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Last updated: 17.10.18

Mental Health and the Construction Industry

Mental health is widely recognised as one of the great challenges facing healthcare and society as a whole. It manifests itself in many different ways, and has numerous causes, but occupation can certainly have a big influence. In this article, we’re going to look at some of the issues surrounding mental health as it relates to the construction industry in particular. This is important, because figures show that this is one of the riskiest lines of work when it comes to mental health. Those working in this industry, men especially, are strongly over-represented in suicide statistics, with a construction worker two to three times as likely to commit suicide as the average UK male. In fact, suicide is more common than many fatal workplace accidents, including falls from height. Health and safety policy to avoid such incidents is given major thought - should this not extend to mental health? Let’s take a further look.

Why are mental health issues prevalent in this industry?

Unfortunately, there are many issues found in the construction industry that contribute to poor mental health, some of which are almost unavoidable in this line of work, and some of  which are entirely unnecessary. We’re going to look at some of the more significant ones here.

Job security is always likely to be a looming problem for a lot of construction workers. While more senior and management employees are likely to have a fixed contract, skilled labourers are more likely to be contractors themselves, which does carry fairly significant risk if there’s a downturn or if a job is paused or cancelled. The recent collapse of Carillion is testament to this, and it had very far reaching impacts. This worry is one of the major contributors to mild and moderate depression, and it can become very serious if the worst does happen, and income is not guaranteed. There’s also the fact that simply being at work often demands significant mental exertion, with long hours and stressful responsibilities.

Working away from home can be tough for anyone, and it’s something that many in the construction industry have to cope with too. Jobs are not always close to home, and it’s often necessary for workers to be on site throughout the week, away from their families. This can take a significant mental toll.

Injuries can be commonplace in certain industries, and construction is one of the riskiest. In recent years, research is increasingly showing links between longer term health issues, and knock-on mental health effects. Back problems for instance can easily come about as the result of poor manual handling technique, and it can have long lasting and potentially debilitating effects. It seems easy to see how this can cause things like mild depression, particularly if it restricts a person from being able to move as they want, but the link still isn’t recognised.

This is then compounded by one of the biggest problems: attitudes towards mental health itself. Traditionally, this industry is predominantly male, and there remains a major challenge in encouraging men, particularly in physical lines of work, to recognise mental health as a problem. In recent months and years, there has been considerable criticism of phrases such as ‘man up’, which would suggest that men should simply be able to deal with whatever life throws at them. This is a deeply unhelpful approach, but one that is prevalent in skilled manual work. Minor mental health challenges can become much worse if not talked about and resolved, but this generally isn’t possible independently. A simple chat with a colleague is sometimes all it takes to head off illness, but in this industry, it can be a rarity.

What are the risks?

We’ve already mentioned the most shocking risk, suicide, but poor mental health can have all manner of impacts – for the individual, for their family, and for the employer.

Let’s start with the individual themselves. One of the biggest issues with mental illness is that it can affect nearly every aspect of a person’s life. It causes problems at work, it strains relationships, and it can generally cause dissatisfaction with life. The effects can last for a long time, and if not remedied, mental health can be something that affects a person throughout their whole lifetime, generally lowering their quality of life.

There’s a knock-on effect too. Families that include a person struggling with their mental health will also likely struggle in their own way. Children in particular can have developmental issues if their parents are not being given the support they need to work through their mental health challenges.

And finally, there’s the employer. Arguably the least important party, but nonetheless one that will feel negative impacts if the workforce doesn’t have a good level of overall mental health. Productivity can suffer significantly, absenteeism can become commonplace, and overall workplace morale can decline.

How can we recognise signs of poor mental health?

Given how varied the causes, and the differences between individuals, there are no hard and fast rules about identifying mental health problems if you aren’t a professional. And even professionals will often have a hard time identifying particular illnesses. However, there are signs that you can look out for, whether you’re a friend, colleague or employer.

Isolation – It’s very common for people to close up when they’re facing mental challenges, which means that it’s one of the most easily spotted signs. Look out for formerly sociable people becoming less involved with you or their other co-workers.

Lack of confidence –  Is an employee becoming less confident in their own abilities, or regularly stating that they feel as though they’re overwhelmed by a task or incapable of completing it? If this seems out of the ordinary, then it may be that they are struggling with their mental health.

Agitation – It’s not always the case that those struggling become quieter and more introverted. Sometimes, they can become more easily annoyed and agitated with their co-workers where they wouldn’t have previously.

Lateness and disorganisation – Some people are unfortunately regularly late to site and disorganised, but if this is happening with someone who you wouldn’t normally expect it from, then it may be the case that they have other things on their mind.

Lower productivity – Similar to the above. Those that are struggling tend to have a lot on their mind, which naturally reduces their capacity to think about their work, which reduces their productivity, or effectiveness. It might also make them make more mistakes than normal.

What are the solutions?

Employers must share some of the burden in tackling mental health challenges, just as they would look to implement health and safety policies that reduce the risk of physical harm. Companies all over the country, and indeed the world, are recognising that they must do their part.

We’ve already covered some of the ways in which poor mental health can be identified, as well as some of the causes. As a result, many of the solutions to mild mental health challenges are about combining this information. Learn how to spot problems, identify the cause, and then seek to reduce the impact, all while giving support to the individual.

For example, if you notice that an employee on site is regularly appearing to be much less confident that they were previously, and they seem to be overwhelmed by work that would normally be manageable, then sit down and talk to them. Find out if they’re dealing with stresses that you might be able to resolve. This might mean helping to temporarily reduce their workload, encourage them, or reassure them about their job security.

Creating a culture that’s amenable to solving mental health challenges is incredibly important too, which is where co-workers must come in. We’ve discussed the problem of not recognising the issue of mental health in this industry, and it’s something that must be tackled head on. Encourage all employees to understand that it’s a very real, very natural part of life that we can all deal with together.

Finally, if you as a friend, colleague or employer, feel that you’re not able to effectively help, then it may be beneficial to recommend that the person seeks professional help from a charity or government service – there are many out there.

Here at Virtual College, mental health online training, as part of our safeguarding training, is available to help companies properly approach this issue. Click here to be taken to our safeguarding courses.