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Tackling employee wellbeing in the construction industry

A raft of measures are being put in place to aid good mental health within the sector, says Chris Ivey, of THSP Risk Management

Posted by Julian Owen | November 16, 2018 | People, policy, politics, money

In October I was privileged to be offered the opportunity to talk at UK Construction Week on the topic of mental health. In particular, what construction companies need to do to address the frightening number of suicides in the industry.

Last year, the Office for National Statistics looked at the employment history for those persons who took their own lives in 2016. Their study found that 454 construction workers died as a result of suicide, 15 times the number of workers who died as a result of a fatal accident that year.

Whilst that figure equates to two construction workers every working day, that may only be the tip of the iceberg.

Mental health charity, Mind, believes that one in six people experience a mental health problem every week. Given that the construction industry employs 2.6 million people in the UK, the number of workers experiencing mental health problems could be as high as 430,000. During my presentation we conducted a straw poll and found that the numbers could be a lot higher: 78% of the audience reported that either they, a close personal friend or family member had experienced a mental health problem this year.

It was from this starting point we discussed what businesses could do to address the wellbeing problem. Whilst 50% of the audience believed that their employers cared about mental health and well-being, only 44% of them worked in companies with policies for addressing this subject.

The problem of mental health in the workplace was brought to the attention of ACAS by the increasing number of employees approaching them for help. In turn, ACAS has modelled a three-tier approach for organisations to ensure “positive well-being and productive workplaces”.

Employers, managers and individuals all have to important parts to play in this model. Employers need to have a plan to tackle the causes of workplace stress, eliminate stigma and train their managers. Managers need to support a work-life balance by planning work with people in mind, as well as building a rapport with their employees so that they can have those difficult conversations. Employees need to be aware of their own mental health and that of their colleagues.

Our straw poll found that only 36% of our audience had spoken with their employer about mental health, and even less had spoken to an employee (28%).

Recent articles have shone a poor light on employee assistance programmes (EAP) and the role of mental health first aiders. I will not attempt to suggest that they are the answer to the mental health problems costing UK PLC between £74bn–£99bn every year, but they can be part of the solution. Our poll found that 48% of the attendees had access to an EAP through their employer, and those people I spoke to afterwards had only positive feedback. This suggests to me that, like everything in life, you should shop around and ensure that any provider will give your staff the confidential help they need. Also, that they will provide you with feedback so that you can address underlying issues that may be causing stress, anxiety or depression.

As for mental health first aiders, their role is to preserve life, prevent further harm and to promote recovery; it is not their duty to solve the problem of mental health in the UK.

The construction industry can be proud of the strides it is taking. Many organisations have already begun to put in place steps to tackle the stigma surrounding mental ill health, as well as signposting employees towards help. Our industry charity, the Lighthouse Club, is responsible for funding the construction industry helpline. It also publishes posters and z-cards detailing organisations providing help and support for a range of issues, from prostate cancer to mental health, poverty help to relationship guidance.

Managers need to support a work-life balance by planning work with people in mind, as well as building a rapport with their employees so that they can have those difficult conversations.

A group of concerned individuals met last year to ensure that we don’t make the same mistakes we made with behavioural-based safety, where supply chain contractors and their operatives were made to attend the programmes of each major contractor and client before being allowed to work on each of their sites or projects. The group quickly agreed that a framework setting out the shared principles, and an understanding to accept any training provided by the signatories, was the way forward.

Building Mental Health (BMH) was born, with no officers, committees, bureaucracy, red tape or barriers. It allows for transferrable competences, practices and culture. It suits all budgets, capacity and capability, and ensures the recognition of existing education and training.

Due to the commitment of those in the room that day - including the Lighthouse Club, CITB, trade unions, and contractors - BMH were able to secure funding from CITB to provide more mental health first aid trainers. Applications for this free training are reviewed by the Lighthouse Club and Mental Health First Aid England, and can be made through buildingmentalhealth.net.

In this way, the number of mental health first aiders within the industry will increase so that there will be at least one on every site.

To quote Churchill: “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

For advice about mental health in your business, contact THSP Risk Management on 0345 612 2144 or www.thsp.co.uk

Chris Ivey is Health and Safety Consultant Director at THSP Risk Management 

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