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Mental Health in the Construction Sector

Mental Health in the Construction Sector. Why are things so bad? And what can we all do to start turning things around.

By our very nature, humans are a social animal. Our ability to thrive through time has been down to our ability to cooperate with one another and this was reflected in our willingness as a society and individually, to accept great restraints on our freedom for the benefit of the greater good, during the current pandemic.

However, the social privations and isolation went fundamentally against our natural instincts.

If there has ever been a time to bring to the forefront the implications of mental health, the 2020/21 Covid-19 pandemic has been it.

Locked away in our homes, unable to meet or interact properly with other human beings has had a devastating affect.

IFS analysis of longitudinal data from the Understanding Society study found that, taking account of pre-pandemic trajectories, mental health has worsened substantially (by 8.1% on average) as a result of the pandemic.

Alcohol abuse has increased during the coronavirus pandemic, according to the British Liver Trust, which has seen a 500% rise in calls to its helpline since lockdown began in March 2020.

On 14 August 2019 we published an article about flexible working in construction. In it we said: “A greater sense of control over work-life balance through flexible working may contribute towards enhancing mental health within the industry.”

Now, more than ever, mental health awareness must be at the forefront of everything we do in the construction sector.

Since joining the industry over 40 years ago, when scaffolds were a luxury, we have come on leaps and bounds in our approach to Health & Safety. CPPs and RAMS are front and center of our approach to all projects. However, mental health issues rarely if ever get a mention. Which is surprising when you consider that depression and anxiety have overtaken musculoskeletal disorders as a reason for time off work, and that a construction worker is 3x more likely to commit suicide than other profession.

We have clearly got a lot of ground to cover before we can even come close to thinking we’ve got it all right.

But why is construction so bad?

1: Cheap, Fast and Quality

Firstly, its procurement model drives decisions based on costs. Those “buying” construction, demand the cheapest quote, completed in the fastest time and started as quickly as possible, whilst the whole time demanding the highest quality. This creates a highly pressurized and demanding environment.

This culture inevitably filters down and affects management, staff and sub-contractors. The pressure can be immense.

2: Type of Workers

Unlike advertising where “freelance work” offers the freedom and the ability to significantly improve work life balance, sub-contractors within the construction sector don’t enjoy the same benefits. Projects can involve working long hours and weekends, travelling huge distances and staying away from home, giving very little time for establishing a good work life balance.

Most projects have relatively short timeframes, so job security is lacking. With 49% of construction workers registered as self-employed, do employers share the same level of responsibilities they would for PAYE employees?

Payment terms can also be difficult especially for smaller sub-contractors who are ‘on the tools’ during the day and then have to get their paperwork up to date when they get home in the evening. Consequently, they are often at the mercy of and exploited by main contractors, adding more pressure and financial stress.

3: Gender (Data from the Priory group)

  • 99% of construction site workers are men.
  • 77% of men will / have suffered from mental health conditions
  • 40% of men won’t ever speak about their mental health conditions

Of every 100 male construction workers, 76 will suffer from mental health conditions but 31 of those will never seek help. The construction sector employees over 2 million workers, so that’s 1.5 million people with mental health issues and over 600,000 going untreated.

So what can we do about it?

Here are a few ideas we have recently identified.

  1. As industry push for change to establish a more sustainable procurement model
  2. Ensure self-employed workers have access to the same employee support as full time employees.
  3. Make mental health an agenda item at all health and safety meetings.
  4. Educate staff and provide training to improve awareness.
  5. Encourage staff to talk about mental health. Get rid of the taboo.
  6. Put in place vigorous monitoring to identify signs of mental health conditions.
  7. Work with independent bodies and Government organizations to normalize talking about mental health across the workforce and offer the same services to the self-employed, not just full time staff.
  8. Ensure that mental health is at the forefront of health & safety plans, taking into consideration the mental health risks a project plan may create.
  9. Embrace flexible working

At Maguire Brothers, we have offered our staff flexible working, increased our annual leave allowance and for those who can, we have offered ongoing remote working. But we accept that there is significantly more than needs to be done.

As Mental Health Awareness Week brings to light some of the issues the sector has been facing for decades, now more than ever it is up to us to start talking about it.