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Skanska CEO: Why mental health matters to me

Lucy Alderson sits down with Skanska UK chief executive Gregor Craig to discuss how to tackle mental health in the industry – and why the subject is close to his heart.

For his 50th birthday, Gregor Craig bought himself a present he had been wanting for years.

Inspired by his musical family when growing up, the Skanska UK president had always wanted to turn his hand to playing the saxophone. However, he doesn’t think he’ll give up his day job just yet.

“I’m useless at it,” he says with a smile, but explains how playing the instrument serves another important purpose for him. “The concentration needed to work out which fingers need to be in the right place, to play the right note, can take you to a totally different planet for half an hour,” he says. “It’s very relaxing – but probably not for the people having to listen in.”

The issue of stress, and more broadly mental health and wellbeing, is a subject that is close to Mr Craig’s heart – and it plays a central role in his business strategy. 

It has been at the top of his agenda for Skanska UK since he took over as chief executive in May last year. It was one of the priorities he outlined to CN shortly after he stepped into the hotseat, saying that he planned to expand the group’s work on mental health in a “meaningful way”.

So what progress has Mr Craig made towards improving mental health at Skanska since setting out his intentions last year?

Making a difference

It quickly becomes clear that addressing mental health isn’t just a talking point for Mr Craig.

As we delve deeper into his background (both professional and personal), it is understandable why he takes the issue of mental health seriously.

For the two years prior to becoming CEO, Mr Craig was responsible for health and safety at an executive level. Over this time, he became increasingly aware of the issue of poor mental health in the construction industry, signing the Time to Change pledge on behalf of Skanska in 2016 to tackle the problem within the business.

“If you’re involved in those areas, you are subject to a little more information that’s available,” he says. “I knew I was probably a little more conversant with the challenges of mental health and the challenges it presented to the industry.”

Because of this, Mr Craig felt “a duty” to use his position as CEO to raise awareness of the issue across the wider industry. But a personal experience also highlighted to him the importance of spotting the signs of poor mental health.

“I knew I was probably a little more conversant with the challenges of mental health and the challenges it presented to the industry”

On 7 July 2005, Mr Craig’s daughter, who was 14 years old at the time, was caught up in the terrorist attacks that took place across London. She developed post-traumatic stress disorder as a result – but it was only years later when she left school that she told her parents she was struggling.

“The main thing it highlighted to me is that it is difficult to spot [when people might be struggling with mental health issues],” he says. “My daughter just wanted to get back to her normal life and she wanted to be like any other girl at school. No doubt she was masking her PTSD for quite a long time.”

It was this incident that brought home to Mr Craig the stigma that exists around mental health. He aims to make a “massive dent” in removing this barrier within Skanska and encouraging more staff to ask for help if they are struggling.

Restructure impact

In January this year, the Skanska parent group announced it would be undergoing a “comprehensive restructure” following problems in its European divisions.

As part of this restructure, 3,000 jobs would be cut across the company’s global operations. Since then, Skanska UK has confirmed redundancies have been made but has not disclosed the exact number.

Restructures and redundancies will undoubtedly cause stress and anxiety among the 6,000 staff Mr Craig is responsible for – so how is he addressing this? “In terms of how we deal with it, we rely on our core values. Be honest [and] transparent in terms of telling people exactly what is going on, and actively care for people. These are exactly the type of situations when you see whether organisations really work by their values.”

“My daughter just wanted to get back to her normal life and she wanted to be like any other girl at school. No doubt she was masking her PTSD for quite a long time”

Mr Craig tells me that after our talk he is heading off to make a video explaining the next steps in Skanska’s restructure, which will be sent out across the company. He has also made numerous speeches to staff to communicate the changes ahead.

Making people redundant fills most bosses with dread – how hard does Mr Craig personally find this task? “You have to find a way of rationalising it,” he says. “Anything that is a difficult people decision to make, you need to really understand why it has to happen.

“My role is to make sure this business is a sustainable business, that it’s a business that is growing and getting better and better. So I rationalise [these decisions] from the point that it is my job to create a sustainable business – not just for shareholders, but for everyone who is working here.”

‘Carillion is a terrible situation’

Long before the collapse of Carillion put late payment under the spotlight, CN had been reporting on the financial and mental health impacts poor payment practice can have on the supply chain.

The stress facing subcontractors that can’t afford to cover their own bills or staff salaries due to late payment, was highlighted by Osborne Communities managing director Nick Sterling in an interview with CN last April.

Mr Sterling owned his own company in the 90s, but after a problem job in Paris he was hit with a £300k bill overnight when the main contractor refused to pay up for the work his team had done.

“When you get into situations like that, you can’t see a way out,” Mr Sterling told CN at the time. “All you see is gloom and negativity. You can’t see the next contract and all you think about is how you’re going to pay your guys and where you’re going to get your money from.

skanska time to change gregor craig

Skanska time to change Gregor Craig

Gregor Craig signed the Time To Change pledge on behalf of Skanska in 2016

“It absolutely consumes all your thinking and you can’t sleep well. I had alopecia and a lot of my hair fell out. All your routines go out the window. You go insular, you go quiet and your behaviour becomes erratic.”

Unfortunately, situations like Mr Sterling’s are all too familiar. CN has received numerous emails about the industry’s culture of late payment and the severe impact on subcontractors.

The consequences of Carillion’s liquidation have continued to emerge, with high-profile subcontractors such as Vaughn Engineering collapsing as a direct result. Mr Craig says the industry must change.

“Carillion is a terrible situation for the industry,” he says. “While it is a difficult and terrible subject for those involved, I think what has been good is that it highlights things that maybe we should have tackled in the industry [earlier]… the issues around retentions and payments.”

He says Carillion’s collapse can be used as a springboard to discuss these issues and the impact they have on the mental health of the industry. “As long as this [is] done fairly to the people who were at Carillion, then let’s use this as a catalyst,” he adds.

What can be done to change this culture of late payment that can exacerbate stress and other mental health issues already experienced by the workforce? Mr Craig suggests becoming a more transparent industry will help.

“I think we should focus on – and I think it’s already happening – making the genuine performance of the main contractor transparent,” he says, with the government’s move to force all major contractors submit information about their payment practices cited as a step forward.

“While it is a difficult subject for those involved, what has been good is that it highlights things that maybe we should have tackled in the industry [earlier]… issues around retentions and payments”

On Carillion’s collapse

“It’s a really good start in highlighting who is doing what out there in reality, in terms of payment performance,” he says, adding that changes will hopefully happen off the back of this as clients have access to more information about their contractors. “Those who are bad payers… there’s probably a reason for it,” he says. “It’s either the ethics, or there’s a financial problem. So let’s make this transparent and make people look at it.”

Mr Craig suggests that questioning and scoring contractors on their approach to paying their supply chain in the bidding process could also help. “The ideal thing for me would be that, particularly in the public sector […] the financial approach and performance of contractors should be scored – we’d be happy to do that.”

He suggests clients should be able to choose whether or not to incorporate this into their bidding processes to get a true picture of their potential contractors. “[Making public] information about how companies act and perform is never going to be a problem if you do things properly. I’m all for making it transparent.”

Progress made

Mr Craig has set targets for Skanska UK to hit when it comes to improving the mental health and wellbeing of the workforce.

Ultimately, he wants everyone in the business to get mental health training, so that all staff know the importance of their personal wellbeing and be able to spot the signs when colleagues are struggling.

Mr Craig had set a target for 25 per cent of managers and supervisors to undergo this training in 2018, but the company hit this target in Q1. “In 2019 we’ll be at 50 per cent and 2020 we want to be over 75 per cent,” Mr Craig says.

Most tier one contractors have “started to up their game” on tackling poor mental health in the industry, he observes. Many are now offering support and guidance about mental health to their wider supply chains. But what about those smaller companies outside of those networks?

“It is important that the tier one contractors really get it and do something about it, as that is the way improvement happens in the industry”

Mr Craig views this as a difficult problem to solve, but highlights the drastic shift in attitudes towards health and safety over the past 30 years as an example of how the industry is capable of such change.

“The way health and safety has improved in the UK is by starting with the big guys first,” he says, adding that the same can be said of the industry’s issue with poor mental health. “It is important that the tier one contractors really get it and do something about it, as that is the way improvement happens in the industry. It usually occurs in the main contractors and goes down the supply chain.”

Leading by example seems to be a reccurring theme throughout our talk. Mr Craig has addressed colleagues across the company about personal experiences of mental health issues within his family, as part of attempts to break down the stigma that surrounds mental health.

And as CN’s survey results for 2018 reveal, the industry is still only at the beginning of its journey to improve mental health.

Get support

Construction Industry Helpline 0345 605 1956 – managed and funded by the Lighthouse Construction Industry Charity 

Mind, the mental health charity 0300 123 3393 – provides advice and support to anyone experiencing a mental health problem 

The Samaritans 116 123 – confidential 24-hour support for people who are experiencing feelings of distress, despair or suicidal thoughts

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