to stop the stigma

“Men aren’t known for openly discussing their feelings.”
Lendlease employee, “Mental Health in Construction” film.

We’re slowly moving towards a world where mental health is taken more seriously.  On construction sites, the largely male and older population is unlikely to be among the early adopters, but it’s time to address the issue.  Ending the stigma around “serious” conversations about feelings is the first step, but it’s not easy.

While nobody is expecting construction workers to provide the sole support structure for their colleagues, there are now plenty of resources to share with someone who seems to be struggling.  The Lighthouse Club is funded by the industry and offers a helpline as well as free counselling sessions and access to grants for those in financial hardship.  Employers and colleagues who promote these initiatives could be throwing a lifeline to somebody who is silently suffering.

Changing our attitude towards mental health

If an employee breaks a bone, they take weeks off work.  But a mental illness is not treated in the same way, and its symptoms are often hidden beneath the surface until it’s too late.

The future points towards mental health “training” – a culture where people maintain their mental health in the same way as their physical health.  Consider it as a “gym membership” for the mind.  By using healthy tactics to relieve stress and tackle problems, people are less likely to reach a crisis point.

Other industries are already adopting this approach.  Virgin runs a programme for teams to tackle a digital challenge which takes a virtual journey around the world.  It is focused on wellbeing and includes challenges and resources to help enhance mental health.  This isn’t about treating mental health issues but building strong, resilient mental health.

Resources for construction managers

The mental health crisis has caused hundreds of thousands of days of lost labour and approximately £37 billion of lost revenue last year.  It has become more and more difficult to recruit new staff and the industry’s reputation has been going downhill.  It is increasingly important for managers to prioritise staff wellbeing and make the site a more positive place to be.

Building Mental Health is a website created by a group of construction industry managers.  It’s an extremely helpful resource and includes a five-step plan to begin improving the support system in your place of employment.

1 – Sign the Building Mental Health charter to demonstrate your commitment to the plan.  This is your first step in defeating the stigma – and showing your staff that you take mental health seriously.

2 – Promote the industry helplines among your staff.  A good one is the Construction Industry Helpline which can also be downloaded and used as an App, for those who might not be forthcoming on the telephone.  (You can visit the site to order stickers and wallet-sized cards to give to your staff.)

3 – Give a Mental Health talk to encourage openness and conversation: you can use the Toolbox Talk template.  (You could tie this in with the national Big Brew event.)

4 – A Mental Health Training session enables you to cover topics in more detail and look at resources giving support for specific concerns.

5 – Ensure that you have at least one or more Mental Health First Aiders on-site – and make sure that your workers are aware who they are.  There are certified courses for this, including ours.(Remember that First Aid is for emergencies, and it is always best to avoid reaching that point.)

Managers are responsible for making sure that employees have a manageable workload.  This might be achieved by starting open conversations about work – asking people how they are doing and whether they are overloaded.  In this way managers can help to mitigate stress and raise morale.

Stress at management level

As a manager, you may find it even more difficult to open up about mental health issues: there can be a perception that you’re expected to “keep it all together”.  You can initiate a change by being more open in conversation yourself and if it feels uncomfortable, you might begin by talking about mental health issues you’ve had in the past.  Signing up to make a change is the first step towards creating a team of supportive and open people.

Our Mental Health First Aid course is incredibly useful for managers as it helps you to learn conversational techniques to support your workforce.

The Big Brew

The charity Band of Builders is running a mental health event called The Big Brew for 2 weeks starting on 1st October.  It will raise money for new support services aimed at construction workers, as well as raising awareness on the ground.

The Big Brew is a good excuse to get people chatting and to encourage more open conversations.  Talking about the importance of openness and honesty might help someone to share their inner thoughts and ultimately feel more supported at work. A chat is a small thing, but it could be a huge relief to someone who is storing anxiety.

Construction companies are invited to register and raise funds for the cause: this might include a cake sale or a team event that attracts sponsorship.

You could also use the day to schedule a Mental Health Training session.  There are resources online including the World Health Organisation’s films produced for World Mental Health Day (Sunday 10th October, 2021).

Sign up via the Big Brew website and download some of the posters and flyers to print and start advertising your event.

Mental Health First Aid Training

Role Group courses include Mental Health first aid, which is aimed at providing colleague-to-colleague emergency assistance in the workplace.  Train as a Mental Health First Aider and you could offer life-changing support to your colleagues.

The course includes:
– an introduction to mental health
– some of the signs of poor mental health
– the skills to step in and reassure people who are visibly suffering at work
– non-judgemental listening skills
– details about further resources to share with people at work.

Becoming a Mental health First Aider marks you out as someone who can be approached in confidence.  It’s a valuable qualification that will also improve your employment opportunities.

Our Adult Mental Health First Aid course takes 2 days and doesn’t have any entry criteria, except for fluency in English.

Visit our Training page to explore the range of courses currently scheduled.

RESOURCES

The Big Brew event
https://www.bandofbuilders.org/get-involved/the-big-brew/

The Big Brew in the Builder’s Merchants’ News:
https://www.buildersmerchantsnews.co.uk/Merchants-urged-to-join-in-Big-Brew-to-tackle-mental-health-crisis-in-construction/51611

Building mental health: toolkit and other resources
https://www.buildingmentalhealth.net/

Suicide study, 2021
https://www.constructionnews.co.uk/health-and-safety/increase-in-suicide-rate-shows-site-workers-still-need-to-be-reached-02-07-2021/

Post-pandemic survey
https://www.constructionnews.co.uk/agenda/mind-matters/mental-health-what-can-be-done-about-constructions-performance-07-06-2021/

World Health Organisation – Mental Health Day
https://www.who.int/campaigns/world-mental-health-day/2021