We cannot afford to ignore our industry’s mental health epidemic

Paul Williams is health, safety and environment services manager for the Electrical Contractors’ Association (ECA)

No one is immune to the impact of poor mental health. It can ruin businesses, affect productivity and damage relationships. It also increases physical health and safety incidents.

As an industry, construction continues to suffer more than other sectors with poor mental health. On average two construction workers take their own lives every working day.

But there are actions we can take to prevent the spread of this epidemic. One of them is to track its prevalence and dig into its root causes. Earlier this month as part of its Mind Matters campaign, Construction News launched a state of the industry mental health survey. I encourage you to join those who have already filled in the survey.

Sustained and excessive pressure

Back in 2019, ECA raised the alarm about the shocking state of mental health in the industry.

A YouGov survey commissioned by the ECA and the Building Engineering Services Association (BESA) found that 20 per cent of absence in the sector was down to poor mental wellbeing. And a remarkable nine out of 10 business owners suffered from mental health issues due to payment and other business pressures. These included depression, stress and suicidal feelings.

“Construction workers were more than twice as likely to have a harmful response, by misusing drugs or alcohol, to restlessness because of furlough than those in other sectors”

While everybody expects businesses to deal with daily pressures, stress and other mental health impacts come from sustained and excessive pressure. Unfair payment practices continue to be one of the root causes which impact employees right across a business, including chief executives, directors and managers.

In 2021 construction reported its fastest rate of growth in almost seven years and this year the boom looks to continue. Despite this, or maybe because of it, many SMEs are also reporting rising levels of mental health problems among staff and management.

Rather than improving the situation, the speed of the sector’s recovery has added to the stress experienced by many in construction. The perennial problem of late payment is still the main culprit, as of 2021 survey commissioned by the ECA and BESA found.

A further worrying finding from that year showed that construction workers were more than twice as likely to have a harmful response, by misusing drugs or alcohol, to restlessness because of furlough than those in other sectors. The furlough scheme may have ended, but the harmful effects on a stressed workforce remain.

Simple steps to help

Ace mental health makes its way to the top of many construction companies’ agendas, larger firms are taking steps to address the systemic problem by joining cross sector initiatives such as the Prompt Payment Code and by helping employees by introducing Mental Health First Aid courses such as those offered by ECA.

While these drives show long-term promise, smaller firms constrained by cash flow may lack the financial stability to provide the right level of support to staff.

“No matter how stressful your day has been, think about who and what matters to you. Most importantly remember you are not alone”

But there are a few simple things we can all do to help our colleagues. After all, just as we all have physical health, we also all have mental health. There remains a stigma when we talk about mental health. We would never use pejorative words to describe someone with a physical ailment, so we don’t need to when we talk about mental health. It doesn’t take much for every workplace to avoid and discourage the use of terms like ‘nut job’, ‘loony’ or ‘crackers’.

If you are one of the 90 percent of business owners feeling stressed and unable to cope, then a recent Harvard Grant Study says it’s okay to experience difficult thoughts, just try not to dwell on them. It goes on to suggest focusing on the bigger picture when facing a challenge and reminding yourself of your long-term goals, despite any setbacks.

Finally, it says that no matter how stressful your day has been, think about who and what matters to you. Most importantly remember you are not alone; the surveys show that clearly.

If you or one of your colleagues has experienced mental health issues in the workplace, I urge you to spend a few minutes of your time to record your experiences. If there is one thing we’ve learned in the last two years is that ignoring a health problem does not make it go away.

Mental health survey: we need your help

as part of Construction News’s award-winning mental health campaign, Mind Matters, an anonymous survey has been opened to get a picture of the mental health of UK construction workers and find out what has changed in recent years.

Statistics continue to demonstrate shocking mental health issues in the construction industry, and this needs to change.

NC is investigating the changes that have occurred since the onset of the pandemic, as well as whether the overall mental health picture in construction has improved in the past couple of years.

To do this, we need to hear from you:

If you or someone you know is struggling:

  • Samaritans’ helpline 166 123
  • Papyrus hopeline UK (for people up to 35 years of age) 0800 068 4141
  • Lighthouse Club 0345 605 1956 or text HARDHAT to 85258

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