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Health and Safety

Mental health in construction

Luke Pitt - Last Update: 02 Oct 2020

Contents

The silent epidemic

Mental health at work

Mental health in male-dominated industries

How to manage mental health in construction teams

How to apply management standards

 

 

luke pitt.jpg (1)
Luke Pitt

Luke is TSW's Head of Health and Safety. 

He has two fellowships with the International Institute of Risk and Safety Management and the Royal Society for Public Health.

Most health and safety policies are focused on physical wellbeing. But are industries fixated on physical safety also caring for mental health?

Key points

  • Suicide rates among middle-aged men are rising in the UK. The Samaritans class them as a 'high-risk group'
  • According to the Office of National Statistics (ONS) men aged 45-49 years had the highest age-specific suicide rate with 25.5 lives lost per 100,000
  • The HSE has created management standards to help health and safety managers create a supportive framework to reduce stress and protect mental health

The silent epidemic

A single hand reaches out of the sea

When I was 18, my Dad died of a heart attack. In hindsight, his shadow has stayed in the background ever since.

Even though bereavement affects everyone, it still isn't talked about openly.

I could have done with some kind of non-judgemental anonymous ear to talk through what was going on in my mind. For someone to put context to my situation so that I could stop the inner thought spiralling.

Often the things that ran through my mind were quite irrational but once I talked to someone about it, it became manageable, in context.

Ordinary feelings we don't talk about

Mental Health awareness became a big focus for me when I heard a statistic in a conversation, that stated that over 90% of all the UK workforce that had suffered bereavement never talked to anyone about that loss.

I was staggard that this had been so casually mentioned and so looked for proof of it.

I didn’t find that statistic but started to believe when researching that maybe the point is correct and that most of us who suffer loss, maybe of a pet, or a close member of the family or just someone who meant a lot to you, don’t get that time to discuss what that loss means and as such start the process of healing.

To extend this train of thought, what about other mental health issues such as anxiety or depression which can’t so easily be seen as it’s 'on the inside', the 'shadow' as some would call it, how do we as employers, moreover, how do we as human beings deal with what we can’t see?

Mental health at work

According to the health and safety executive (HSE), around one in four people in the UK will experience issues with their mental health. 

Work-related stress, anxiety and depression cause 12.8 million lost working days a year (around 5 per worker).

But, sadly, it's only the tip of the iceberg. The HRD says that 95% of those taking time off because of stress gave a different reason for their time off.

Suicide in construction kills more people than falls, and depression and anxiety have overtaken musculoskeletal disorders

Mental health in male-dominated industries

Almost a third of construction workers are middle-aged men, the age group most likely to experience mental health problems. 

  • Men account for just over 87% of the workforce in construction.
  • Thanks to census data, we also know that 26.7% of men working in construction are aged between 40-49 years old.
  • The Samaritans class middle-aged men as a high-risk suicide category. It found that men in this age bracket (45-49), had the highest suicide rate, recording 25.5 deaths per 100,000.

Debunking stereotypes

A handwritten note reads 'phone a friend'

 

Construction is stereotyped as a tough industry where to talk about feelings is a no go area. That's a harmful misconception that perpetuates tired and damaging points of view.

'Man up', for example, is a jokey yet cruel response to vulnerability, but it's in common use.

If you're shamed for your most basic feelings, like 'I feel tired today', you less likely to speak up when it becomes exhaustion, or sadness or loneliness. 

The construction industry is held ransom by emotional silence, but workers want that to change - 64% of construction workers want better mental wellbeing support. So what can we do?

How to manage mental health in construction teams

I am leaning more towards the concept of not trying to deal with this generically.

As in, not just having a phone line number to call, but, to embrace the mental health issue and attempt to reduce the stigma around discussing how we feel like it’s a weakness.

We must train our staff to recognise symptoms and signpost where they can obtain help. If we fail, we almost focus too much on the generic and maybe, as a result, offer no help at all.

An open environment, supported by management and staff alike, will make a huge difference to a crisis that we now face and can no longer ignore.

It's the responsibility of health and safety managers to challenge stigma and create a secure and non-judgemental environment to protect workers in construction. 

So maybe our strategy is to be more open-book about mental health so that all staff feel they can talk about what matters to them. Our minds are wonderful things but sometimes we need to recalibrate our thoughts and offer our brains an alternative way to think that only an external influencer can provide.

How to apply management standards

A poster reading 'better days are coming, hang in there'

The HSE has developed a set of management standards, spanning six areas that will help to reduce stress and protect mental health.

It claims that if employers don't manage these six areas, productivity will drop and accident and sickness absence rates will increase:

  • Manage the demands placed on your employee, for example, keep an eye on the volume of workload, work patterns and the work environment
  • Put the employee in the driving seat and let them have a say in the way they do their work
  • Encourage, sponsor and support your employee, and create resources on behalf of your organisation to support line management and colleagues
  • Build a positive workplace culture, avoid conflict and deal with unacceptable behaviour
  • Clearly define roles and give everyone a sense of purpose
  • Tackle organisation changes transparently and communicate clearly and regularly

Your managers and team leaders need the training to recognise the signs of anxiety, stress and depression.

They must also have emotional dexterity and intelligence to support someone who's resistant to mental health as a concept or isn't ready to ask for help. 

Feelings aren't always visible on the surface, in fact, we've been programmed to push it to the back of our minds and carry on as normal. 

That's why it's so important to have a functional mental health framework working in the background, to keep their working lives manageable.

The whole industry is heading for a mental health overhaul. You can help action change in your organisation by educating everyone on staff about the realities of mental health. 

Creating context

Stress, anxiety and depression are clinical terms.

It's difficult to give them a context and voice in the workplace. They're a doctor's diagnosis - what place do they have on a building site? In what context is it okay to bring problems to work?

A personal crisis affects how you see the world and sometimes, it can affect how you do your job. The change can be short-term or be transformational, but either way, the things that cause your stress levels to rise are relevant. 

You're not there to diagnose, or summon employees for counselling or support - that must come from them. What you can do is prep the environment and internal knowledge so that everyone is ready for a mental health crisis, can recognise the symptoms of depression, or anxiety or stress, and respond pro-actively and positively. 

How you mobilise and respond should give your employees the confidence that the way they feel is okay and you're going to be supportive, not judgemental. 

Look out for stressful life events

Your team might be more comfortable describing the situation they're in, rather than delving into the turmoil they're holding inside.

Although you can never presume to understand someone's feelings, statements like, 'I'm divorcing my partner', or 'I'm moving home' tells you a lot about what's going on in their world.

What you can do is manage a supportive culture around them, without asking for details they're not comfortable enough to share. 

You can coach your managers and team leaders to look out for life events that will raise stress levels:

  • Bereavement
  • Divorce
  • Moving house
  • Weddings
  • New children
  • Change in income (partner has lost their job, for example)
  • New management
  • Redundancies 

You may find that talking about change lays the ground-work to talk about mental health later down the line, especially if you work in an industry like construction where mental health is still an uncomfortable taboo.

Regular one-to-one meetings with your employees and building team rapport will help you to support them through life events and changes.

Mental health support for construction workers

Building Mental Health (BMH) has created 'an industry-wide framework and charter to tackle the mental health crisis in the construction industry.' It provides access to mental health support, awareness training and puts in place systems and structures to support everyone in construction.

Time to Change Wales is a charity working to make lives better for everyone in Wales by ending mental health discrimination. It advocates sharing experiences to end the stigma. You could organise talks from influential people who are facing their mental health difficulties from inside or outside your organisation.

And Mind has a fantastic resources section to guide how to approach mental health at work.

 In February 2020, TSW signed the Time To Change Wales pledge to help end the stigma surrounding mental health. If you want help weaving mental health safety practices into your policies and procedures, we can support you.