Wellbeing and the construction industry

05 July 2017

In this article we discuss wellbeing and mental health within the construction industry. The article is split into two halves to offer two perspectives.: Andrew Rush, Partner and Head of Birketts' Construction and Engineering Team and Dr Fiona Jeffries MA(Hons) DClinPsy MBPsS, Great Ormond Street Hospital.

The lawyer's perspective

Wellbeing? What is that? We will all probably define this as being healthy. When you say healthy do you think of mental health as well? Clearly a person’s wellbeing should include their mental health. A lack of concentration operating plant or other activities on a construction site is just as likely to be as a result of someone’s state of mind as it is lack of training. A person going through a messy divorce, recent bereavement or depression is likely to be less focussed than someone whose home life is stable. Ask yourself who may be more likely to be involved in an accident?

So where are we with dealing with mental health issues in the construction industry? The straightforward answer is nowhere. Birketts recently hosted its Real Health and Safety Conference where one of the discussion topics was the construction industry’s approach to mental health. The delegates universally acknowledged that mental health was an important issue. It was also recognised it was a tricky issue to deal with, so currently no-one does.

The first question that needs to be asked is what does the law say. In simple terms, not very much. It is informative to go on to the HSE website. On the page headed “Managing construction health risks: Wellbeing” there is reference to wellbeing but not what it covers. This page sends you to another page, health surveillance, which directs you back to the same page – no reference to mental health at all. This is not to criticise the HSE (they are involved in a positive way – see below), the subject is difficult; but what is clear is people are shying away from this. The law is silent on your responsibilities and those current and former HSE Inspectors at the above conference all confirmed there is currently no specific legislation relating to mental health. What was agreed at the conference was if you knew about someone’s mental health issues you are under an obligation to do something. Conversely, if you didn’t know you could not be criticised. Is this the real reason for avoiding this difficult topic that ignorance in the eye of the law is currently acceptable?

The other message that came out of the conference was that there is a growing awareness of mental health issues but unless and until legislation or more likely the large national contractors introduce specific obligations and requirements in relation to mental health nothing will change. 

The clinical psychologist's perspective

It's a well known statistic that at least 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year. You could make an educated guess that a quarter or more of your workforce (and a quarter of people reading this article) will be experiencing some sort of mental health difficulty, including work-related stress. 

The first thing to consider if you're interested in improving the wellbeing of your workforce is: are you meeting your workers' basic needs for food, water and shelter? Workers need to feel physically safe and comfortable. Do they have breaks, access to food and water? Do they feel protected from the hazards that come as standard working in construction? It may sound simple, but a surprising number of workers report that these needs are not met. 

Once staff feel safe they also need to feel valued. Are individual workers' and teams' achievements acknowledged? Not necessarily through monetary rewards (although that often helps) but by recognition and investment in their career development? Do workers feel cared about - if they experience a personal crisis, will their manager be flexible and understanding?

An easy (although possibly costly) way to offer wellbeing support to workers is to contract this out to a service which knows exactly what it's doing. Many public and private sector businesses offer their workers access to free support services including counselling and financial advice. Others opt to employ or consult psychologists to ensure that their business is attending to the wellbeing needs of staff and is optimising the efficiency and productivity of the workforce. Even the resource-stripped NHS recognises the importance of offering staff free access to counselling services, making it quite shocking that the relatively rich construction industry (along with many other industries) has been left so far behind. 

But it doesn't all have to cost money. Just as important as providing access to outside support services is creating a working culture where wellbeing is spoken about, valued and pursued. Managers and leaders have a responsibility to promote the importance of mental wellbeing and to address the stigma that is still attached to help-seeking for mental health difficulties. This is especially important in the male-dominated construction industry; we know that men are much less likely then women to seek support for stress or mental health. Managers should normalise the fact that many people experience stress at work or crises in their personal life. It can be hard to know what to do as a manager if someone in your team is experiencing stress or a mental health difficulty. A good place to start is HSE's line manager resource. 

Thinking about wellbeing may feel complicated and it's all too easy to think that ignorance is bliss. But happy workers will work harder, make fewer mistakes, stay loyal for longer and cost your business less money. Who doesn't want that?