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‘I wore a mask to work’: Supporting ex-soldiers into construction

Many veterans move from the forces into the industry and can offer unparalleled expertise. But contractors must do more to support the mental health of those who struggle with the transition, as Lucy Alderson finds out.

After 24 years of serving in the army, Dougie Guildford handed over his ID card, walked out of his base and began his new life as a civilian.

He had joined the army when he was 16, starting out as an apprentice bricklayer and working his way up the ranks.

From fighting in Northern Ireland during The Troubles to leading a team in Iraq, Mr Guildford had travelled the world during his time in the forces. The army wasn’t just his career; it was his life.

But he wasn’t a soldier anymore. It was 2005, he was retired, facing unemployment and wondering how he would find the money to pay his bills.

He decided to set up his own business refitting and refurbishing kitchens. But after 18 months, he only had £14,000 in turnover to show for his efforts and was living off his pension.

He was finding life outside the army incredibly hard, until he received a phone call from Willmott Dixon group head of safety and environment Mark French. Mr French – whom Mr Guildford had known through his time in the army – talked to him about the opportunities at the company that he thought would be of interest.

Mr Guildford joined Willmott Dixon in November 2007 in a health and safety role, and he’s been with the company ever since. 

But while his financial position improved, he was struggling with his mental health. “I was miserable,” Mr Guildford says. “I couldn’t control my anger, I couldn’t hold a relationship down and I was married and divorced twice. I wore a mask to work and everyone thought what a great bloke I am. Then I go home and I’ll be the complete opposite.”

Things became too much around two years ago. “I was walking the dog at about 2am in the morning,” Mr Guildford says. “I put the dog lead around my neck and I didn’t want to go on anymore.”

Though he did not attempt suicide, that moment drove Mr Guildford to seek professional help, which he continues to receive today.

The go-to industry

Due to the lack of data on military veterans who now work in construction, it is hard to estimate what percentage of the industry’s workforce is made up of ex-armed forces personnel.

However, according to Ministry of Defence figures, the skilled trade occupation sector was the one those who left the forces in 2016/17 were most likely to enter (among those who used employment support services offered by the government). Around 22 per cent of armed forces-leavers entered this sector, while a further 14 per cent entered into process, plant and machine operative occupations.

Construction is clearly one of the go-to sectors for veterans re-entering the workplace, and the industry needs to be mindful of this, says Morgan Sindall director of defence Andy Parker. “We need to be aware that we employ a lot of ex-military – that’s important,” he says. “We need to understand that, then look at some of the issues that may affect the military.”

“Worklessness can have a devastating effect when you’ve left the army. You find yourself thinking, ‘Do I have enough money to pay my bills?’”

Dougie Guildford, Willmott Dixon

What could these issues be? Mr Guildford says reintegration back into civilian life and the impact of serving in operational roles can affect veterans’ wellbeing.

“[Operational] soldiers are different, by the nature of some of the traumatic things they’ve witnessed or been involved in, often [occurring] over sustained long periods of time,” he says. “And worklessness can have a devastating effect when you’ve left the army. You find yourself thinking, ‘Do I have enough money to pay my bills?’”

Sue Freeth is chief executive of Combat Stress, a charity helping former servicemen and women deal with mental health issues. She says veterans can bring “enormous value” to the workplace, but some can require additional support in relation to mental health. “Service-related mental health conditions, including anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, affect a small but significant number of veterans,” she says. “Left untreated, these can have a devastating impact on those affected and their loved ones.”

How companies can care

More than 6,000 veterans are currently registered with Combat Stress, which actively supports 3,000 of them.

However, many more former servicemen and women could be dealing with mental health issues issues alone, Ms Freeth points out. “We know that many veterans across the UK continue to struggle in silence,” she says.

Accordingly, it can be hard to spot the signs when an ex-military construction worker is struggling with their mental health. “Veterans wear a mask very well,” Mr Guildford says. “The last thing you want to show, when you’re in the army, is ‘weakness’. You can often put a mask on at work and deal with issues back home.”

Creating a network to link up veterans working within a business offers one way of encouraging people to open up about issues they may be facing, suggests Skanska occupational health and wellbeing manager Tricia O’Neill. When someone who used to work in the armed forces joins Skanska, they are put in touch with the company’s military network. 

dougie guildford

dougie guildford

Willmott’s Dougie Guildford: “I wore a mask to work and everyone thought what a great bloke I am. Then I go home and I’ll be the complete opposite”

Linking up with a group of like-minded people provides a good support base for ex-servicemen and women to feel more comfortable opening up about any issues affecting them, Ms O’Neill explains. “Sharing personal experiences is well received,” she says. “They can share their experiences of moving into the corporate environment and offer support.” These new joiners are also given a mentor as another channel of support to turn to if needed.

At Morgan Sindall, ex-armed forces workers within the business help advise on the company’s support for veterans. Due to their insight and personal experience, they can highlight the difficulties ex-service personnel can face, allowing the company to better understand what support can be put in place.

“They understand the demands on the military and understand what they may or may not have been through,” Morgan Sindall’s Mr Parker says. “This helps form our policy. We do a lot of work to make sure we’ve got the specialists to advise our people to get the help they need.”

What veterans bring to construction 

Although veterans may struggle with a transition between military and civilian life, construction could make this passage easier due to the similarities between the professions.

Gary Sullivan is chairman of support services provider Wilson James and serves on the steering group of Buildforce, an organisation that helps ex-military workers find a career in construction.

He draws various parallels between the armed forces and construction that may explain why it is a popular industry for ex-military personnel. “Like the army, construction turns up in someone’s back yard, creates a degree of havoc, discombobulates stakeholders around the perimeter, and makes things better than how we found them,” he says.

“The job is done in adverse weather conditions, and hard hats and high-vis is worn like a uniform. The military get posted to a job that lasts for around two years – construction projects often last 18 months.”

“The armed forces train their managers and leaders to think clearly in stressful situations, such as conflict zones when split decisions need to be made. This is a particular area of great relevance to our industry”

Andy Parker, Morgan Sindall

Construction can also learn from its ex-military workers when it comes to dealing with stress, which has a huge impact on wellbeing. Research conducted by CN last year into the industry’s mental health revealed a third of construction workers have taken time off work due to stress / mental health issues.

Because servicemen and women have worked in high-pressure environments, they can provide a unique insight into how to manage stress – something the industry can tap into, Mr Parker argues. “We can absolutely learn from our ex-armed forces workers,” he says.

“The armed forces train their managers and leaders to think clearly in stressful situations, such as conflict zones when split decisions need to be made. This is a particular area of great relevance to our industry, such as having to make decisions under pressure and dealing with problems when you’re on site.”

Contractors blazing a trail

Ultimately, tackling poor mental health across the entire sector will help provide support for its veteran workers, Mr Parker adds. “It’s important we address mental health across the whole industry, and make sure the same service is available to everyone. After all, when you join that industry, you become part of that whole industry.”

The issue is being addressed: construction is moving forward and dealing with its mental health problem.

Since CN’s research last year, Willmott Dixon has set up its own mental health initiative – All Safe Minds – and many other main contractors are offering mental health first aid training to their teams.

Skanska has conducted research into the particular challenges facing its junior / graduate workers, after CN revealed 63.9 per cent of these employees across the industry had experienced a mental health issue.

The silence that once surrounded these subjects is slowly being broken. Mr Guildford is calling on fellow veterans working in the industry to open up as well.

“Don’t be scared to ask for help,” he says. “Don’t be ashamed. Don’t see it as a sign of weakness.

“Over the last two years, I’ve started on a journey. I can’t erase what has already been imprinted. But what you can do is find a way of living a better life as you move forward.” 

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