Is construction thinking clearer on mental health?
Mental illness has emerged as one of construction’s biggest health and safety concerns. Ahead of World Mental Health Day on 10 October, CM looks at the actions leading contractors are taking – and the result.
Construction workers are more likely to take their own lives than any other profession, according to the Office for National Statistics. In 2016, the figure was 454. The rate is more than three times the national average for men. Faced with these grim statistics, contractors have begun taking action to improve their workers’ mental health (see below).
Charles Egbu, president of the CIOB, has made the issue a central theme of his term. The institute is currently running a survey on mental health and Egbu, pro vice-chancellor at the University of East London, hopes the data will point towards practical solutions.
CM reader panel views on mental health
“An improving area but still lacking. Mental health support initiatives should be made mandatory via the Health and Safety at Work Act and CDM process.”
Paul Bussey, AHMM
“Remove the stigma. My current role involves working with the fire authority. Their work recognises camaraderie is essential for their wellbeing as well as their safety. The firefighters are encouraged to discuss their experiences and are offered counselling or further help.”
Sue Hanford, Surrey Council
“Recognise the stresses imposed on the professional team: the consultant who has been committed to deliver by a hierarchy with inadequate supporting resources, within unrealistic timelines. This is likely to impact mental wellbeing through unrealistic expectations.”
Christine Gausden RD, University of Salford
“There is an inability to assess mental health in the workplace. It should be possible to have closed door consultations within a business that would remain anonymous if the individual wanted it.”
Scott Usher, Spie UK
“Mental health issues are compounded by the industry being fragmented. Large organisations have resources to support their employees but the SMEs rely on the NHS so mental health issues go unidentified and treated.”
Peter Egan, project engineer, Royal Engineers
“I’ve had the displeasure of having three very close friends in the industry who have lost their lives and committed suicide,” he says. “When you are close to this and see how it affects families, communities, and impacts on the dreams and promise of the children of those who live with mental health conditions, you can’t help but feel impacted.”
Egbu has researched mental health over the past 20 years and says there is no doubt about the scale of the problem and that it is “complex”.
“I believe effective leadership should create an environment where people are open and allowed to air their views, where there is a culture of taking responsibility,” he says. “There’s no one solution that addresses these issues but those who share their stories do help. What’s most important is the support; that’s what individuals need and cry out for.”
Charity Mates in Mind has worked with the CIOB to raise awareness of mental health. Managing director James Rudoni agrees with Egbu that allowing people to feel comfortable speaking out is crucial.
“Getting people to open up about mental health continues to be the most immediate and effective starting point,” he says. “We cannot underestimate this important first step – helping to provide clear language, create general awareness and help people to recognise that everyone has mental health the same way that they have physical health.
“Enabling workers to recognise the signs in themselves, while simultaneously enabling them to recognise changes in behaviour in others, is at the heart of many stories we’ve heard about the unexpected positive response organisations have had when engaging their staff with this issue.”
Rudoni says it is also important workers are involved in shaping a company’s approach.
“Training is an important component, but this needs to be hand-in-hand with creating safe physical spaces to have conversations,” he says. “That may mean a breakout area so a conversation can happen in the margins.”
Mates in Mind has worked with over 300 construction organisations but Rudoni wants to reach three-quarters of the industry by 2025. While there has been welcome progress, clearly construction still has some way to go.
Laing O’Rourke energises crane operators
Successful Select trial to be rolled out across business.
Laing O’Rourke recently ran an “energy” pilot in its Select plant business after identifying a high trend of mental health incidence in tower crane operators, due to long working hours, rigid shift patterns, isolation and living away from home.
One operator, Nicky Fitzgerald, “was concerned about the impact of my job on my family”. Another, Casey Elsby, said she “would get stressed and was quick to argue”, while aware that “operating the crane is safety critical”.
During the six-week study, which started with an energy “audit” questionnaire, workers wore an activity tracker, which also measured heart rate, blood oxygen, stress levels and sleep.
“Some workers recognised physical issues they wanted to address, including feeling unfit, bad eating habits and body pain due to constant sitting and bending,” explains Silvana Martin, health and wellbeing leader at Laing O’Rourke. “They realised ‘what you take up the crane is what you will eat’, so took healthier foods to work. New exercise regimes were introduced such as yoga stretches before a shift and a “crane workout” using resistance bands.
“The wearable device helped the team identify and manage factors causing stress, with lifting technicians using breathing exercises and taking breaks to reduce stress and emotion.”
The results have been impressive. Fitzgerald says: “Now I do a full body workout of stretches for 10 minutes daily to improve physical health, which has made a huge improvement in how I feel. Small changes have made a big difference, I have much more energy in myself, and more time for my family.”
Elsby adds: “The project has made a big difference to my energy levels.”
Martin reports a 15% energy improvement in the six workers. “Their time spent in ‘high stress’ went from 75 minutes per day in week one to an average of eight minutes per day by the end of the intervention,” she says.
Insights from the pilot are now being shared across Laing O’Rourke.
Kier addresses highways stresses
Safety videos show how ‘easy it is to slip into a dark place’.
Kier has recognised the stresses its highways workers can face and this year produced a series of hard-hitting safety videos looking at the impact of workplace incidents.
Maintenance operative Gary Hodgson, who says he used to be known as “the hard man around the depot”, struggled with mental health after an accident in 2017. His impact protection vehicle was struck by a vehicle travelling at 69mph, injuring his neck, shoulder and lower spine. He was off for a year.
Hodgson says he felt “fine” on returning but, after undertaking routine maintenance work, “started to feel anxious and panicked – I felt like I couldn’t breathe, and I started crying – I learned afterwards that I was having a panic attack”. He saw a counsellor who diagnosed anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and is back at work and feeling “much better”.
“I still have worries about getting back in an IPV and haven’t been in one since, but my managers and colleagues have been really supportive and I’m so grateful to them,” he adds.
Kier Highways now has 151 mental health first aiders (MHFAs) and runs “walk and talk” clinics and mental health first aid drop-in sessions. Its Smart Motorway M23 project, with 10 MHFAs and a 24/7 helpline, won a Considerate Constructors Scheme (CCS) Ultra Site Award for Workforce Wellbeing.
“Attitudes to poor mental health have traditionally been negative,” says Steve Crofts, its head of SHE. “In male-dominated environments, this stigma can be especially pronounced, with men not wanting to appear weak or vulnerable.”
“The Safety in Mind videos show everyone how easy it can be to slip into a dark place. We hope these films make people pause and think, and be more open and understanding to others that may going through a bad time.”
Seddon steps up after tragedy
Jordan’s Conversation initiative launched after worker suicide.
Seddon knows about mental illness all too well, after being shocked when Jordan Bibby, one of the contractor’s painters and decorators, took his own life in 2017.
“He never told anyone how he was feeling; mental health is still massively stigmatised, meaning that many of those who suffer do so in silence,” says Liz Groundland, head of SHEQ at Seddon. “We knew we had to do something to change this.”
“We aimed to introduce a new way of thinking about health and safety – vitally, that physical and mental wellbeing should be treated with parity.”
Seddon consulted with its staff and asked how the firm could help. It realised that simply asking someone if they are okay can have a massive impact, as it encourages people to talk and ask for support, says Groundland.
“This is at the heart of Jordan’s Conversation, our mental health toolbox initiative we started a year ago,” she says. “During workshops people said they wanted to protect things in their lives such as ‘walking my daughter down the aisle at her wedding’ and ‘playing football with my children’.”
Seddon asked workers to consider these factors when managing risks and looking after each other on site. It simplified its health and safety approach to cover three imperatives:
- Have you read and understood the Risk Assessments and Method Statements (RAMS)? If not, don’t start work.
- Housekeeping: a clean, tidy workplace is a safe one.
- Changing behaviours: take five seconds before you start work and if it doesn’t look or feel safe, it probably isn’t.
“We aimed to introduce a new way of thinking about health and safety – vitally, that physical and mental wellbeing should be treated with parity,” says Groundland
Seddon has seen encouraging results. It reported 12 RIDDORs and 97 non-reportable accidents in 2017. One year later, this had reduced to four RIDDORs and 73 non-reportable accidents.
Jordan’s Conversation toolbox sessions were delivered to more than 400 people employed by Seddon and in the supply chain.
“Improvements can always be made, and as we embrace mental health awareness alongside physical care, we hope to see a lasting shift,” says Groundland.
A CIOB CPD, Taking a look at Mental Health, will run on Thursday 10 October 2019, at The Building Centre, 26 Store Street, WC1E 7BT. For more information and to register, visit: https://events.ciob.org/ehome/200192691.