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Mental health in the construction industry

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According to statistics released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) at the end of last year construction, is the industry where mental ill health is most acute. Work-related stress, depression and anxiety have now overtaken musculoskeletal disorders as the most reported workplace health issue in the sector. It’s being called ‘the silent epidemic’ by the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB), which has detailed how the construction industry has more suicides than any other profession, with 454 construction workers taking their own lives in 2016. In fact, men in the building industry are three times more likely to take their own lives than men on average, according to the ONS figures. They found that between 2011 and 2015, of the 13,232 in-work suicides recorded, those within the skilled construction and building trades made up 13.2%, even though construction accounts for little over 7% of the UK workforce.

Construction workers and mental health

Why workers in the construction industry struggle particularly is due to a number of different factors. The construction industry lifestyle can undoubtedly be both challenging and stressful, with long working hours, and workers who often spend extended periods on their own during the day, for example, working on a crane. The fact that many workers in the sector also feel that developing injuries, long-term health issues, usually musculoskeletal, and even being put at risk of death is part of their job and an unescapable feature of their work-life also plays its parts. Some lingering unease in the industry, particularly following the collapse of Carillion, can also contribute to poor mental health. And its status as a male-dominated industry, with a widespread ‘tough guy’ image can make voicing mental health concerns, or even just asking for help, incredibly difficult for those working in the industry. The combination of these factors result in many suffering in silence.

Cost to the industry

While the personal impact of mental health issues can, of course, be huge, the annual cost of ill health to the construction industry is also massive - it’s been shown that occupational ill-health in construction, excluding cancers, costs employers £848m annually, with primary causes including asbestosis and stress. And there is a wider impact on the UK’s economy as well. ONS statistics show that stress, anxiety, depression and serious mental illness caused at least 15 million sickness absence days to be taken in the last year. Other estimates go as high 70 million a year, because mental illness can so often lead to other more physical health problems. There is an argument to be made that poor mental health is holding back our economy across every sector.

Helping employees with mental health

This is why its so commendable that construction businesses are taking the situation in their industry seriously - taking steps to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health and improve support available to workers. There has been a recognition within the industry that, rather than accepting that sector workers will develop ill health, businesses should proactively make the effort to prevent mental ill health in their workers in the first place, including offering counselling services, stress questionnaires and providing tailored support for ‘at risk’ employees. It also means putting in place the proper checks and new technologies designed to make their work safer and stressing to workers that there is no need to worry that their lives are at risk. It’s also important that people take the time to look after their own mental health by talking about their feelings, taking breaks, staying active and being empowered to ask for help.

In fact, the Construction Financial Management Association has put together a list of some of the signs to look out for which can indicate someone is struggling with poor mental health. They include such things as increased lateness, absenteeism and presenteeism (showing up to work physically, but not being able to function); decreased productivity due to distraction and cognitive slowing; lack of self-confidence and isolation from peers.

Further help for construction companies getting to grips with the responsibility of assisting their workers with their mental health comes through events held by industry bodies. One such example is the Mental Health Awareness Seminar, hosted at Clarion’s offices on 14th May by Constructing Excellence, a UK organising body for the construction industry. The organisation describes itself as a platform from which “to stimulate, debate and drive much needed change in the Construction sector”.

Physical health and safety is already taken seriously in the construction industry. At a time when suicide kills more workers than falls from height, it is only right that mental health is being given the same time, energy and investment as other site hazards to truly protect workers. Mental health is finally being acknowledged as the major – and common – issue that can have serious personal, professional and economic effects and that needs to be addressed – for the betterment of everybody.

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