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Suicide: How construction is waking up to the challenge

More construction workers take their own lives than in any other industry. Now companies are finally starting to tackle the issues that lead people to suicidal thoughts. So what must your firm do?

“Traumatised.” That is the only word Gordon Jessiman can find to describe how he felt when he heard his twin brother had killed himself.

It took him a few months to realise he needed help. He started to see a psychotherapist and continued to do so every week for four years.

“I was in bits,” he said. “My sister phoned me when I was in my office working and said they’ve found a body on the tube line and it’s our brother. We were not identical but we shared a womb – there was a co-dependency.”

Mr Jessiman owned a building firm and his brother worked for him, when he was able to, doing various jobs including painting and decorating. His twin had suffered mental health issues since the age of about 21 – due to cannabis-induced psychosis – and 26 years ago, aged 28, he died.

People are 10 times more likely to die by suicide than from accidents on site, the British Safety Council has found. There were 1,419 suicides among those working in skilled construction and building trades between 2011 and 2015, according to Office for National Statistics data – more than in any other industry.

CN’s Mind Matters campaign and the industry’s own Mates in Mind programme were launched in January to help raise the awareness of mental health in construction. A staggering 24 per cent of respondents to CN’s industry survey had considered taking their own life, while 14 per cent had lost a colleague to suicide.

“Every suicide is a tragedy, but we can all help to prevent people from reaching such a desperate stage,” says Justin Varney, national lead for adult health and wellbeing at Public Health England.

“If you’re based on site, it can be hard to do the things you might do outside work to help keep you mentally healthy”

Emma Mamo, Mind

Construction firms are increasingly focused on providing support for colleagues on mental health and if someone working with them does take their own life. As Mr Jessiman’s case shows, coping with a death can greatly affect the mental health of those closest to the deceased.

But what are construction companies doing to tackle the problem and what is the best way to support co-workers if someone does end their own life?

‘Masculinity contributes to suicide’

The Mind Matters campaign has highlighted how construction workers can be particularly susceptible in what can be an insecure job in a male-dominated environment. Of the 1,419 suicides in construction between 2011 and 2015, all but 10 were men.

“Masculinity – the way men are brought up to behave and the roles, attributes and behaviours that society expects of them – contributes to suicide in men,” said the Samaritans charity in a report, Men, Suicide and Society.

Men in the UK are three times more likely to take their own lives than women, according to the charity.

Emma Mamo, head of workplace wellbeing at mental health charity Mind, adds: “Commonly cited causes of stress and poor mental health at work – such as long working hours, heavy workloads and poor relationships with colleagues – can be commonplace in the construction industry. If you’re based on site, it can be hard to do the things you might do outside work to help keep you mentally healthy, such as taking regular exercise and eating a healthy diet.”

The noise, light and temperature on building sites can also have a bearing on the mental health of those working on sites, Ms Mamo adds.

“He came for a health check. You would not have flagged up the indicators that he was thinking of taking his own life”

Val Clark-Irving, health nurse adviser

The Mates in Mind programme has brought together clients, contractors and organisations from across the industry to support the training of employees to help co-workers with mental health issues. It is expected the programme will be rolled out more widely this summer.

But some organisations, such as Lendlease, Sir Robert McAlpine and Skanska, say they are already making some headway in caring for the mental wellbeing of staff.

Val Clark-Irving is a self-employed health nurse adviser who has been working in the construction industry for seven years. She works on several Sir Robert McAlpine sites at any one time – and everyone is made aware of her presence and encouraged to see her. “I am quite visible but also [my office is] private,” she explains.

The importance of her role in preventing suicide is reflected in a story she tells of a young man in his 20s. “He came for a health check. You would not have flagged up the indicators that he was thinking of taking his own life. We had a long conversation. He really opened up and said he was feeling low. We discussed why. I asked, ‘Have you had suicidal thoughts?’ He said, ‘Yes’.”

Get support

Ms Clark-Irving referred him to a clinic where he was given counselling until he was well enough to come back to work. The next time she saw him he was looking forward to a better future and had applied for jobs and apprenticeship schemes.

Time away can be vital, but often goes unrecognised: 29 per cent of workers that answered CN’s survey had taken time off work due to mental health issues. However, 60 per cent did not tell their employer the reason for their absence was mental health.

Double-edged sword

She talks about the “all for one” mentality on sites, which can make it difficult if a co-worker – often a friend as well – dies. At the same time, the all-for-one approach can drive employees to look out for each other and flag if they feel a colleague is showing signs of suicidal thoughts.

“The construction industry has for some time acknowledged the need to work safely but doesn’t necessarily give the same attention to health”

Neil Martin, Lendlease

Nevertheless, 88 per cent of respondents to CN’s survey said there needs to be more support for employees experiencing mental health issues.

Lendlease started to focus on the mental wellbeing of its staff three years ago and has since trained 500 employees in mental health first aid. The firm also encourages at least one day of ‘wellbeing leave’ every three months when employees take leave to alleviate stress or take part in a wellbeing activity.

Lendlease managing director for construction Neil Martin says the industry has some way to go in tackling the suicide issue. “Businesses have responsibilities to their staff and that means looking out for their wellbeing. The construction industry has for some time acknowledged the need to work safely but doesn’t necessarily give the same attention to health, and that means mental as well as physical health.”

Skanska started training staff across all levels of the organisation in mental health first aid in February last year. The firm now has more than 200 of what it calls mental health ‘ambassadors’ taught to recognise mental health issues and offer support to colleagues.

Skanska head of occupational health and wellbeing Tricia O’Neill says there has been a huge appetite from staff to join the programme. She notes a large number of people in the highways teams have chosen to become ambassadors because of the “toll of dealing with that kind of environment”.

Tailored support

Highways teams can often be first on the scene after a road traffic accident, putting them in what can be traumatic circumstances. “People feel more comfortable talking to someone they know, who can understand the work environment and pressures they are under,” Ms O’Neil says.

She also believes the industry still has a long way to go, but that “there’s this growing momentum, which needs to be kept going”.

“We need to collaborate more, acknowledging [mental health issues] exist in our sector. It’s about leadership.”

Since the start of the year residential developer Mount Anvil has been working to alleviate employees’ financial stresses and possible loneliness if they are working away from home (see box).

The developer’s health and safety director Simon Walker feels the industry needs to focus not just on reducing suicides but on tackling the causes. “It’s a positive to step have an onsite mental health first aider, but we don’t think it’s completely addressing the problem,” he says. “It’s a sticking plaster. We need to focus on prevention.”

Case study: Mount Anvil brings in advice

Developer Mount Anvil has started a project its health and safety team believe to be the first of its kind. 

When considering the Mates in Mind objectives, the company started to look at the likely drivers of suicide and decided to set up a financial advice service for its employees.

Mount Anvil health and safety coach Michelle Rice says: “We started thinking, if we are taking ownership of this, what do we know that causes stress? We know that money and financial problems cause stress.”

Since the start of this year, a financial adviser has been on one site for five days as a trial with 12 slots each day, with 60 employees seen. 

Mount Anvil now plans to roll out the programme throughout its business. The firm has also made wifi available in the canteen area at the end of the day for employees who want to Skype family while they are living away during a job. Employees are often on a budget and their hotels do not always have wifi, Mr Walker explains.

Unite advocates every workplace in the industry having a trained mental health first aider, but also wants firms to provide more stable employment for site workers.

The union’s acting general secretary Gail Cartmail says: “The way construction is organised is a direct contributor to the high number of suicides in the industry. If the industry was truly serious about improving the mental wellbeing of its workers then it would end the predominance of precarious employment that fuels individual’s insecurity and debt.”

Rail lessons

Certainly, in terms of helping employees cope after a death, there is a lot the industry can learn from organisations such as Network Rail. Suicides in the rail sector accounted for 4 per cent of all of those in Great Britain between 2005 and 2015, according to Network Rail group HR director Ian Iceton.

“We work to reduce stress, which is one of our main contributors to absence, and we work to address trauma, which is unfortunately a recurring condition our employees are suffering due to the nature of our business,” he says. “Through our occupational health provider services and through standards and tools for employees and leaders, we seek to help our workforce avoid and overcome mental health issues.”

Mr Iceton explains Network Rail’s aim is to “avoid stigmatising the subject” of mental health.

“If you shut down how you are thinking or feeling at any one moment, that’s when it breaks down. Just being heard alleviates the pressure”

Gordon Jessiman, Building Site to Boardroom

It teamed up with the Samaritans in 2010 to prevent rail suicides and support those affected by them. The British Safety Council hopes a collaborative approach will help reduce the rate of suicide through initiatives such as Mates in Mind.

“It is raising awareness of the problem and providing support for those who need it,” says Mates in Mind project lead Michael Whitmore. “The purpose of Mates in Mind is also to bring the industry together to openly talk and address the stigma associated with mental health.”

Now that the Office for National Statistics has started to release figures for suicides in particular industries, construction can see the scale of the problem and start to tackle it in a similar way to the drive to reduce fatalities on site in the early 1990s.

Until then, there is a recognised problem and solutions must be found to tackle it. And one of the best ways to do that is talk.

Communication is at the heart of not-for-profit organisation Building Site to Boardroom, which has developed training to promote better mental health in the construction industry.

Mr Jessiman is one of its directors.

“You make life complicated by not talking about it,” he says.

“If you shut down how you are thinking or feeling at any one moment, that’s when it breaks down. Just being heard alleviates the pressure.”

How to spot if someone has suicidal thoughts

It can be difficult to spot if someone has suicidal feelings. 

Mind’s head of workplace wellbeing Emma Mamo explains: “People might have become quite good at hiding them and pretending everything is okay.”

She adds: “Even if you’re not sure, if you’re worried about a colleague, talk to them, as it could make a huge difference. It could even be the difference between life and death.”

Ms Mamo gives some rules of thumb:

  • Encourage people to talk – start by talking about general wellbeing, and let people know they can talk to you if they need to.
  • Avoid making assumptions – don’t try to guess how they are feeling, what symptoms a co-worker might have and how these might affect their life or their ability to do their job.
  • Respect confidentiality – remember mental health information is confidential and sensitive. Don’t pass on information unnecessarily.
  • Even if they don’t want to speak about it at that time, let them know you’re there and they can talk to you when the time is right.
  • Small gestures like thanking people for their work, making tea or coffee and asking about their plans outside work can make a huge difference.

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