Shocking data from the ONS sheds light on why action must be taken to address the number of suicides in our industry.
More than 1,400 construction workers took their own lives between 2011 and 2015.
The number of suicides among those working in construction trades was the highest of any profession over that period.
Of the 13,232 in-work suicides recorded by the Office for National Statistics, those within the skilled construction and building trades made up 13.2 per cent – despite construction accounting for little over 7 per cent of the UK workforce.
These are shocking statistics – and serve as a stark reminder of the difficulties faced by many of those working in construction each and every day.
The huge challenge of mental health is why Construction News launched the Mind Matters campaign earlier this year, aiming to help raise awareness of an issue industry leaders are increasingly recognising as vital to all businesses.
Digging deeper into the statistics reveals a number of worrying trends that only heighten the need for construction to address mental health head on.
Of the 1,419 people working in skilled construction building trades who took their own lives from 2011 to 2015, 1,409 were men and just 10 were women.
The statistics also show that the risk of suicide for those working in building and construction trades was 1.6 times higher than the national average. Within these workforces, roofers, tilers and slaters faced the highest risk of all: in those trades, the risk of suicide is a staggering 2.7 times higher than the UK average.
Broken down, there were 1,050 suicides among those working in construction and building trades, 357 within building finishing trades and 12 by those employed as construction and building trades supervisors.
Gail Cartmail, acting general secretary at trade union Unite, claims these startling numbers suggest employers in the industry are “failing in their duty of care to their workforce”.
“This is the latest evidence that the industry’s hire-and-fire culture is fundamentally unhealthy and is a major factor in these terrible and needless tragedies,” she argues.
“In the short term we need to be raising awareness of the suicide risk in construction and explaining where workers can receive confidential support. We also need to be ensuring that far higher numbers of workers, including union safety reps, are trained in mental health first aid.”
She also blames the “macho culture” of the industry, with workers feeling unwilling or too uncomfortable to share their concerns in the workplace.
Men at risk
This is particularly true of those aged 40 and above, with the statistics suggesting this age group is the most vulnerable.
Two-thirds of all suicides by those working in construction trades were by those aged 40 and above, with those aged between 40 and 49 the most at risk. Within this age bracket there were 503 suicides – or 35.7 per cent of the 1,419 total – between 2011 and 2015. There were also 334 suicides by those aged between 50 and 59 – 23.5 per cent of the total.
Terry Rigby, director at social enterprise Forward For Life, which provides suicide prevention training to businesses, says this age group is the most at risk across the whole country.
“It’s the biggest killer of men under 50, and a lot of it is around identity,” he says, adding that the changes to society over the past 30 years have made manual workers all the more vulnerable. “A lot of men have found themselves unemployable,” he suggests, arguing that opportunities to find work through many traditional forms of manual labour have become increasingly few and far between.
He adds that, for construction and other trades, where the source of the next pay cheque isn’t always clear and where a macho culture dominates, this problem is even more obvious. “Blokes don’t talk,” he adds.
Mr Rigby points out that, nationally, those aged between 40 and 60 are the most at risk across the vast majority of industries.
Starting the conversations
But with these astonishing figures revealing the full extent of construction’s problem, what can contractors do?
Suicide risk in construction vs national average_ONS
Mr Rigby says there are three principal reasons why people take their own lives. “One is that people feel like a burden to others. Two, is that they feel like they don’t belong. And three, which is the most important one, is capacity.
“If you have the capacity and the means by which to take your own life, it makes [suicide] something you’re more likely to consider.”
Construction News has made mental health one of its core areas of focus in 2017, with the launch of Mind Matters part of efforts to open the industry up on the issue. Mr Rigby says his organisation, which focuses primarily on the health and social care sectors, is now looking to work with contractors to provide more suicide prevention training.
He adds that funding has been secured to begin a roll-out of its Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training in Birmingham, with an eye on further expansion.
Unite’s Ms Cartmail meanwhile says the trade union “is fully prepared to work with any employer large or small who is prepared to do the right thing and tackle mental health issues and the risk of suicide in construction”.
Some of the problems in the industry – its cyclical nature and its macho culture to name two – are more fundamental and may prove difficult to change quickly.
But by offering support to those in the workforce, and working to provide an industry-standard mental health training scheme for all, construction can take small steps towards making sure these appalling statistics are tackled.