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Uncovered: The truth behind construction's mental health

More than half of respondents to CN’s industry survey have experienced mental health issues. A quarter have considered suicide.The construction industry has reached a tipping point. So how is your business going to inspire change?

“It starts off small. You start feeling a bit sorry for yourself – and that seems to go on for weeks.

“You then begin to isolate from your colleagues because you want to be alone. Then, you start looking for an excuse not to come in. I was looking to injure myself. It was at that point that my wife made me seek proper medical help.

“I was one of those guys who would say, ‘There is no such thing as depression’. After being diagnosed, I can tell you if it was not for the care of my wife, doctors and friends, I would not be around today.”

This is just one respondent’s story of their battle with mental health issues. It is one of hundreds of anonymous comments left on CN’s Mind Matters survey, which found that 55 per cent of more than 1,100 respondents have experienced such health issues at some point in their lives.

You filled out our survey. You told us about your experiences: how you sought help from your line manager when they failed to provide the support you needed; how you broke down from the long hours you were expected to work; how you were brought to your knees because of late payment.

From site workers to directors, you told us how the often relentless pace of this industry pushed you to breaking point. How the stigma of talking about mental health has left you suffering in silence. How you considered taking your own life.

We have revealed the results of our survey and the response is unequivocal: this industry is at a tipping point and needs to make mental health an urgent priority.

Why is construction different?

Mental health issues can affect the way you think, feel and behave. If you have depression, you might feel in a low mood, which affects your everyday life. One in four people across the UK will experience this at some point and one in six will experience it at their place of work.

The statistics for construction revealed in this survey show that this industry fares far worse than the national average. Of the 1,139 people who filled in CN’s survey, 55 per cent had suffered mental health issues at some point in their life, with 42 per cent suffering them at their current workplace.

Mind Matters survey key findings graphic

Mind Matters survey key findings graphic

Both statistics are more than double the national averages and may reflect working patterns and the demographic, amongst other issues.

“The construction industry lifestyle, particularly those who work on site, is highly relevant,” says Dr Alys Cole-King, a consultant psychiatrist and director of Connecting with People and Open Minds Health. “People who work away from home, perhaps for weeks at a time, may be removed from their regular, close social network.”

“Men don’t talk about this stuff at all. One of the big things we need to do is to make it safe for people to talk about mental health”

Steve Fox, Bam Nuttall

The construction workforce is transient. People often travel many miles to remote locations and even different countries to deliver projects. But this can put workers under huge strain, as one survey respondent explained: “Living away because of site locations does not help with mental health issues,” they said.

“Travel times of over five hours and expectations to be on site for 8am on a Monday morning are massively inflexible and ultimately unachievable.”

Combined with the male-dominated nature of construction, the industry’s workforce is less likely to be open about their feelings and to ask for help. “I think the fact construction is a male-dominated industry highlights male-related issues,” says Bam Nuttall CEO Steve Fox. “Men don’t talk about this stuff at all. One of the big things we need to do is to make it safe for people to talk about mental health.”

Stopping the stigma

One respondent said: “Mental health is frowned upon in the workplace – my manager said it was because I was weak. If a staff member breaks a bone then they are sympathetic; anything mental or that they can’t see, they ignore or make people leave.” This is just one of many people who responded to our survey outlining not only the stigma, but the discrimination they have faced for raising these issues in the industry.

A lack of understanding around mental health was a key theme in our survey data, with 83 per cent saying there is not enough industry awareness and 82 per cent agreeing there is a stigma surrounding the issue.

“We can’t underestimate the impact of stigma around suicide or mental health conditions,” says Dr Cole-King. “It can almost be described as a life-limiting condition. It stops people from admitting to themselves that they are struggling and stops people around them from asking if they are OK.”

Tackling this is the first thing the industry needs to do, she says. “If people don’t seek help due to stigma, lives will be lost to suicide.”

More on mental health

Skanska executive vice-president Gregor Craig adds that raising awareness and the importance of dialogue is key to tackling the stigma. One way firms can start a conversation is by dedicating time for employees to discuss the issue, Mr Craig says.

“One of the things that was really successful – we were surprised how successful – was that we did a stand-up on mental health. Across every single location in Skanska, we were talking about [the issue] all at the same time.”

He says people practised how to talk about mental health using the right language and that this helped to raise awareness.

“Mental health issues don’t usually develop overnight: there are often warning signs”

Alys Cole-King, Connecting with People

Robertson chief operating officer Derek Shewan says that in his 50 years with the company there have been incidents of suicide from site operatives up to senior management within the business. One of his senior colleagues was among those who died and Mr Shewan has also had to deal with suicide in his private life.

He said these experiences brought the issue home to both him and the company: “It makes you challenge yourself on why someone would do that and understand what you could have done to help them. You think, ‘What could we have done to spot it earlier? What could I have done to help?’ You never want anyone to have to suffer that.”

The number of respondents who have considered suicide is startling. A quarter have thought of taking their own life, rising to one in three for junior/graduate-level employees. In addition, 14 per cent say they have lost a colleague to suicide.

Of those who had considered suicide or lost a colleague, a staggering 90 per cent did not turn to their employer for support – which Emma Mamo, head of workplace wellbeing at mental health charity Mind, says is a particularly worrying statistic.

“These figures really highlight how widespread mental health issues are across the construction sector, from director level through to junior staff and recent graduates,” she says. “Of particular concern is the high number of employees experiencing suicidal thoughts, especially among graduates and junior staff.”

Mr Shewan agrees the statistics on junior staff make for worrying reading: “I’ve known a number of young people who have taken that decision to end their life,” he says. “That’s a real concern.”

And Skanska’s Mr Craig says the industry needs to be more conscious of the mental health of this demographic, in light of the finding that a third of junior/grad employees had considered suicide. “That is an enormous proportion that clearly has difficulties they need help with.”

Lack of manager support

How can companies make sure the necessary support through leadership and mentoring is in place to protect their workforce?

“It’s important all employers create an environment where staff feel able to talk openly about issues they’re facing – personal and professional,” Ms Mamo says.

“If we want to attract and retain the best people, then removing the stigma of mental health issues is a pledge we should all sign up to”

Paul Cossell, ISG

“This is paramount in typically male-dominated sectors, 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.”

One survey respondent said: “I was taken to one side on a job I was on when the contractor came on board and was told that until that job was finished, my work life would likely be a living hell. There were two years to go at that point.

“I ended up taking two days off a week for approximately five months with migraines and lack of sleep. When I was in the office, I was there from 7am to 11pm.

“When I did eventually cave in, my line manager was surprised and thought nothing was wrong. I’d been shouting for help for months and got nothing until I said I wouldn’t be at work for the next two weeks.”

Mind Matters survey further findings graphic

Mind Matters survey further findings graphic

The lack of help from line managers was a big issue in the survey. Just one in four (28 per cent) of respondents said they were happy with the support given by their line manager when they were struggling with their mental health. We also received hundreds of responses outlining how line managers had failed their employees, including by not spotting the signs when members of staff were clearly struggling.

Dr Cole-King says managers have a vital role to play in helping with early identification and signposting for support. “Mental health issues don’t usually develop overnight: there are often warning signs,” she says. “If these can be picked up by a line manager it can help to stop a situation from becoming worse.”

Why are managers failing to spot these signs and provide essential support? Dr Cole-King says they may lack the knowledge or confidence needed. “A lot of the stigma about mental illness comes from a lack of understanding and fear – for example, fear of saying the wrong thing. What is needed is ‘bite-sized’ line manager training to provide the correct level of awareness to enable them to respond appropriately.”

Good business sense

Companies need to tackle mental health in the workplace for commercial reasons, too – it’s not purely altruistic.

“Not disclosing mental health conditions has huge implications for employers, employees and their families,” Dr Cole-King says. “For employers, there are costs in terms of increased absences, staff replacement and reduced productivity.”

“Directors speaking out helps to normalise the issue. It shows that everyone is a human being, and everyone has emotions”

Shaun Sheldrake, Murphy

Skanska’s Mr Craig agrees it makes good business sense. “At a basic level, this shows the amount of time lost to a company because someone has a problem. Reducing that time off is going to be a very obvious benefit to the business.”

ISG chief executive Paul Cossell says construction needs to tackle the issue to help address the skills shortage. “If we want to attract and retain the best people, then promoting greater awareness, ensuring a healthy work-life balance and removing the stigma of mental health issues is a pledge we should all sign up to,” he says.

He says the industry is making the right moves to address the issue, but more needs to be done. “There are positive signs that we’re increasingly alert to this and the devastating consequences mental illness can have on our people, but clearly CN’s survey indicates much more is needed.”

Bam Nuttall chief executive Steve Fox says: “One of the most powerful things that can really make a difference is for leaders to talk personally about mental health,” something he has been doing for over a year and a half.

He has talked to employees across the business about his experience of mental health issues within his family. Less than two years ago, his mother had an anxiety breakdown and he has spoken out about the impact this had on his family.

“Leaders need to make having a conversation about mental health safe,” Mr Fox says. “My position means sometimes you have to do these things and talk about the taboo because you can. I encourage my peers to do the same thing.”

Murphy construction operations director Shaun Sheldrake agrees that the need for senior figures to step up is crucial. “Directors speaking out helps to normalise the issue,” he says. “It shows that everyone is a human being, and everyone has emotions.”

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

Next steps

Robertson’s Mr Shewan says the industry is only now waking up to the importance of mental health. “In the old days, people would tend to ignore it. But this is not acceptable. We need to be addressing it and the survey results are concerning.”

Initiatives to tackle the issue are gathering momentum. Programmes like Mates in Mind are in place, companies are training staff to become mental health first aiders and many are working with charities such as Mind to boost their understanding.

However, with results like these, the industry needs to step up together, according to Skanska’s Mr Craig. “We’re still not doing enough,” he says. “Some of the statistics show construction as an industry has more of a problem than others. We need to be as joined up as we can.”

Mr Shewan agrees that tackling mental health runs deeper than just company level. “It needs to be industry rather than company-led,” he says. “Industry bodies need to take forward a whole new approach to how we understand mental health and what it means to people. My call would be for government to support our industry to address this issue.”

Civil Engineering Contractors Association chief executive Alasdair Reisner says the CN research makes for “bleak and perhaps uncomfortable reading”.

He adds: “As an industry we have a duty to look after those we work with, and that should focus as much on their mental as their physical wellbeing. This research helps build the case for us to work together as an industry to tackle the issue of mental health, as it is clear the problems are widespread and cannot be ignored.”

Construction News will send these results to the health secretary Jeremy Hunt and prime minister Theresa May, and has made all its Mind Matters content free to read for everyone.

So what needs to be done now? “Here, we have an absolutely ideal opportunity to grasp the issue and deal with it,” Mr Shewan says.

“If we can even halve these numbers in CN’s survey or better eliminate them totally, we must take full advantage of that [opportunity] now.

“My real concern is that mental health will fall off the radar. But it needs to be recognised today, tomorrow and the next day.”

Readers' comments (5)

  • Ian Howard

    I am a Time to Change Workplace Champion working at Highways England. I'm tasked with breaking the stigma and discrimination attached to those suffering from Mental Wellbeing illnesses by telling my story of my own lived experience.

    Good to see this piece published and to see the industry taking this stigmatised issue seriously at last.

    Take a look at this piece I published on Linked In some 3 weeks ago. It's doing pretty well throughout the world.

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  • Ian Howard

    The link doesn't seem to work guys.


    Search "Be A Man!?!" in Linked In instead.

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  • Admirable that awareness is being raised about mental health in the industry. Although the sample size is very small relative to the size of the industry (around 0.03% of people working in construction in the UK?). Also I suspect that those who were more inclined to respond to the survey would more likely be skewed in favour of people who have been affected by mental health issues or suicide, which would affect how representative the data actually is.

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  • Ian Howard

    Recently I’ve been browsing through some alarming research and statistics relating to the incidence of suicide amongst men in the UK.

    In 2013, 6,233 suicides were recorded in the UK for people aged 15 and older. Of these, 78% were male and 22% were female. In another report from the Office of National Statistics it has been revealed that there were 18,998 suicides in men and women aged between 20 and 64 years between 2011 and 2015. Some significant points to note as regards our relationship with the construction industry are that:

    • Males working in the lowest-skilled occupations had a 44% higher risk of suicide than the male national average; the risk among males in skilled trades was 35% higher.
    •The risk of suicide among low-skilled male labourers, particularly those working in construction roles, was 3 times higher than the male national average.
    •For males working in skilled trades, the highest risk was among building finishing trades; particularly, plasterers and painters and decorators had more than double the risk of suicide than the male national average.
    •Similarly, a high incidence of suicide was also found among those working in construction and building trades, where the risk of suicide was 1.6 times higher than the national average.
    •The occupation with the highest risk of suicide in this group was roofers, tilers and slaters, where the risk of suicide was 2.7 times higher than the national average. Research from Australia indicates that the elevated risk of suicide among males working in construction industries includes high levels of alcohol consumption, relationship problems and multiple stressful life events in the months before death.

    Men and women experience many of the same mental disorders but their willingness to talk about their feelings may be very different. This is one of the reasons that their symptoms may be very different as well. For example, some men with depression or an anxiety disorder hide their emotions and may appear to be angry or aggressive while many women will express sadness.

    Some men may turn to drugs or alcohol to try to cope with their emotional issues. Sometimes mental health symptoms appear to be physical issues. For example, a racing heart, tightening chest, ongoing headaches, and digestive issues can be a sign of an emotional problem.

    Warning signs include:
    •Anger, irritability or aggressiveness
    •Noticeable changes in mood, energy level, or appetite
    •Difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much
    •Difficulty concentrating, feeling restless, or on edge
    •Increased worry or feeling stressed
    •A need for alcohol or drugs
    •Sadness or hopelessness/Suicidal thoughts
    •Feeling flat or having trouble feeling positive emotions
    •Engaging in high-risk activities
    •Ongoing headaches, digestive issues, or pain
    •Stress, obsessive thinking or compulsive behaviour
    •Thoughts or behaviours that interfere with work, family, or social life
    •Unusual thinking or behaviours that concern other people

    Challenging masculine stereotypes could improve all our mental health. Stereotypes that teach men and boys that showing emotion is unmanly must be challenged if both women and men are to be free from the harms they give rise to. But why the difference? Male stereotypes that emphasize traits such as toughness and strength may dissuade both women and men, and especially the latter, from identifying or acknowledging the signs of depression in men.

    Research has revealed that a common societal view is that men are expected to be strong, deny pain and vulnerability, and conceal any emotional fragility and because of these societal expectations, men appear to have poorer understanding of mental health and aren’t as good at detecting symptoms of depression compared with women. These findings also may reflect the fact that women are generally more attuned to emotions and better at articulating them. Some men might have all the outward signs of depression, and yet when asked about their mood they may not be able to say much more than ‘I don’t know,' indication that a substantial minority of men just don’t describe depression.

    It can happen to anyone. There’s no such thing as ‘the suicidal type’. But if you’re worried that someone you know may be feeling suicidal it can be really hard to know what to say to them. Maybe you’re worried about upsetting them by bringing it up and at first it is difficult to know what to say to them, how to say it and where to find help.

    So how will you know? You ask. It sounds scary, but the best thing to do is talk about it. Just showing your support and giving someone space to communicate their feelings can be a huge release for them.

    But won’t talking about suicide put the idea in their head? No. If a person is suicidal then the idea is already there, and if they aren’t it won’t do any harm – it might come as a great relief to actually acknowledge that they’re feeling like this. Saying something is safer than saying nothing. Trust your gut and start the conversation. Saying the word suicide won’t make it happen.

    WHAT TO SAY? . . . Not too much . . . . Above all, LISTEN

    EXPLORE HOW THEY’RE FEELING. Ask questions like “How does that feel?” that keep the conversation open and allow them to talk. Don’t deny what they’re telling you, and don’t pretend you know how they feel or try to convince them how lucky they are.

    ASK THE QUESTION. If they give any indication they’re feeling hopeless or can’t see the point of going, on ask them clearly, “ “Are you thinking about killing yourself?” or “Are you thinking about taking your own life?” Don’t be too quick to accept denials or jokes as responses.

    Don’t judge or criticise. For example, they may be drinking too much alcohol. But pointing this out won’t be particularly helpful to them.

    Reassure them that these feelings won’t last forever and that they can find help. Don’t try to solve their problems. If someone is feeling suicidal, they need reassurance that they are valued that they can talk about how they feel and that help is available. Problem solving can come later

    What to do next? Feeling suicidal is frightening. If someone tells you they’re feeling suicidal, make sure they’re not left alone.

    Remove anything they could use to take their own life. Tell the person that you’d like to get them medical help now. Sit with them and call their GP surgery, call 999 or take them to A&E and stay with them until they are seen by a member of the mental health team. Even if it’s only a hunch, share your concerns with others. Don’t be afraid to involve family, friends, or colleagues. It can be difficult to hear the suicidal thoughts of a friend or loved one and they may be anxious not to frighten or upset you by telling you. Sometimes people find it easier to talk to a stranger, so encourage them to ring one of the confidential helplines below. You can ring them yourself if you are worried about someone.
    •The Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) 0800 58 58 58
    •Mind Infoline 0300 123 3393
    •The Samaritans 116 123.
    •Mates In Mind is a charitable programme to improve and promote positive mental health in construction.

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  • Mental health issues are not about "working away from home", or "a male dominated industry where people are less likely to talk", its about the stress caused by the bullying culture within the industry, and that often starts at the top.

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