Building strong mental health foundations in the construction industry

Building strong mental health foundations in the construction industry

Poor mental health in construction workers is an ongoing problem, but there are steps employers can take to build an effective mental health framework that benefits their employees’ wellbeing.

The UK’s construction sector is in the middle of a mental health crisis. According to research by O.C. Tanner, 58% of construction workers feel that their life is out of control, which is 14% higher than the average. A study by Ironmongery Direct, meanwhile, suggests almost half (48%) of tradespeople experience stress, anxiety and depression at least once a fortnight, and 68% do each month.

Vicki Cockman, head of client delivery at Mental Health First Aid England, says there are specific reasons that make the sector more vulnerable than most to poor mental health. “The sector’s dominant demographic, men aged 45-60, where instances of depression and suicide are higher than in the general population, is significant,” she says. “Workers often suffer in silence, and a perceived ‘macho’ culture of simply dealing with it and not seeking help can often exacerbate issues.” A low level of job security, leading to financial worries, along with long periods spent away from families, also add to the pressure, she suggests.

Taking action

There are, though, a number of practical measures construction firms can take to tackle the issue. Cockman says training employees in mental health first aid gives them the skills to spot the signs of a person experiencing poor mental health, the confidence to start a conversation and the tools to signpost appropriate support.

Modern leadership practices, rather than traditional ‘command and control’ leadership styles, can improve mental health
Robert Ordever, European managing director, O.C Tanner

“Over the last couple of years, there have been a significant number of initiatives across the construction industry,” she says. “For example, Building Mental Health has trained hundreds of MHFA England instructor members and thousands of mental health first-aiders across the sector.” Skanska, the Swedish construction company, encourages employees who have undertaken such training to wear a mental health first-aider sticker on their construction hard hats, she adds, to help reduce stigma around the topic.

Engineering and construction firm J. Murphy & Sons Limited is an example of a firm that is taking action. “We deliver, on an ongoing basis, a full suite and different levels of mental health training and awareness for all employees, regardless of their role,” says Dawn Moore, group people and communications director. “We currently have 257 trained mental health first-aiders in the business, and we operate an extensive programme of training focused on starting, and managing, the conversation around mental health, which is open to all.”

Insurance companies can also offer vital support to both employers and employees, and many organisations. This includes both preventative measures, such as access to psychologists, counsellors and psychiatrists, and support services such as employee assistance programmes. For example, Markel, a specialist insurer in the construction market, offers policyholders access to a 24-hour stress and counselling helpline. These allow people to talk through issues and develop plans to tackle the root causes of stress.

Alongside such measures, it’s important that construction businesses ensure they create a culture in which people can flourish and are less likely to suffer work-related stress. The Ironmongery Direct study finds that four in five UK tradespeople (84%) have experienced some form of mental health problem due to work, such as stress, anxiety or depression.

No more ‘command and control’

“Modern leadership practices, rather than traditional ‘command and control’ leadership styles, can improve mental health,” points out Robert Ordever, European managing director of workplace culture and recognition firm O.C Tanner. “This means focusing on understanding and mentoring each employee. Getting to know people as individuals, advocating for them, providing an ‘open door’ policy, and connecting people together socially and emotionally are all vital if employees are to be given a safe space in which to unload and speak freely.” It’s also important to recognise people’s achievements and efforts, he says, which can help to raise engagement levels and feelings of self-worth.

Being able to freely highlight issues in the workplace is also important, says Kelly Friel, digital product manager at construction materials supplier Zoro. “Managers and fellow employees must feel empowered to call out negative or discouraging behaviour towards others, or the issue of mental health as a whole, in order to create a more supportive workplace culture,” she says.

Doing the right thing

There are signs that more organisations are starting to create a more open culture and address the topic of mental health in the construction sector. In May, IronmongeryDirect and ElectricalDirect unveiled a giant mural made up of 687 high-vis vests at a construction site in London, as part of Mental Health Awareness Week. The number of vests represented the annual number of tradespeople who commit suicide each year, equating to 13 a week, or almost two a day.

For employers in the construction space, there are many different reasons why supporting positive mental health makes sense. “Increased productivity from employees who are more engaged at work due to the absence of mental-health problems is the most obvious area, but reduced staff turnover, improved decision-making and lower levels of absenteeism are all areas that also benefit,” says Moore. “Ultimately, it is simply about doing the right thing for staff and, most importantly, ensuring that they feel secure and comfortable to be themselves at all times.”

Learn more about how Markel can help construction firms navigate their day-to-day challenges here.