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Mental health: Why it's essential to your business

Tackling mental health in your business is not just good for the workforce; it’s also increasingly essential for productivity, efficiency and winning work from clients.

Iain MacGregor, technical director for Mott MacDonald, told his manager he couldn’t cope anymore in 2010.

Dealing with a divorce and facing a period of uncertainty at work, he became depressed and found it difficult to carry on as normal.

A big contract at work had fallen apart and Mr MacGregor was worried what this would mean for his team. The pressure continued to rise when he was given new work he had never done before. Struggling to deal with the stress he was juggling both at home and work, Mr MacGregor found it difficult to manage.

“I could not function in any way,” he explains. “I wanted to lock myself at home and not go out, not see anyone and not do anything. I felt totally useless. It got to the point where I went to my boss and said, ‘Look, I can’t cope with this’.”

After opening up to his manager, Mr MacGregor was signed off work. He received counselling and worked with his manager to put in place strategies for him to be able to slowly return back to work.

Mr MacGregor is one of the 1,139 people who filled in Construction News’ Mind Matters mental health survey.

Our research revealed that one in four construction workers had considered suicide and over half of the industry had experienced a mental health issue. Hundreds of people told us their experiences and senior leaders from contractors such as Amey, Bam Construction, Bam Nuttall, Carillion and Osborne came forward to respond to the results.

“It’s not just ticking boxes but actually meaning and believing in the welfare of our people” 

Peter Owen, Willmott Dixon

Skanska’s new CEO Gregor Craig this week told CN he would make mental health awareness among his first priorities at the business.

The taboo nature of mental health is slowly beginning to change and the subject is becoming recognised as an issue the industry must face up to urgently. Now, more high-profile industry leaders have come forward to share their stories and explain why looking after the welfare of workers is good for business.

Coming forward

“What Construction News has done is massively important for shining a light on an issue which, for all sorts of different reasons, people in the industry don’t want to talk about,” says Mark Farmer, chief executive of Cast Consultancy and author of last year’s review into the industry, Modernise or Die.

In a tough sector where small margins and tight deadlines make for a high-pressure environment, Mr Farmer says the issue can’t be underestimated. “We need those support networks in place. Shining a light on mental health is absolutely the right thing to do.”

Mott MacDonald’s Mr MacGregor agrees the issue has been hidden away and calls for the industry to focus on improving the wellbeing of its workforce. “It’s a serious issue and deserves the time spent on it,” he says. “It’s good to see Construction News taking this on.

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

Mental health awareness is not entirely new to the industry; companies have already started to put in place measures to ensure their staff have the support they need if they find themselves struggling to cope. Willmott Dixon is one firm that recognised the mental health of its staff needed to carry a bigger focus at the beginning of last year.

“We started a strategy of getting even closer to our people,” the group’s Midlands construction managing director Peter Owen explains. “It’s not just ticking boxes but actually meaning and believing in the welfare of our people.”

The programme came at a time when a number of senior people in Mr Owen’s team contracted cancer with one colleague losing their life to the illness. It was situations like that which brought home the need to offer help, he says. “In times of illness or when people are struggling and need support, you need to take action,” he says. “You need to offer unconditional support and whatever is needed.”

“My manager was very helpful, coming to visit me at home, and I received help from occupational health. This got me back to work quite quickly” 

Iain MacGregor, Mott MacDonald

Mental health first aid training is one way in which the firm has offered this help. Under the scheme, 12 people have been trained to spot the signs of colleagues who could be struggling with a mental health problem.

Setting up the programme was spearheaded by framework co-ordinator Zoe Anastasi, who had previously struggled with her own mental health issues (see box). “It’s not just about talking about the problem – we need to do something,” she says. “We need to educate people about the issue and signpost people on where to get help.”

Keeping talent in the workplace

Forty-two per cent of construction workers have experienced a mental health problem at their current place of work. With such a high proportion struggling with this problem in the workplace, the need to provide effective help to support talent back into work is vital.

From personal experience, Mr MacGregor says offering support and compassion for workers experiencing mental health issues can help speed up the recovery process. “Mott MacDonald was very supportive: the majority of the help I received came from work,” he says. “My manager was very helpful, coming to visit me at home, and I received help from occupational health. This got me back to work quite quickly.”

My story: Willmott Dixon framework co-ordinator Zoe Anastasi

“I suffered with mental health issues as a teenager. I struggled with eating disorders and self-harming.

“When I started working, this developed into social anxiety. I was having panic attacks but hiding it from my colleagues – no one would have known about it because I kept it a secret. You put a brave face on and don’t want to be judged.

“Willmott Dixon has been brilliant. I’ve received help from occupational health and have been meeting with HR. Talking about the issue really helps – once you open up about your own experiences, you find people have had their own problems or know someone who has struggled with mental health.

“The more you talk about mental health and the more you make it the norm, the easier it will be for people to come forward.”

Mr MacGregor has been on both sides of the fence. As a director himself, he is also responsible for ensuring his team are working effectively, which he says is better for business. “Mental health issues can spiral out of control and you could end up in a situation where someone is off sick for a long period of time,” he says. “It’s not good for them, their colleagues or the business.”

He advises companies to ensure their workforces are fit and healthy if they want better business: “It’s much better to have people working efficiently and happily,” he says. “Keep people content and happy, and if they encounter a problem, help them deal with it.”

Good for business

It’s not just employees who will benefit from proper support; it’s also good for business, according to Mark Lacey, partner and co-founder of consultancy Alinea.

“What Construction News has done is massively important for shining a light on this issue”

Mark Farmer, Cast

The firm was recently pitching for a significant project and the client was particularly interested in the company’s focus on corporate social responsibility. “The client said it was impressive that we took this agenda so seriously,” Mr Lacey says.

Infrastructure clients are also on the look-out for this, as Mott MacDonald’s Mr MacGregor says. “Highways England are very interested in this,” he says. “We’ve recently had discussions with our work and policies on inclusion, which was highly commended – and wellbeing sits in the same arena.”

A strong people-centric ethos has knock-on benefits for clients, he says: “It means our business is more stable, our people are happier and we will perform better on our projects.”

Placing employees’ welfare at the heart of a company could also attract the best people into your business at a time when the industry is struggling to draw in talent.

Moving forward

It is highly likely some of the industry’s most promising talent could be suffering with mental health issues if more than half of construction’s workforce has experienced a mental health issue.

Therefore, tackling mental health should not be seen as a purely philanthropic pursuit – it is essential in order to keep a fit and healthy workforce in place.

How can we move forward to do this? Mr Lacey says a cultural change needs to happen: “It’s about focusing on the working environment and monitoring working hours. It’s about support networks and developing a company culture where people feel they have somewhere to go and someone to talk to.”

Only when companies recognise their responsibility to tackle the issue will be when real progress can be made, he says. “A lot of people in our industry look to the government or others to sort problems. But it’s about construction companies showing leadership to sort the issue out.”

This week is national mental health awareness week. In January, CN launched its Mind Matters campaign, aimed at boosting mental health awareness in the construction industry. We will present our findings to the next health secretary and prime minister, following the general election next month.

Mental health at the CN Summit

As part of CN’s Mind Matters mental health campaign, CN editor Tom Fitzpatrick will chair panels at the CN Summit devoted to mental and occupational health.

Dr Alys Cole-King, clinical director for Connecting with People will assess the impact the construction industry can have on mental health of workers in a keynote speech.

Ben Thomas, mental health, learning disabilities and dementia care professional officer at the Department of Health, will be joined by Mace associate director Warren Alexander-Pye, Balfour Beatty health safety environment & sustainability director Heather Bryant, and Land Securities group head of health, safety and security Clive Johnson, to discuss mental health.

Steve Halls, director of health, safety and wellbeing at Tideway, Deborah Edmonds, head of occupational health and strategy at HS2 and Simon Longbottom, head of construction sector at the HSE will discuss the challenges on occupational health. 

The CN Summit takes place on 21 and 22 November.

To book your place at an early discounted rate, use the code CNSUM10 to get 10 per cent off your delegate place.



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