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How employers in construction can protect their staff’s mental health

The construction industry takes great care in
protecting staff from visible risks, ensuring all precautions are taken to
maintain the physical wellbeing of its workers.

Despite this, construction is still one of the
most dangerous sectors to work in thanks to the big presence of a risk that
isn’t visible: employee mental health.

“Safety is one of the biggest concerns in the
construction industry,” says Daniel Ure from online PPE retailer Vizwear,
“and since one of the biggest risks to workers in construction today is that
posed by mental health problems, addressing them needs to be at the top of an
employer’s list of priorities.”

“Unfortunately, there’s still a stigma around
this topic, which causes too many people to keep their issues to themselves.
This can lead to disastrous consequences, which is why it’s so important for
employers to protect their staff.”

The state of mental health in
construction

In the UK, mental health issues lead to over
70 million sick days per year. Whether it’s anxiety, depression or stress,
mental health causes more sick days than any other health condition and costs
our economy between £70 billion and £100 billion each year.

However, struggles with mental health can have
much more serious ramifications. — and in no other industry is that quite so
evident as in construction.

Data from the Office of National Statistics found that
between 2011 and 2015, the highest number of suicides were found in skilled
construction workers. With over 1400 in-work suicides, this sector makes up over
13% of those recorded, despite construction only accounting for 7% of the UK
workforce.

Construction News created a survey along with Mind Matters to identify any
changes to mental health in construction between 2017-2018. Although 67% of
respondents believe awareness has improved over this period, the results show
no real improvement to mental health in the industry and that 81% believe there
is still a stigma.

Why construction?

While mental health issues can affect anyone,
men are particularly vulnerable. 76% of recorded suicides in the UK are committed by men,
with suicide being the biggest cause of death in men under 35.

And with men making up 89% of the workforce, this is a particularly
problematic issue for the construction industry.

The working lifestyle of a construction worker
can take its toll. Workers will often work long, demanding hours and can spend
their days away from home for weeks at a time. Without a private, safe space to
unwind, all the stresses of work add up and make it difficult to switch off.

The working environment —  where speaking about emotional or mental
issues has historically been stigmatized— is also to blame, as the ‘macho’
image of construction workers makes it difficult to talk about mental health.

Thankfully, there are a number of positive
initiatives employers can take, as well as registered charities and support
groups dedicated to the wellbeing of construction workers.

What are the signs?

Unlike physical injuries, mental health issues
are difficult to spot and are often kept secret.

Thankfully, there are a few common telltale
signs when someone is struggling with their mental health:

  • They find it difficult to
    problem-solve
  • They are easily distracted and are
    less productive than usual
  • They lack self-confidence
  • They are easily agitated and
    create conflict amongst co-workers
  • They feel easily overwhelmed
  • They are increasingly late or
    absent from work
  • They often isolate themselves from
    others

What can employers do?

The best way for the construction industry to
tackle the importance of employee mental health is from the top. Business
owners and management need to implement the same safety standards they take
towards physical health and safety and use them to safeguard mental health.

There are a number of steps that managers can
take to create a positive work environment for their staff so that mental
health can be comfortably addressed, rather than hidden away.

1.  Create a supportive culture

The first step for a manager is to evaluate
the culture of their workforce to detect any potential pain points for staff.
This can range from employee workloads to how staff communicate with each other
throughout the business.

By putting their business under a microscope,
managers can build a strong, supportive work culture from the ground up. This
will help to establish mental wellbeing as a crucial value of the company,
meaning open discussions about employee mental health will become the norm.

2.  Educate employees

By making education a priority, employers can
help to remove the stigma of mental health and ensure their staff understand
the negative impacts that can affect anyone.

This can range from providing easily
accessible information for your staff to hiring third-party organisations, such
as Mates in
Mind, to come in for regular staff training days.

With a team of knowledgable employees, a
company will find it easier to combat any dangers and empower their staff to
support each other when facing difficulties with their mental health. Improving
awareness creates more opportunities to spot early signs of coworkers
struggling and creates an overall healthier workplace environment.

3.  Be open and available

Mental health is a private matter to many
people, which makes it difficult to speak about openly. Without establishing a
clear and open line of communication, it’s much more likely that workers will
keep their troubles to themselves.

By letting employees know that they always
have someone to talk to, they are much more likely to come out of their shell
and identify any health problems like anxiety or depression early enough to put
in place counteractive measures.

It can be difficult in construction as
employees don’t often have a static working environment, so site managers
should take it upon themselves to establish regular catch ups with staff to
evaluate their wellbeing.

4.  Be vigilant

Tackling mental health takes a lot more than
running a one-off seminar. Many mental health issues take time to be resolved,
which means companies need to be aware of their staff’s needs all year round.

By continuing to offer training, guidance and
support to their employees, mental health care will be embedded into a
companies culture and will become a natural part of its safety protocol – not
just ticking a box on a form.

5.  Put a support system in place

Spotting the early signs is important, yet
employers also need to ensure they create a safety net for their staff.
Companies need to make sure that helpful information is readily available for
employees so that anyone struggling with their mental health knows where to
turn to receive support through services like counselling and therapy.

Resources

When it comes to protecting your employees’
mental health, there are a number of resources available for extra support.

As of January 2017, the Health in Construction
Leadership Group (HCLG) established Mates in Mind, its own registered charity
whose sole purpose is to raise awareness and provide support for the mental
wellbeing of construction workers.

Mates in Mind have a goal to reach 75% of the
construction industry by 2025 and offer training courses based on four key
elements: Awareness & Education, Guidance & Support, Communication and
Research & Development.

If you work in construction and need urgent
help or support in regards to your mental health, there are also a number of
confidential services and advice lines available:

  • Construction
    Industry Helpline 0345 605 1956 – Provided by the Lighthouse
    Construction Industry Charity, the helpline advises on a range of matters
    including occupational health and wellbeing, support and advice for people with
    stress The services can also provide emergency financial aid to the
    construction community in times of crisis.
  • Mind 0300 123 393 – Provides advice and
    support to anyone experiencing a mental health problem
  • Samaritans
    116 123 – Confidential 24-hour support for people who are experiencing feelings
    of distress, despair or suicidal thoughts

“Despite construction’s reputation for poor
mental health, there are actually a lot of support systems in place to help
protect the workers,” says Daniel from Vizwear.

“Communication is still the biggest obstacle
between employees and management, which is why confidential advice lines are so
important. By giving construction workers the opportunity to discuss their
mental health in a supportive environment, they can take positive steps without
the need to speak publicly.

“If more workers make use of these services,
they will feel more comfortable speaking to their employers about their mental
health, which is the first step to making real change in the industry.”

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