Mental Health in construction: building a culture of communication

Katherine Naisbitt, Commercial Director at YDBC Ltd, discusses mental health in the construction industry and the steps we can take to support wellbeing in the workforce.

The past year has been a time of unprecedented stress and anxiety for communities and businesses throughout the world. It has taken a particularly heavy toll on the mental health of those working in sectors which the pandemic has affected most acutely, such as retail, hospitality and travel. In comparison, construction has felt a less severe impact, and is currently experiencing a boom in the housing market which began after the first lockdown and has accelerated in recent months.

That said, no industry is immune to pressures on mental health, and construction has its own set of contributors to work-related stress which existed long before the emergence of covid. It sometimes requires long working hours and often involves tight deadlines. A high proportion of the sector’s workforce is self-employed. Being self-employed can be stressful in any industry: it often involves worries about chasing payments and managing books without benefiting from the HR support and resources that come with working in a large organisation. As someone who was self-employed for a number of years, I can fully appreciate those pressures.

The Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB) carried out a pre-pandemic report on mental health in the construction industry. It surveyed over 2,000 construction professionals in October 2019 and found that 97% recorded being stressed at least once in the preceding 12 months. Around 70% of respondents experienced depression and 87% experienced anxiety. The statistics reveal that construction is no different to any other sector: mental health issues can affect us all.

Andy Bell, Deputy Chief Executive at Centre for Mental Health, said:

“Work is – on the whole – good for our mental and physical health. However, mental health difficulties are both common and serious, and for a lot of people the places they work can have a big impact on their wellbeing. Companies, large and small, that take mental health seriously and create a mentally healthy environment to work in will benefit from being safer, happier and more productive.”

Advocating a culture of communication in the workplace is vital in safeguarding mental health. Employees should feel comfortable about sharing their struggles and asking for help. Some commentators have suggested that honesty and openness about emotions are often supressed in a predominantly male industry like construction. Due to social conditioning, many men feel there is a stigma attached to reporting mental health issues.

A survey commissioned by the Mental Health Foundation found that men are far less likely than women to seek professional support, and less likely to disclose a mental health problem to friends and family. The increasing percentage of women in the construction workforce could have a positive influence in encouraging a readiness to reach out.   Organisations in all industries have a responsibility to remove the stigma surrounding mental health and asking for support. They can introduce policies which raise awareness, change attitudes, provide knowledge and empower employees to attend to their mental wellbeing and those of their colleagues. We all benefit from the support of others in our personal and professional lives, regardless of gender.

The mental health charity, Mind, provides useful guidance about support in the workplace. It suggests that, when an employee or colleague shares a mental health issue, employers should be proactive and get involved as early as possible, taking a person-centred approach which is sensitive to the individual’s need. Mind advocates an approach which is positive, professional and supportive throughout the process:

“Early intervention is vital – employees’ mental health problems are much more likely to become recurrent or long-term if not addressed promptly, with a negative impact for the individual and the organisation. It’s important to keep lines of communication open. Managers sometimes lack confidence or worry about doing or saying the wrong thing. As a result they can be reticent about maintaining contact with staff, but it’s vitally important they do so.”

There are positive signs that companies in construction are driving a change towards mentally healthier workplaces. Some contractors are upskilling their workforce with mental health first aiders trained to understand the signs of a crisis and offer appropriate help. Risk assessments have long maintained comprehensive attention to the safety and security of construction sites, but many have now been updated to observe a duty of care encompassing mental health as well as physical wellbeing.

Organisational change can provide leadership in improving mental health in the workplace, but we can all do our bit on a personal level. The best measure we can take to support mental health is to talk to our peers. In a busy, fast-moving industry, we often neglect to set aside time to discuss the stresses and pressures in our lives. If you think a colleague is struggling, don’t be afraid to ask them. Small gestures help to create an environment in which people feel comfortable to speak up about their problems.

In England, 1 in 6 people will experience a common mental health problem such as depression or anxiety in any given week. Whether we work in construction or any other industry, that statistic should prompt us to consider whether any of our colleagues are going through those feelings right now. From an industry-wide initiative to a simple chat over a cuppa, starting a conversation about mental health is the first step in helping out.