A blueprint for change: Mental wellbeing in the UK construction industry

A blueprint for change: Mental wellbeing in the UK construction industry

The construction industry is often considered a bellwether for the rest of the UK economy. During the pandemic, the sector experienced growth while others hit hard times. But behind that economic success is a complex story.

The world of construction is dominated by small businesses, often relying on contractors and surviving from one project to the next. High rates of inflation mean costs and wages have spiked, leaving managers stressed about budgets and workers worried about the soaring cost of living. Meanwhile, the focus on safety and compliance is (rightly) sharper than ever, and companies face a tough regulatory environment in the shadow of the Grenfell disaster.

This complex environment inevitably has an impact on the mental health of those in the industry. In 2023, Markel UK, a specialist insurer for the construction sector found that one in four construction workers have considered suicide and a Chartered Institute of Building report found that 97% of construction workers had felt stressed, 87% had experienced anxiety and 70% had experienced depression over the past year. And while a growing number of companies in the sector are building employees’ mental resilience, health and safety in construction tends to focus on the physical.

"In 2023, Markel UK, a specialist insurer for the construction sector found that one in four construction workers have considered suicide"

A key factor is how teams are managed. Workforces can be dispersed or transient so it’s challenging to build relationships, and there’s a focus on meeting deadlines and targets that can mean ‘softer’ issues such as mental wellbeing are viewed as non-essential. Many smaller construction businesses outsource services such as HR and payroll, so workers may not have an internal port of call if they need to discuss a sensitive issue. Construction is famously male-dominated, and men in the UK are three times more likely to die by suicide than women. A survey of SMEs and sole traders by the charity Mates in Mind found that 70% of respondents agreed that “there was a stigma around discussing mental health that stops people talking about it”.

There are financial consequences to not facing up to the mental health challenges in the industry, however. Stress, anxiety and depression account for a fifth of work-related illnesses, resulting in 70 million days off sick per year, at an estimated annual cost of £70bn to £100bn, according to government figures. The opposite challenge is presenteeism, which can be an issue if contractors feel they must turn up for a job despite feeling unwell, because if they don’t, they won’t get paid. When morale is low, work quality can suffer and deadlines are missed.

“As a male-dominated industry we’ve probably had our heads in the sand for a long time. It’s all just about having that conversation”

Farrans: Training workers to have ‘the conversation’

Last year, Farrans won best overall workplace mental health programme at the Mates in Mind Impact awards. Darren McClean, head of safety, health, environment and quality (SHEQ) at the company, says mental health has risen swiftly up the agenda in the past five years. “We have around 2,000 people on our projects at any one time, with probably around 1,400 or 1,500 subcontractors on site,” he explains. “We work with water companies across the country, on bridge schemes, the marine sector and wind farms. Contractors will often be in remote places where they’re not close to other people. Mental health used to be the poor cousin of health and safety, but it’s really started to become a proper topic of discussion in recent years.”

McClean believes the collective impact of the Covid pandemic, rising inflation and the transient nature of the workforce has created a “melting pot” for mental health issues. “We’re going through an awful lot of inflation issues, mortgages are going up and that has a financial impact on families,” he adds. “And if people aren’t in good mental health, then the work doesn’t get done properly, which has a knock-on effect on the success of construction projects.” Cash flow issues are a topic of conversation in every meeting now, as many projects were priced prior to the inflation hike of the last 12 months and managers worry that their budgets won’t cope.

Sadly, in 2022 a young employee working on a project for Farrans took his own life for personal reasons not connected to work. “The team that worked with him felt not only the devastation of what had happened but also guilt. They felt that they hadn’t raised a conversation when they recognised he wasn’t coping,” says McClean. Farrans has a number of support mechanisms in place, including mental health awareness training, and a newly rolled out initiative called ‘Have the Conversation’ where all employees get training in how to manage situations arising from mental health conversations. The training involves actors from Dan Long Associates, who role-play scenarios and support employees in how to direct the discussion. The programmes have already had an impact: one graduate who had been experiencing depression spoke up about his struggles and was supported in his recovery because he had been through the awareness training.

The company is one of the contractors involved in the Building Mental Health Alliance in Northern Ireland in a bid to spread the mental wellbeing message wider. “We’ve made really positive steps, but there’s an awful lot more to do,” McLean adds. “As a male-dominated industry we’ve probably had our heads in the sand for a long time. It’s all just about having that conversation.”

Green Hat Consulting: Spreading the word and breaking the stigma

A cold-water swim in Swansea Bay may not sound the most inviting way to bring colleagues together, but it’s a monthly event for employees at Green Hat Consulting, a construction consultancy. Every day workers get a free breakfast, there’s a book club, and each year you can take your birthday as a holiday. The company is currently rolling out a three-session emotional wellbeing workshop to all employees. Paul Griffiths, head of health and safety, is enthusiastic about breaking down the stigma of discussing mental health at work and delivers mental health awareness sessions to many employers in Wales.

“Our presentations often get positive feedback and the next time we visit someone might say they’ve got help for an issue,” he says. “But the fact that one in four people will suffer a mental health issue, and construction is worse, means there are definitely issues out there.” Griffiths remembers a time when he had visited a company where some days before a worker had taken his own life. “There could be four or five people in a room that are having issues, and the construction industry is so male-oriented, meaning many may be less able to talk about their feelings,” he adds.

Recognising the link between financial education and mental health is crucial, believes Griffiths. “There’s a perception that construction is one of the better paid industries compared to others, but around 30% of the workforce is self-employed, and not everyone can budget correctly,” he says. “Some trades might work enough shifts to give them enough for the weekend, but in the long term that’s not good. Not being paid on time can affect your mental health, so as a company we try to have set terms.”

Small actions such as the sea swim or the ability to take leave for volunteering create a sense of belonging that means they may feel more comfortable discussing any mental health challenges. If employees don’t want to discuss problems with HR, they are signposted to external resources. Griffiths thinks mental health risk assessments should be part and parcel of what construction employers offer as part of their duty of care, adding: “You should have the opportunity to build your own mental health plan. We started off building the conversation internally to make sure we were talking about it too, and our external presentations are now really beginning to have an impact.”

The business case for good mental health

A healthy workforce contributes to a healthy bank balance for construction businesses. In 2019, a study by Loughborough University found that the annual cost to construction employers of stress is £178 million. Mental health issues can also be a driver in workers seeking alternative roles, so addressing these before they arise can be a key factor in retention, particularly when skills are in short supply. Fostering an open dialogue about mental health can help teams improve the quality of their output and avoid physical injury, according to the Construction Productivity Taskforce.

But the sector has not always associated a mentally healthy workforce with profit, according to Dr Jing Xu, associate professor of enterprise management at the Bartlett School of Sustainable Construction at University College London. “Construction project success has traditionally been gauged through cost and time metrics,” she says. “This dominant narrative produces and is reproduced by the transactional business model of most construction companies, which necessitates keeping overheads low to preserve minimal costs and hence squeezing the ability to invest in management and technical capabilities.”

There is practical support available for construction businesses to turn these attitudes around, however. Many insurers, such as Markel, offer access to employment documents, legal advice and stress helplines that can save managers time and ease worries about compliance issues, while offering free support to employees.

Flexible working could be another consideration: a recent pilot by Timewise and Build UK found that workers enjoyed improved wellbeing by being able to change shifts around or work more from home - with no detrimental impact on budgets or delivering contracts on time. “Supporting the wellbeing of construction workers offers opportunities for challenging the current model of long working hours. To have an impact on performance, nevertheless, employers need to move beyond providing fruits and vegetables, free gym memberships and mindfulness sessions,” advises Dr Xu.

She adds that better coordination and communication between different functions, disparate sites and the supply chain will bolster personal relationships and begin to bridge any differences between teams: “Regardless of the level at which relationship management is enacted, amplifying the voices of frontline managers and workers is paramount. Relationship management should be a dynamic and dialogic process that engages employees as well as clients, suppliers and other stakeholders.”

Finally, construction-focused mental health charities such as the Lighthouse Club and Mates in Mind offer a wealth of advice on how to support mental wellbeing at work. They can in some cases provide immediate support with pressing issues that could impact workers, such as financial stress. Last year, Lighthouse supported many employees struggling with the cost of living through emergency family support, help with utility bills and even food shopping, for example.

"A healthy workforce contributes to a healthy bank balance for construction businesses"

Together, construction businesses can support the workforce to look after its mental wellbeing and boost the success of its projects at the same time.

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Published on
October 30, 2023