Mental Health in the Construction Industry: 5 Key Improvements

As a nation we have felt uncomfortable discussing our mental health because there has been a negative stigma attached to it that has made it difficult for sufferers to speak out and seek help. 792 million people worldwide are affected by mental health issues and in a study conducted by MATES in Construction, mental health issues affect as many as one in four construction workers. Construction has a dangerous suicide rate that is three times the national average. 87.5% of the construction workforce are male and with suicide rates among men on the increase, there is growing concern that mental health conditions affecting construction workers has reached crisis point. So, what can the industry do to recognise mental health and how can more support be offered to improve well-being?

1. Culture Change

Construction has always been a male-dominated industry and inherent beliefs that men should be ‘tough’, and ‘macho’ translate into huge risk factors when it comes to talking about mental health in this sector. The industry needs to break down these gender stereotypes to encourage men to talk about how they are feeling and issues that are affecting them. The culture within construction needs to change and the rhetoric needs to shift from an old-fashioned definition of masculinity inferring men should ‘just get on with it’ to a 21st century acceptance that men should ‘talk about it.’ As the sector continues to encourage and attract more women into construction roles, this will have a positive impact on diluting the prevalent male bravado culture and will promote an environment where open communication and feeling comfortable asking for help are normalised.

2. Raise Awareness

Three quarters of all registered deaths from suicides in the UK are men. Data from the Office of National Statistics show 13.2% of suicides reported at work between 2011-2015 were people from the skilled construction and building trades, an alarming figure when you consider that construction accounts for just over 7% of the UK workforce. Males aged 45-49 years of age had the highest suicide rate. With an ageing male-majority workforce, it is crucial that construction companies raise awareness of mental health problems and develop an environment where employees feel safe and secure talking about issues that could affect their well-being.

A report commissioned by the Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB) in 2019 revealed 26% of construction industry professionals had experienced suicidal thoughts. This statistic is likely to be much higher now post the COVID-19 pandemic which has had a detrimental impact on people’s mental health. The CIOB report, ‘Understanding Mental Health in the Built Environment’, also highlighted 56% of construction professionals work for organisations with no policies on mental health in the workplace. Construction companies must show their commitment to raising awareness and tackling the problem by introducing policies that are sensitive and considerate to mental health. Implementing a mental health policy and conducting team meetings to openly discuss and encourage dialogue surrounding the topic firmly puts this important issue on the agenda and helps employees to feel supported.

The Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention is helping to raise awareness about the risk of suicide in the industry and provides companies tools and resources to create a safe environment.

3. Offer Support

It is important for construction companies to ensure a robust support network is integrated throughout their team, so individuals feel supported, and an open and safe working environment is created. People often suffer in silence with mental health issues, worried about the repercussions or discrimination that might occur because of opening up and talking about a personal and often highly emotive subject. Companies must recognise that employees might not immediately feel comfortable asking for help, which is why it vital to make resources available to teams, equipping them with a support toolkit so they know where they can turn to seek help and advice. Building Mental Health is a voluntary group of people from the construction industry who collate information and best practice around mental health issues. They are advocates of the Building Mental Health Charter; a process map designed for construction organisations to pledge their commitment to promoting awareness and understanding of mental health, reducing stigma, and supporting employees.

Construction companies can help their employees by introducing an employee assistance programme, ensuring there is always a trained member of staff available to talk to who is qualified to handle mental health issues. All construction employees should be made aware of the Construction Industry Helpline, as well as dedicated mental health charities such as MIND. Consideration should be given to employment benefits packages that include professional counselling services, sick leave for mental health days and flexible working arrangements to accommodate therapy appointments around shift work.

More than 30% of all construction sites have no hot water, and no toilet facilities for workers. These things have an impact on mental health and wellbeing. Construction companies must strive to improve conditions to ensure the working environment is not adversely affecting the health of employees.

4. Educate

Education is empowerment, so it is a key consideration when addressing the deteriorating state of mental health within construction that companies educate their workforce about the diverse range of mental health conditions and the causes, as well as raising awareness and offering support to lead the way in reducing the stigma associated with mental illness.

A career in construction can be varied and very rewarding, but it can also be stressful and demanding, both physically and emotionally. Long hours, time away from loved ones, manual and physically demanding work, chronic pain from work-related injuries and the fear of seasonal redundancies can cause exhaustion, pressure, job insecurity and in some cases drug or alcohol abuse; all contributing factors to poor mental health that can manifest as conditions like depression, anxiety, and PTSD.

5. Mental Health Training

The Government identify that mental health awareness and support is critical to improving the well-being of the workforce across the country and have pledged a funding pot of £500 million for a Recovery Action Plan to accelerate the expansion of mental health services and provide people with the support they need.

The construction industry must tackle the issue of mental health head on and start to engage with the Government and mental health professionals to identify risks and improve awareness through training and staff events. It is recommended that the Construction Skills Certification Scheme (CSCS) is reviewed to include mental health support and the Health and Safety (First-Aid) Regulations 1981 are updated to ensure workplaces make provisions for mental first aid.

Education and training will help managers and employees to spot the early warning signs of mental health disorders in their work colleagues. These can include reduced productivity, lateness or absenteeism, uncharacteristic aggression or confrontation with co-workers, a lack of self-confidence and withdrawn behaviour, becoming increasingly isolated from the team. Trained mental health first-aiders will be well-prepared to recognise these symptoms and respond appropriately.

Statistics from Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England show 1 in 5 people take a day off due to stress but 90% of these people report a different reason for their absence. Mental ill health is responsible for 72 million working days lost and costs £34.9 billion each year. 69% of UK line managers say that supporting employee wellbeing is a core skill, but only 13% have received mental health training.

The construction industry undeniably needs to make mental health an urgent priority, not just for the well-being of the workforce, but to improve business efficiency and costs associated with poor management of mental health conditions. By transforming the culture, raising awareness, and offering support about mental health, educating and training the workforce, construction companies can re-shape and reduce the problems of mental health issues within the industry.