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With over 20 years working in the construction industry, Luke Hands - Director of Health, Safety, Environmental & Quality at the amazing Henry Construction - is extremely well-educated, particularly on the importance of protecting one's mental health within this male-dominated sector. With one in four said to experience a mental health problem each year, Luke is currently leading a research doctorate that will focus on mental wellbeing throughout Henry Construction as well as the sector/industry in its entirety. His research will look to see if there are existing tools or support approaches to improve personal, group and project resilience and mental health/wellbeing that can be transferred and operated effectively within the construction community.

Luke discusses wellbeing within an industry where suicide rates are startlingly high and the effects that the Covid-19 pandemic could ultimately have on these statistics as shocking data from the ONS shows that more than 1,400 construction workers took their own lives between 2011 and 2015. The highest of any profession over that period.

Research suggests we should expect additional spikes in suicide rates across many countries and during the initial stages of the COVID-19 crisis before the UK government offered financial help to support employees, many firms conveniently made people redundant and activated rapid plant or outlet closures. Several studies have shown that substantial job displacement in other contexts significantly increased mortality rates over time, possibly through stress and income shocks.

When we look at the construction sector specifically one in four are said to have experienced a mental health problem each year. This begs the question: do we have enough focus on mental wellbeing throughout the industry and are we prepared for the increasing problem?

Shocking data from the ONS shows that more than 1,400 construction workers took their own lives between 2011 and 2015, the highest of any profession over that period. The reality is the industry has already been dealing with a pandemic of its own long before COVID-19!

The results of the 2018 Construction News “Mind Matters” Mental Health survey painted a staggering picture of the state of the construction industry. Nearly a third (30%) of respondents had taken time off work due to mental health issues, with 63% hiding the real reason for their absence from their employer. A statistic that is likely to increase significantly following this lockdown period. Suicide is the leading cause of death for men under 40 and the risk in the construction industry is three times higher than the national average.

Knowledge and the analysis of the current methods give us an understanding of the current mental wellbeing crisis in the industry which gives perspective when compared to other risks elsewhere in the sector.

Statistics from the Health and Safety Executive inform us that 144 Workers were killed in 2017/18 through work-related activities. This in comparison to statistics from 2011-2015 there were 13,232 suicides by working people - 13.2% of those were construction workers despite construction accounting for only 7% of the workforce. ONS statistics do allude to the mental health problem however they do not paint a full picture. Suicide rates for a low skilled male in the construction industry are 3.7% above the national average. 2016 makes for an equally bad reading at 454 deaths by suicide in the construction industry.

With the industry being a male dominant sector, males accounted for three-quarters of suicides registered in 2017 (4,382 deaths), which has been the case since the mid-1990s: Office for National Statistics. 2017 (Working ourselves to death: suicide in the construction industry | Construction Magazine, 2020)

Wellbeing as a priority?

While the industry has noticeably made significant improvements with regards to highlighting the issue of mental health, 60% of people agreed that there still is not enough awareness around mental health in the industry. This is an industrywide concern that needs collective work and research to provide a practical solution. With huge resources and finances now being allocated to manage social distancing and ensure organisations can return to work, will a similar effort be assigned to mental health?

Unsurprisingly, the coronavirus pandemic has put the issue of workplace wellbeing into a much sharper focus for Safety professionals. Whether staff are furloughed, working from home or still grafting on the socially distanced frontline, every employer is having to put extra consideration into keeping their workers safe and well.

With the rising incidence of mental health problems during the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s worth remembering that mental health issues, which can range from stress to anxiety and severe depression, can affect managers and other employees alike, and the impacts can very quickly affect families. 

A survey of construction and engineering services business owners in late 2019 revealed that a staggering nine out of 10 managers reported some degree of mental health challenge due to business pressures, and within the survey respondents, four said they had attempted suicide.

Within this massive sector of the economy, over 85 per cent of the construction workforce is male and over 50 per cent of the sector is made up of self-employed, agency staff or zero-hour contract workers – consistently noted as some of the most stressful working arrangements in the economy.

What next?

In the face of this considerable challenge, many large businesses have increased their mental health support. A further, more recent, COVID-19 Impact survey commissioned showed nine out of 10 large engineering businesses (89 per cent) now train teams of staff as Mental Health First Aiders. These findings were part of a wider benchmarking survey on the impact of COVID-19.

Almost half of those responding to this survey went on to mention ‘communication’, or ‘workplace stigma and perceptions’ as challenges to managing mental health. Around a third of respondents referred to the difficulty of measuring outcomes, both in terms of improved mental health and quantifying the return on investment in mental health support measures.

For further mental health advice and resources for the construction industry, visit www.matesinmind.org