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Analysis: It's time to talk about mental health

Around 450 construction workers take their own lives every year, estimates suggest. Now industry figures are coming together to bring this critical issue out from the shadows.

“I had crippling anxiety. My self-esteem was on the floor; as for my self-image, I didn’t know who I was. I also had suicidal thoughts.

“Externally, I looked like I had it all: running the big jobs, the house, the mortgage. But inside I had nothing. I was broken.”

Dave Lee, director of not-for-profit company Building Site to Boardroom (BS2B), struggled with depression for 20 years.

After his parents put him in care after they divorced, Mr Lee spent time in and out of jail before he “fell into” construction, eventually leading the delivery of million-pound jobs.

But the stresses of the industry and responsibility took their toll and Mr Lee turned to alcohol and drugs. “I was drinking heavily and using drugs to cope. I couldn’t even go to a pub unless I had a drink – only then did I have the courage to talk to people.”

Now, Mr Lee is one of five directors of BS2B, an organisation set up to support mental wellbeing in construction. Stories like Mr Lee’s experiences are not uncommon. But due to the lack of open conversation around mental health in construction, you wouldn’t have thought it.

It is estimated that one in four of us will experience a mental health issue in our lifetimes. But a stigma surrounds mental health, so much so that it remains a taboo subject in industries like construction.

“The ability to talk about how you’re feeling is restricted, Everyone has to behave to a stereotype of being superman – of being indestructible”

Martin Coyd, Mace

With the construction industry accounting for more than 6 per cent of the UK’s workforce, it is likely that hundreds of thousands of people are experiencing mental health problems, many of them in silence. But there is a clear lack of open dialogue surrounding this issue: from building site to boardroom, there is little chance of seeing work stop for discussion on issues such as loneliness, anxiety, panic attacks or personality disorders.

The indestructible stereotype

Encouraging these types of conversations is particularly difficult in the construction industry, says Mace head of health and safety in construction Martin Coyd. “It’s very male-orientated, macho, physical and tough. The ability to talk about how you’re feeling is restricted because you fear stigma, discrimination and being judged. Everyone has to behave to a stereotype of being superman – of being indestructible.”

CIC-Live-2015-Martin-Coyd-Lendlease

Martin Coyd Lendlease

Martin Coyd: “I quickly realised we had a problem of epidemic proportions”

Mr Coyd first got involved in raising the profile of mental health in construction after training in mental health first aid at Lendlease, where he was regional head of environment health and safety for three years.

Through the mental health programme, Mr Coyd learned how to support people who would come to him to talk through mental health issues they may be experiencing. Headshots of the mental health first aiders would be posted up on walls, alongside the identities of fire marshals and traditional first aiders, so everyone would know who to turn to when they needed support.

Now, around 150 workers have undergone mental first aid training at Lendlease – around 10 per cent of the company’s UK workforce. “I began to engage people in conversations such as, ‘How are you?’ and, ‘How do you feel?’” Mr Coyd explains. “I very quickly realised we had a problem of epidemic proportions.”

“Suicide is the biggest killer of males under 45. We believe around 450 people in the construction industry take their own life each year” 

Heather Bryant, Balfour Beatty

The need to sit up and start tackling the issue of mental health in the industry was recognised with the establishment of the Health in Construction Leadership Group last year.

“Suicide is the biggest killer of males under the age of 45,” says Balfour Beatty health and safety director Heather Bryant, who also sits on the HCLG board. “We believe around 450 people in the construction industry take their own life each year. It’s not always created by work; it’s often issues people bring into work, but people have an opportunity, particularly in construction (such as tall buildings) if they are sadly in that place.”

The right direction

To raise awareness and start improving the mental health of the industry, HCLG have launched the Mates in Mind programme, with the support of the British Safety Council.

And the aim of the programme? “We want to remove the stigma; we want to support the industry by pointing them in the right direction to relevant guidance and support; we want to work with partners who are experts in this area – organisations such as Mind, the Lighthouse Construction Industry Charity and Samaritans – to make sure we have guidance that is appropriate for the industry.”

Heather-Bryant-chief-inspector-of-construction-HSE

Heather Bryant Balfour Beatty

Heather Bryant: “We need to have a workforce that we look after”

As well as making information, resources and materials on mental health more accessible, Mates in Mind will offer training packages across the industry, including 45-minute mental health induction talks, which it hopes to eventually run free of charge for anyone in the industry.

It will also offer training packages to companies which will have a small charge attached. One package is aimed at supervisors; another to train people to become mental health first aiders; a third will offer training to help people support those who have suicidal thoughts; and a final package caters for managers.

Why now?

Mental health is not a new concept. So why is the industry pushing forward in improving this issue now?

“We have an industry that is vital for the economy,” Ms Bryant says. “We have an industry that has a bright future ahead of it with all the infrastructure projects which we need to deliver in the future. Therefore, we need to make sure we have a collective workforce that we look after.”

“It’s ok to ask someone if they’re alright. It’s ok to ask a work colleague for help” 

Martin Coyd, Mace

Mr Coyd agrees that mental health in the construction industry must be supported all the way down the supply chain. “We can make a massive change to our industry – it’s a great place to work but it could be made a better place to work. We could improve productivity, people’s engagement and changing whole communities for the better by doing simple things.”

According to Mr Coyd, this could be as simple as asking a colleague at work whether they are okay. “It’s ok to ask someone if they’re alright. It’s ok to ask a work colleague for help.

“If everyone comes together and everyone steps up and talks about mental health, we have a real chance of making a real difference to people’s lives.” 

Mind Matters: Get involved

Take our industry-wide survey to help shape the future of mental health awareness and sign up to our campaign by pledging to promote and talk about mental health. Tell us how you will make a difference in your business in 2017.

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