Since Construction News revealed the results of its first mental health survey in April last year, events such as the Grenfell tragedy and Carillion’s collapse have rocked the industry. So has workforce wellbeing improved or is it still under pressure? Lucy Alderson investigates.
Over the past 12 months, the construction industry has been scrutinised like never before.
The Grenfell tragedy and Carillion’s liquidation have not only sparked government inquiries, but have also prompted the industry to examine its culture and the way companies operate.
Grenfell and Carillion are vastly different in many ways, but both have highlighted dysfunctional and unsustainable aspects of the industry.
Low contractor margins and tight public sector budgets create pressure to cut programmes and costs, which could ultimately be to the detriment of projects. Subcontractors meanwhile continue to face huge challenges as a result of poor payment practices.
Moreover, the two events have laid bare the human side of the industry – both in terms of the communities it serves and the workforce it employs.
Mental health is at the heart of this, and is an area that is finally beginning to receive the attention it requires.
Last April, Construction News conducted its biggest piece of research for 10 years to assess the mental health of the industry’s workforce.
It was revealed that a quarter of our survey respondents had considered suicide.
This year, our second survey reaffirms what the industry has come to realise over the past 12 months: that it is struggling with people’s mental health.
Acknowledging the industry has a mental health problem is the first step forward. But understanding why it has a problem is critical to make real change, and this year’s results have shone a light on where these pressure points lie.
What’s changed since last year?
More than 1,300 people completed the survey this year. On the face of it, the results suggest little has improved over the past 12 months.
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One in four construction workers have considered suicide (24 per cent – same as last year), and the number of people who have experienced mental health issues has risen marginally to 57 per cent, compared with 55 per cent in 2017.
Nearly a third (30 per cent) of respondents had taken time off work due to mental health issues (up marginally from 29 per cent), while even more people this year said they hid the real reason for their absence from their employer (63 per cent, up from 60 per cent).
Bill Hill, chief executive of construction industry charity Lighthouse Club, says he is not “overly surprised” that the survey results are broadly similar to last year, as awareness of the industry’s mental health issue is still gaining momentum. “It will take some time,” he says. “I would never have envisaged that we could have moved any of these percentages in just one year.”
The statistics nevertheless remain worrying. Emma Mamo, head of workplace wellbeing at mental health charity Mind, says the figures highlight “how widespread mental health problems in the construction industry continue to be”.
She says the number of people in the industry who have considered suicide is of particular concern, especially when taking into consideration that 56 per cent of respondents feel like they have not received an appropriate level of support from their employer.
More on mental health
It is important that employers create an environment where staff feel able to talk openly about issues they are facing, as this can provide important support for those who may be struggling, Ms Mamo explains. “This is even more important in typically male-dominated sectors like construction, as we know that, on the whole, men are less likely to speak up and seek support if they’re struggling with their mental health.”
However, Mr Hill says he is “very reassured” that 67 per cent of all construction workers felt mental health awareness had improved over the past 12 months. Construction firms are taking a “major programmatical” approach to improving the problem, he says, investing in initiatives such as mental health first aid training – especially for supervisors and those working at management levels.
Still a stigma
One of the highest proportions recorded in this year’s survey is the number of people who feel there is stigma attached to mental health, with 81 per cent agreeing this is the case (compared with 82 per cent last year).
“From a personal perspective, this statistic looks high,” says Jaan Madan, workplace lead for Mental Health First Aid, which provides awareness training and consultancy services to various industries, including construction. He says a “perfect storm” has developed, triggered by the combination of a mental health stigma and a belief that if you do speak up, you won’t receive adequate support.
This year’s survey revealed 56 per cent of respondents felt they had not received an appropriate level of support for their mental health issue. “We’re getting close to 60 per cent of the workforce who feel that they are not well supported,” Mr Madan says. “And if people feel there is a stigma, then one of the things we know about stigma is that […] it is one of the biggest barriers for people wanting to access support around mental health and wellbeing.”
“There’s something about mental health and talking about this with an employer that [the industry] has not been able to overcome”
Lisa Curran, Barhale
Mr Madan adds that there will also be a large number of people who will not have come forward to their employer to seek support about their mental health. If those who are struggling in silence hear stories of inadequate support for colleagues’ mental health issues, they will be even less likely to come forward and seek help, he suggests.
An area of concern for Lisa Curran, who is a consultant in occupational medicine and a director at Barhale, is that people do not feel confident seeking support from their employer for mental health issues.
mental health have experienced
Nearly a third (30 per cent) took time off work due to poor mental health. Among those who did, almost two-thirds (63 per cent) hid the real reason why they were absent. “This is still a real problem,” Dr Curran says. “There’s something about mental health and talking about this with an employer that [the industry] has not been able to overcome.”
Making sure your employees know that discussions about their mental health will be kept in complete confidence is important, she adds, in order to remove any fears that they might be judged or be subject to negative repercussions.
Smaller companies, payment and stress
This year’s survey results suggests poor mental health is especially prevalent among those working at smaller companies (employing fewer than 100 people), with 65 per cent of respondents from such companies having experienced mental health issues. This has increased significantly from 56 per cent the previous year.
Those working in smaller companies gave similar reasons for poor mental health – primarily chasing payments and coping with the pressures faced in delivering projects.
“My breakdown was caused when I was working on the tools,” one survey respondent who works at a small company said. “Working away from home, firms not paying on time (or the agreed amount) caused financial strains at home.”
Another respondent working at a similar-sized company said: “I work in a high-pressure environment. I am constantly working to tender deadlines, amongst my other work duties. I often work unpaid overtime just to meet deadlines, and by the time I get home I am too tired to relax or enjoy myself. I suffer from chronic migraines, which are often triggered by work stress.”
For Walker Construction managing director Phil Webb, payment and cashflow is his biggest concern. The Kent-based contractor employs 273 staff and also works for larger national tier ones. In January it was left out of pocket after the collapse of Carillion.
“If people feel there is a stigma, then one of the things we know about stigma is that… it is one of the biggest barriers for people wanting to access support around mental health and wellbeing”
Jaan Madan, Mental Health First Aid
“Late payment is the biggest stress in my life,” Mr Webb says. “Cash is king, as they say. Despite what your turnover is and what your profitability is, if you haven’t got cash coming into the business then you can’t survive.”
Walker Construction works for Network Rail, and the MD praises the client’s plan to ban retentions and mandate 28-day payment terms as a positive step forward.
If the government mandated a similar initiative, he suggests, it could help decrease payment worries experienced along the supply chain. “Particularly for the tier one contractors, it should be written into their contracts that they will pay their supply chain within the same timeframe they are getting paid themselves,” he says.
From working with firms across the industry, Mental Health First Aid’s Mr Jaan says his organisation often hears about the impact of poor payment practices on wellbeing in the supply chain.
“What comes up in the conversations we have with line managers, site foremen or senior leaders is [payment] will be a pressure or add stress,” he says, adding that zero-hour contracts, uncertainty about workflow, unfavourable working conditions and moving around for work are all frequently cited challenges.
A high number of junior members of staff and graduates who filled out this year’s survey said they were struggling with poor mental health.
More than two-thirds (68 per cent) of junior employees said they had experienced mental health issues (up from 64 per cent last year). Furthermore, nearly one in three (31 per cent) of this younger generation had considered suicide, compared with one in four across the survey as a whole.
Following CN’s research last year, Skanska chief executive Gregor Craig launched a company-wide analysis into mental health of this younger demographic within the business.
“Off the back of CN’s survey last year, one of the things that surprised me was the responses from graduates and junior members of staff, and how some of our younger people are struggling these days,” Mr Craig says. “We now have mental health training as part of all of our graduate and apprenticeship induction programmes, to make sure they come into the organisation knowing exactly what the company’s approach to mental health is – and they know what to do when they [find] themselves in a bit of a problem.”
He says research conducted by the company highlighted several problems facing younger people that can have an impact on their mental health, including loneliness, moving away from family and friends for work, and the negative effects of social media.
What can be done?
As this year’s largely unchanged results show, tackling these worrying statistics will take time. Dr Curran argues that the government could have a role to play in this.
She suggests firms could be measured on a key performance indicator based on quality of employment, where employees give feedback on their experience working for the company. “It would massively incentivise employers to create good workplaces and it would have to be supported by the government,” she says.
For Mr Webb, looking after the workforce should be viewed as making commercial sense and not just a moral initiative. His company has trained a number of its workers to become mental health first aiders and has invested in a counselling service hotline, which is available not only for its workforce but their families too.
mental health analysis stigma improve
“We work in a high-risk industry, and we undertake safety-critical roles,” he says. “If some workers are experiencing mental health issues, then they could harm themselves and others around them.”
The next stage of the Lighthouse Club charity’s strategy to support the industry’s workforce is to improve communication of the support and resources available to those struggling with mental health.
To this end, the charity is planning to launch an app called Building Buddies around Christmas time this year, says chief executive Mr Hill. The app will aim to help construction workers access the right help or guidance according to their needs, as well as providing self-help tips for workers.
Once the app has been rolled out in English, Mr Hill hopes to offer it in different languages to remove any barriers that may prevent workers from seeking support.
‘We’re at the start of the journey’
The industry’s mental health problem remains as pressing as it was last year, with little difference between 2017’s troubling revelations. But this is not to say the industry isn’t making real progress addressing the issue.
Many companies across the sector are rolling out mental health training (especially to those in managerial positions); the CITB has committed funding to train nearly 2,500 mental health first aiders for construction by 2020; and toolbox talks focused on mental health are becoming more widespread on sites.
Furthermore, companies including Laing O’Rourke, Morgan Sindall and Osborne took part in Mind’s Workplace Wellbeing Awards, which recognises best practice procedures employers are putting in place to support the mental health and wellbeing of their workforces.
This work is reflected in CN’s statistics, Ms Mamo says. “You can see the signs of this [work] in these statistics, with so many employees feeling that mental health awareness has improved.”
“We work in a high-risk industry, and we undertake safety-critical roles. If some workers are experiencing mental health issues, then they could harm themselves and others around them”
Phil Webb, Walker Construction
Mr Hill says the industry is at the beginning of a “very long road” to fully understanding the mental health issues in the sector, but remains optimistic about what can be done. “This is the most cohesively I have seen the industry work,” he says. “Information and best practice is being shared.”
In the aftermath of Carillion, Mr Hill says the current climate has highlighted the need to address the effect the industry has on its workforce. “People’s lives were devastated [by] the fallout. That in itself will have a huge impact on mental health.”
However, he says the industry is capable of a strong and collaborative response in supporting its workforce, as those who had lost their jobs at Carillion were taken on by many other contractors.
Carillion – and events such as Grenfell – have rocked the industry, and the way it operates is under interrogation.
Now more than ever, there is a chance to drive forward real change – with improving mental health as the heart of this.
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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