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Building a mental health policy fit for the construction industry

The dichotomy between the ways that our society has habitually approached physical and mental health is epitomised by the current mental health crisis in the construction industry. The UK’s construction industry is ballasted by a well-established framework of physical health and safety practices, and protocols relating to first aid. In a stark contrast, the mental health of employees has – until fairly recently – been an area of long-standing neglect.

The construction industry has historically lacked a culture in which employees feel comfortable talking about their mental health, reducing the chance of issues being addressed before they become critical. In 2017, data from the Office of National Statistics revealed that male site workers in the construction industry are around three times more likely to take their own lives than the average UK male. Although awareness of the problem is increasing, the yearly suicide rate in the construction industry is currently estimated to be at two employees per day.

In order to approach this problem in a way which is preventative, employers can familiarise themselves with the aspects of a career in construction that can contribute to mental ill health. Steps can then be taken to mitigate known stressors. For instance, implementing policy changes that shape a culture in which employees feel able to access the resources they need to look after their mental health.

Common stressors in the construction industry

Paradoxically, the high risk of physical injuries is one of the stressors that can contribute to mental health problems among workers. A culture in which mental health issues are stigmatised and employees feel uncomfortable raising them is another contributory factor to the escalation of problems.

According to the recent survey data, nearly 30% of professionals working in construction took time off work in 2018 due to mental health issues. Of this group, 63% felt the need to hide the real reason for absence from their employer. (It is pertinent to note that presenteeism – in which employees mask their troubles and compel themselves to show up for work nonetheless – is also problematic for employers. When employees struggle with mental health issues at work, their focus is compromised, which, in the construction industry especially, can lead to costly mistakes, accidents, and related legal disputes and claims.)

Incidents can be avoided by facilitating a culture in which employees feel empowered to seek the help they need. The Mates in the Mind launched in 2017, aiming specifically at alleviating mental health issues within the construction industry, and reached more than 187,000 individuals across the sector in their first year of operation. Types of issues which they encounter regularly include anxiety, depression and problems related to sleeping. Insomnia contributes to other mental health issues, and anxiety in particular.

Other prevalent problems include struggling with behavioural issues – such as becoming quiet, withdrawn or prone to outbursts – and developing feelings of self-loathing and worthlessness. Intercepting psychological problems, rather than allowing those affected to suffer in silence, will help those affected find ways to stabilise their mental health.

How can a Mental Health First Aider help?

There has historically been a pervasive culture within the construction industry of stigmatising mental health problems. Company initiatives that protect the mental health of employees need to be implemented to overhaul it.

In 2018, a small but important step was taken in this regard, with the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) funding 13 Mental Health First Aid Instructor courses across the total workforce. The intention is that those who attend this initial training act as the seeds of change within the industry, going on to train an additional 2500 on-site staff as Mental Health First Aiders by 2020.

More about Mental Health First Aid

MHFA England, the largest provider of this type of training in England and Europe, says, “the key to creating a mentally healthy environment is about truly understanding the people within it – their attitudes, behaviours and learning needs.” The introduction of a Mental Health First Aider among the workforce is hailed as a transformative step in this direction. By giving mental health visibility in policies and practices that physical health traditionally receives, the initiative aims to reduce suicide within the construction sector.

The key elements of the Mental Health First Aider role which benefit corporate culture with regards to mental health are the emphases that the training places on noting the signs of mental ill health, and on broaching the topic with the affected co-worker. Rather than suffering in silence and/or struggling with the choice to verbalise what they are experiencing, employees will be approached in an appropriate manner by the Mental Health First Aider. This is calculated to reduce feelings of isolation, and they are more likely to feel supported in facing their problems.

Mental Health First Aiders receive training in directing their fellow employees towards the resources and treatment options that they might need to access, rather than delivering treatment themselves. This is an important distinction to make – it is their responsibility to identify the need for a therapist, rather than to act as one. Noticing those experiencing problems and creating a supportive atmosphere is the remit of the Mental Health First Aider – a powerful means of changing the current corporate culture for the better, but an insufficient means of tackling the problem on its own.

Constructive criticism: policy changes that support progress

While the introduction of MHFA is a positive start, an additional 40,000 first aiders would be required to adequately cover the industry. Instead of introducing Mental Health First Aiders as a sole approach to the problem, employers in the construction industry need to safeguard the mental health of their workforce with clearly defined policies, which are implemented in full. Recommended approaches to creating a mental health policy that empowers the MFHAs to perform their role effectively include:

Defining the role of the MFHA within the company clearly. As discussed above, the Mental Health First Aider role has limitations, and it is important that both they and the rest of the staff understand what these are, so that the employees’ expectations of how they can help are met rather than frustrated. Developing guidelines for the entire workforce to read during training will help to clarify for everyone what the responsibilities of the MHFA are.

Developing a Code of Conduct. There are certain crucial codes of conduct which the MHFA must adhere to, such as strictly ensuring the confidentiality of all conversations that they have with individuals within the organisation about their mental health. Ensuring that the entire staff know that a Code of Conduct has been drawn up and is being followed will increase collective belief in the integrity of the service. The Code of Conduct provides transparency for the whole organisation; the work of the MHFA can be evaluated against it, proving their efficacy. 

Creating materials that delineate further avenues of mental health support. Ensuring that the MHFA can easily refer those who need it to the specialist resources that their situation necessitates is instrumental to creating a culture which is responsive to mental health problems among the workforce. The process of drawing up a list of appropriate resources for different situations will further ensure that the MHFA feels equipped to perform their role, which might otherwise begin to weigh on their own mental health.

Monitoring the impact of the MHFA. As there is currently an ongoing debate regarding the need to report instances of mental ill health in the same way as incidents related to physical ill health, it is recommended that employers look into accommodating this. Using an independent third-party service to anonymously record instances of mental ill health will allow employers to monitor the efficacy of having an MHFA, without breaching the confidentiality that is intrinsic to the success of the service.

Facilitating further progress: additional recommendations

To address the fact that the suicide rate in the construction industry is disproportionately high compared to the general population, employers must devote time to understanding the needs of workers. This is the first step to developing a culture where these are discussed and met rather than repressed. Adopting Mental Health First Aid is a constructive precursor to identifying the various ways in which a company’s culture could be improved, allowing for the creation of specialised mental health policies that respond to it.

Employers who are open to making these improvements may find that they already have many of the necessary resources at their disposal to pursue them. Tactics for improving corporate culture in the construction industry with a view to improving mental health and reducing preventable related fatalities include:

Starting a conversation around mental health. This can be done in person or online; employers may find that on-site notice boards or company-wide messaging tools provide an appropriate means to open up this much-needed dialogue.

Collating feedback on employees’ wellbeing. Building the collation of feedback as to how employees are feeling into existing structures, e.g. pre-existing one-on-one supervision meetings will increase the acceptability of talking about mental health in the workplace, meaning that employees will feel more likely to be forthcoming when they are experiencing problems.

Getting inspired by insights across the industry. Discussing the challenges involved in improving the culture surrounding mental health in a company with other employers involved in similar endeavours can offer fresh insights into the best ways to raise the profile of mental health among a workforce.

This post was written by Pam Loch, Managing Director of Loch Associates Group in Tunbridge Wells, Brighton and London – employment specialists providing a variety of services including corporate wellbeing programmes, employment law, HR consultancy and health and wellbeing initiatives.

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BDC 314 : Mar 2024