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The Silent Epidemic: Prioritising Mental Health in the Construction Industry
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The Silent Epidemic: Prioritising Mental Health in the Construction Industry

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There are many reasons why the construction industry is regarded as a highly pressured environment. Having to deal with tight deadlines, complicated contracts, shortages of materials, and price rises are causing chronic stress amongst workers. There are also the pressures that come with working with dangerous materials, heavy machinery, or at great heights. When Brexit, inflation, and changing market needs are added to the mix, it's not hard to see why construction workers' mental health is getting worse.

Senior management teams pay a lot of attention to doing thorough risk assessments for physical health, but they are not doing enough to protect the mental health of their employees. Unfortunately, this is proving to be catastrophic for men within the construction sector. Statistics have confirmed that men within the industry are 3.5 times more likely to die by suicide than the male national average.

To put this statistic into context, the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) suggests that "every day, two construction workers take their own life."

As a mental health expert, Anita Malster from Blossom Mental Health Training believes that senior leadership teams must urgently reassess their working environments to tackle this silent epidemic. 

Anita has successfully worked with construction firms across the UK, giving in-depth training and support to businesses, helping them to tackle these issues in a positive, friendly environment. 

She believes that mental health needs to be given the same priority as physical health, and mental health training needs to be transformed from a "box-ticking exercise" into something "actively used day-to-day to ease the pressure on employees."

She says:

"Like many sectors, the construction industry has come under extreme pressure from both external and internal factors. We've seen how Brexit and the pandemic caused issues, and growing problems like insolvencies and debt recovery have added to people's mental loads. But while other sectors are managing to implement healthy workplace cultures and suitable wellbeing strategies, the construction sector seems to be struggling to provide suitable support. Clearly, this is now proving to be dangerous, and it's time for senior leadership teams to stand up and lead by example."

The response from the construction sector

The sector is starting to prioritise mental health, but more work needs to be done to filter through to construction sites so that staff feel empowered and safe to talk about their feelings. 

The CITB is prioritising mental health and, since 2018, has provided over £1.3m in grants to support mental health first aid & awareness courses and mental health champions. They are also working closely with the Construction Leadership Council to tackle these issues. 

But unfortunately, this isn't going far enough. 

Changes are not occurring quickly enough in the workplace to make a tangible difference in the lives of construction workers. 

Research from Construction News has suggested that "More than half of workers taking part in the survey said that they did not receive the appropriate level of support with their mental health from their managers. And 59 per cent did not tell their employer that they needed time off for mental health, a slight improvement compared to 2019."  

Anita says: "Although numerous campaigns are in place to encourage better mental health support amongst male-dominated sectors, such as the HSE Mates in Mind campaign, the reality is that poor mental health has now reached a crescendo. It has become a matter of urgency. Construction firms (of all sizes) can no longer sit back and only focus on physical health and wellbeing. They need to take urgent proactive steps to ensure that they are providing a duty of care for mental and physical wellbeing."

The physical and emotional signs that could indicate poor mental health

If you're working in a construction environment, knowing how to spot signs of mental distress is essential. 

Often, construction workers may not be ready to admit that they are feeling stressed, or overwhelmed. They might not even be able to articulate what they are feeling. But the human body naturally starts to display external signs that could be indicative of stress or anxiety. 

Anita says: "There are clear physical and emotional signs that could indicate someone is stressed, but often we don't know how to interpret those signs. We might look at a period of physical ill-health on its own rather than picking up a holistic picture of what the body is trying to tell us. The challenge is for construction Directors to communicate these signs throughout their workforce so everyone, from top-to-bottom, feels that they could identify signs of stress."

"Knowing what to look for could literally save a life."

The physical indicators of poor mental health, anxiety or stress could include:

  • Changing appetite
  • Headaches
  • Insomnia or other sleep issues
  • Drinking or smoking/vaping more than usual
  • Flare-ups of skin conditions such as Eczema or Psoriasis

Emotionally, if someone is stressed, we can expect to see changes in that person's personality. 

  • Is someone more reactive or irritable than usual
  • Signs of aggression or having a short fuse
  • Becoming argumentative with co-workers.
  • Becoming withdrawn or quieter than usual
  • Reluctance to participate in usual site banter or conversations
  • Withdrawal from regular social events
  • Being more exuberant than normal in an attempt to hide feelings of distress

Of course, on their own, each indicator might not be cause for concern, but if someone is struggling with a variety of these physical or emotional issues, it could be a sign of stress. 

Stress can have a significant impact on our central nervous system. 

The effects of stress on the central nervous system are well known. Those who can relax and unwind are far better equipped to live healthier lives than those who suffer from extreme stress. 

The autonomic nervous system is comprised of two branches, the sympathetic and parasympathetic branch. Our sympathetic side is our "flight or fight" response mode based on survival. If this side of our nervous system takes control, it explains why we may feel agitated and overwhelmed, or bloated and have digestive issues when stressed. Chronic stress (where there is no specific trigger) can create an imbalance of cortisol which can contribute towards weight gain, hormone imbalances, heart disease, inflammation or diabetes. 

In contrast, the para-sympathetic branch is the rest and digest side of the nervous system. It balances our stress levels, our sleep patterns, and our digestion. 

Anita believes that if you spend too long in the "fight" response, your body is driven primarily by your emotions. That's because cortisol can signal to your brain that your adrenal glands should release adrenaline. You will lack the ability to connect with your brain's rational, logical side. This explains why it can be much harder to make decisions or remember important information during times of stress. 

On a construction site, this could cause significant issues. 

  • It could lead to erratic behaviour
  • Staff could become easily distracted or engage in risky behaviour 
  • Health and safety protocols might not be followed
  • Individuals could make increased errors

Management teams need to put actions into place to prevent these from happening to protect their staff's wellbeing and their own efficiencies and productivity. 

Failure to act could lead to severe consequences.

How can you start a conversation with someone about mental health?

One of the biggest challenges is that men often struggle to identify their emotions. From a young age, vulnerabilities are considered a weakness (shown by common phrases such as "man up"), and men can grow up without the same emotional intelligence as women. If they can't identify their feelings, articulating them to someone else can be almost impossible. 

While many mental health campaigns focus on removing mental health stigma, they don't go far enough. For example, while many campaigns focus on the importance of talking about how we're feeling, they don't always give the information to explain how you should start those conversations. 

Anita has compiled a few helpful hints that construction directors can use to help open up a dialogue between their teams. 

She says:

"Firstly, it's about starting conversations with a level of curiosity. You cannot assume that you know how someone is feeling or what a person is going through outside of work. Therefore, you need to be open-minded and ready to listen."

Construction foremen might be tempted to require a specific "outcome" from the initial conversation. Often these conversations need to be an opportunity for someone to chat or vent about their feelings. 

It's also essential to realise that not everyone will be comfortable talking to someone, mainly if that person is senior to them. A person might be nervous about the outcome of opening up. Senior leaders should be mindful of this and demonstrate that there will be no negative repercussions to any individual's job role or job stability if they open up about how they are feeling."

Conversations about mental health should be held as part of a wider culture change. Many senior leaders are actively investing in mental health training and appointing mental health first aiders, but the training may not be actively used on a construction site. Instead, it’s regarded as a box ticking exercise, rather than a tool that actively saves someone’s life. 

As you begin to implement this cultural shift, it’s about creating a new working mindset. 

To start, workers will likely be reluctant to open up and speak honestly and freely. They may be worried that speaking up or admitting to a vulnerability could put their job at risk. They might not be ready to articulate their emotions or feel they are speaking to the right person on a construction site. 

Therefore, it's common to need to ask someone the question "Are you ok?" two or even three times before they feel that they can open up. 

Leading by example.

Anita wants to encourage directors and senior leaders to lead by example. 

They need to demonstrate that mental health is a priority and will be given the same level of care as physical health, especially when it comes to risk assessments. 

It’s about creating positive working environments where workers feel they can let their guard down and speak openly and honestly with a co-worker without adverse repercussions. 

A practical tip is encouraging workers to have supportive conversations with colleagues while engaged in a specific activity. This reduces the embarrassment of feeling that they have been placed under a spotlight. Initiatives such as the Men's Shed Movement and Head in the Game work because they allow individuals to talk openly and honestly while distracted. Not needing to make eye contact or feeling pressured to communicate can help create safe environments for men to let their guards down and become vulnerable. 

Finally, it's also important to be mindful that unless you feel that there is a risk to life, any conversation between employees needs to remain confidential. 

To manage this process, senior leadership teams need to install specific processes in place so that everyone within the business knows how to signpost people to further support and help if needed. 

"When this is all handled correctly, you will be laying the foundations for a safe space where your employees feel appropriately supported."

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The Silent Epidemic: Prioritising Mental Health in the Construction Industry

Written by the team at:

Blossom Training

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