‘Gig economy’ takes its toll on workers

8 June 2017

The number of construction workers taking their own lives far exceeds deaths by accidents on site. With Mental Health Awareness week upon us Huw Sayer asks if life in what many now call the ‘gig economy’ is proving too much for too many - and what the industry can do about it.

According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), suicide kills 10.9 people in every 100,000, which equates to more than 280 of the UK’s 2.6 million construction workers. That’s six times the rate of accidental deaths – but it could be much higher. Because those most affected, at more than 20 per 100,000, are men aged 30-59: the typical profile of many frontline construction workers.

In fact, as the Samaritans report, there is a clear link between socio-economic conditions and suicide. Men from disadvantaged backgrounds are 10 times more likely to take their own lives than those of higher social standing. The Samaritans also highlight the “trend towards irregular work patterns, insecure or temporary work and self-employment” as contributory factors.

Self-employed versus control of your destiny

The construction industry has always made use of subcontractors and casual labour, often on zero-hours contracts. Similar to more than 70% of the firms in the UK, many subcontractors are in effect micro businesses or sole traders. While large companies tend to have a long-term view on projects, small firms and individual tradespeople often have less certainty about future work – and potential earnings. That can be hugely stressful.

As Louise Ward, policy and communications director at the British Safety Council, points out: “A great many people are affected by stress, anxiety and depression at some point in their lives, and a significant number of working days are lost each year due to mental ill health. Employers have much to gain from recognising this issue and acting to raise awareness of mental wellbeing, as well as ensuring the physical safety of their workers through the provision of regular training, support, advice and information.”

New figures from the ONS show the total number of self-employed workers increased by a quarter over the last 10 years to 4.77 million (15% of the workforce). According to a recent McKinsey & Co survey, around 30% of gig economy workers consider self-employment their ”preferred choice”. However, around 14% said it was “out of necessity”. Often it was to make ends meet or simply to cope with the seasonality of work and a lack of permanent employment.

The TUC highlights these pressures in a new report, which reveals that self-employed and other gig economy workers tend to earn 30-40% less than average. It also calculates that 3.2m adults (1 in 10) are now in what it calls “precarious employment”. Many of these lack basic employment safeguards, such as protection against unfair dismissal and the right to redundancy pay, while nearly half a million have no right to sick pay.

For older workers, perhaps facing retirement with little in the way of savings, the prospects can appear bleak. Understanding the pressures your employees face is the first step to protecting them. It’s also imperative if you want to benefit from the valuable skills, knowledge and experience they have to offer.

Getting construction talking

That’s why the Health in Construction Leadership Group (HCLG) launched the new Mates in Mind charity in January this year. Supporting partners include MIND, Mental Health First Aid England, the British Safety Council and the Samaritans. Mates in Mind aims to develop and implement a comprehensive mental health and wellbeing programme for the UK construction industry.

Land Securities is one of the leading companies backing the scheme. It will now only consider contractors for projects longer than six weeks if they adopt the Mates in Mind initiative. Other big name supporters include Balfour Beatty, Careys and Willmott Dixon. With help from more than 300 businesses, Mates in Mind aims to reach 100,000 construction workers in its first year.

The impact on the industry

If your employees or contractors suffer from poor mental health, your business could suffer too. It’s not simply because they are more likely to take sick leave to recover from physical illnesses, such as high blood pressure. It’s also because they tend to lack motivation, which affects their timekeeping, concentration and decision-making. As well as reducing productivity and lowering the team’s morale, this can lead to an increase in industrial accidents.

In 2015, the psychological wellbeing consultancy Robinson Cooper produced the Good Day at Work report. This found that one in four UK adults had experienced mental health problems in any one year. Stress had forced one in five to call in sick, but 90% had felt unable to tell their manager the real reason behind their absence.

That’s likely to be as true for construction as for any other industry. Particularly for casual workers who may not have as good a rapport with their supervisors as permanent staff. Fear of losing future work opportunities may also be a persistent, undermining stress for those without a formal employment contract, impacting their health and capabilities at work.

What more can the construction industry do to improve employee wellbeing?

The construction sector needs to make it easier for workers, particularly men, to express their feelings and seek appropriate help before it’s too late.

As well as supporting Mates in Mind, companies need to look at the Considerate Constructors Scheme (CCS). This aims to improve the industry’s reputation by sharing and promoting best business practice.

One of the many areas it looks at is how to protect the health and wellbeing of workers, which includes launching its own Mind Matters campaign alongside Mates in Mind. This aims to combat the stigma associated with discussing stress, anxiety and depression.

Improving working conditions 

Mental health is clearly a complex issue – with many contributory factors. It’s not possible to draw a direct causal link between life in the gig economy and an individual’s state of mind. Many people find such work liberating and thrive on the lifestyle. However, there is a strong correlation between social status and mental wellbeing.

With that in mind, employers should make sure every employee and contractor is aware of the Construction Industry Helpline. It’s open 24/7 to provide support and advice on everything from occupational health and wellbeing to financial aid – something that matters particularly to gig economy workers.

The helpline receives funding from the Lighthouse Construction Industry Charity, which is also supporting the Mates in Mind initiative. It is open to any construction worker, whether in regular or gig economy work, unemployed or retired – the number to call is 0845 605 1956.

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