Mental health and the everyday construction worker

Working on a construction site is often associated with a macho culture where opening up and discussing one’s feelings aren’t the done thing. (Rawpixel pic)

Figures released by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) have revealed that a quarter of all illnesses in the construction industry between March 2018 and March 2019 were related to mental health.

During the period, there were an estimated 16,000 cases of work-related stress, depression or anxiety, which is up from 14,000 in the previous year’s report.

There was also an increase in the number of workers in the industry that reported suffering from stress, depression or anxiety they believed to be work-related in 2019 (0.7%) compared to 2018 (0.6%).

While the number of construction workers reporting cases of poor mental health is 0.7%, that rate is significantly lower than the average for workers across all industries (1.4%).

Is that because the construction industry does not have much of a problem with work-related stress, depression or anxiety as other industries, or is it because workers do not feel comfortable in opening up about their mental health?

Three times more likely to commit suicide

When you consider that male site workers are statistically three times more likely to commit suicide than the average UK male, it is clear that there is a deeper-rooted issue in the construction industry than the HSE’s figures would imply.

While the social stigma surrounding mental health is slowly fading, working on a construction site is associated with a thoroughly macho culture where opening up and discussing one’s feelings simply isn’t the done thing.

Add that to working in one of the most stressful and demanding occupations, where long days and extended periods of time away from home are commonplace, leaving workers to suffer in silence.

Long days and extended periods away from home are commonplace, leaving many construction workers to suffer in silence. (Rawpixel pic)

Feeling as though they have no one to turn to, it should not be surprising that while reported cases are lower than the national average, poor mental health remains as arguably the industry’s biggest problem.

What can employers do?

Employers have a duty of care to their employees, as they do in any industry, and should make sure that the relevant precautions are in place.

As well as focusing on construction site security monitoring to protect materials, employers should also take the same level of care with the well-being of their workforce.

Between 2017 and 2018, there were 82,000 cases of ill health in the construction industry, resulting in a £160 million hit to the UK economy in lost working days.

With no workers, there is no work, so it pays for employers to be mindful of the mental well-being of their staff.

Here are some simple things that can be put into place to help.

  • Assess the culture. Familiarise yourself with the culture of your team on-site. Would you feel comfortable opening up about issues such as stress, depression or anxiety?
  • Access to services. Ensure that all employees are aware of and have access to support such as counselling and therapy services.
  • Educate team leaders. Provide training for team leaders who spot the signs of poor mental health and offer support for employees that may require it.
  • Open your door. As an employer, you should go out of your way to make sure that you are approachable for any employee to come to you. When they do, make sure they understand that anything discussed is said so in confidence.

What can employees do?

Employees should be willing to seek out help when it is needed and, especially, when it is offered.

Speaking about any issues is the first step and, as daunting as it may be, there are many services where you can turn to.

Dennis Relojo-Howell is the world’s first blog psychologist and founder of Psychreg. As an international mental health advocate, he speaks at various conferences around the world and believes that everyone experiencing a mental health problem deserves both support and respect.