Construction industry embraces mental health

October 10th 2017 marks the 25th anniversary of World Mental Health Day – founded in 1992 by the World Federation for Mental Health, the awareness day brings people together around the world to raise awareness and address the stigma associated with mental health.

Anyone can be affected by mental health difficulties in the workplace – and across the 2.9 million construction workforce, predominantly male and perceived ‘macho’ culture, mental ill-health is a significant issue. Construction workers face numerous work-related pressures and strains, all contributing to a poorer level of mental health & wellbeing.

Marking World Mental Health day, which has the workplace as its focus this year, also marks the first month anniversary of Mates in Mind, the charity set up to support the construction industry striving to improve mental health. Following its official launch on 11 September, one month on, hundreds of construction companies are becoming supporters, and in turn accessing a flexible and joined up framework to tackle poor mental health and to build positive mental wellbeing across their workforce.

Whilst awareness and understanding of mental health is improving, stigma is still prevalent in the workplace. People still find it difficult to disclose that they have mental health difficulties to their employer, even more so in construction. According to the World Federation for Mental Health, more than 70% of workers with mental ill-health actively conceal their condition from work, largely through fear of discrimination and fear of losing their job (or not being asked back onto a project). Steve Hails, Director of Health, Safety & Wellbeing for Tideway comments that: “We know too that line managers play an important role in this respect, but often lack the confidence and awareness to provide the appropriate level of support. This is where having a holistic approach to addressing the issue is important for a business.”

What can construction companies do?

Whilst there is no one size fits all solution because every company is different, Mates in Mind offers a multifaceted, flexible approach which includes building awareness and reducing stigma, promoting a culture of positive mental health and providing support for employees who need it. This commitment needs to come from the top of a company, with clear policies, procedures and support mechanisms (from training for employees, managers and leaders to effective treatment pathways).

Joscelyne Shaw, Executive Director for Mates in Mind comments: “Many of the themes affecting construction workers’ wellbeing are similar – many cannot be addressed with quick fixes, but most can be made easier through recognition and support with achievable and realistic changes to the ways in which businesses work.”

Joscelyne adds: “The HSE Management Standards for example, provide a simple and effective framework to help organisations identify the key risks so they can better address them. Behaviours at work are in effect an output of culture, and so it is important not to ‘productise’ wellbeing at work. Support services and benefits are important, but by themselves can simply end up as band-aids.”

Some of the key risks associated with mental health include ineffective (or in some cases, non-existent) policies that address stress and mental health – for example, supporting an open environment whereby an employee can disclose a mental health condition without negative repercussions on their job. Poor management communication and practices, limited decision-making, limited control or unclear roles through to long or inflexible working hours.

Stephen Haynes, Programme Manager for Mates in Mind adds: “In construction, we also see the way in which foremen, supervisors and managers act having a significant impact on worker wellbeing. Does the boss reflect their own personal stressors onto their team? Is there a culture of disciplining workers openly in public?” Stephen adds that: “As bosses, we also face pressures and strains such as heavy work demands, tight timescales and budgets enforced from higher up in the supply chain – all of which can take a toll on our leaders and ultimately our teams. The evidence seems to point to those companies and workers further down the construction supply chain being more affected by poor mental wellbeing, as the degree of control lessens and their level of workload increases – but ultimately, it affects everyone – from the managing director to the tradesman.”

A mental-health friendly workplace is one which mental health is openly addressed with clear policies and practices where people feel safe to talk. It is a place where mental health is treated the same as physical health, and also worker safety. This is central to the Mates in Mind framework, which is providing construction firms with a joined up approach to mental health, from support to employees, line managers and the organisation, through to a tiered training framework, helping to build understanding, knowledge and confidence throughout the business.