Let's Talk - Mental Health in Construction

The last few years have seen a huge leap forward in terms of mental health awareness, and the stigma surrounding this issue has definitely been retreating, but one sector where people continue to struggle is construction. In the UK, 1 in 4 people will experience mental health issues at some point in their life, and in the construction industry, employees were 3 times more likely to commit suicide than those working in director roles, and 10 times more likely than those working in health and social care.

Suicide is the biggest killer of men in the UK, and this seems to be down to the stigma surrounding not just mental health issues, but opening up about how they feel. The pressure to be ‘macho’ is one ingrained in our society, but in the male-dominated construction industry, it is a particularly heavy load to bear. Add that to the lack of understanding from employers, punishing schedules, unstable employment arrangements, distance from families and reasonably low average wages, and you’re left with a number of risk factors that can result in mental health issues. Although awareness is increasing, a large number of people still don’t equate a mental health issue with a physical one, so getting time off work for depression, anxiety etc. can be difficult, and these problems can be embarrassing to admit to.

There seems to be a perception in this sector that if you’re not stressed then you’re not busy enough, which is a dangerous precedent to set, and could lead to people passing off treatable issues as part and parcel of their career choices, but that couldn't be further from the truth. There’s a very big difference between stress and anxiety, and feeling a bit down and being depressed. Anxiety purports itself in many different ways, but the main symptoms are being constantly anxious about pretty much everything – things that you can control and things that you can’t, plus a variety of physical symptoms such as shortness of breath, nausea, and sweating. Depression makes itself known by reducing your motivation to practically nothing, resulting in you not wanting to go anywhere, do anything or see anyone, and makes you feel very low almost constantly. You’ll notice a change in your diet and sleeping habits, and some really intense mood swings. The NHS Choices website has some really good guidance on mental health, check it out here.

However, you’d be surprised how easy it is to pretend you’re not feeling like that, and that’s where the difficulty comes in at work. Day to day, on site, if you’re cracking a few jokes and acting normally, it’s (sort of) understandable for your employer to be skeptical when you go to them with concerns about your mental health. This is where education and training is essential – at least one person in a position of authority in your company should have some sort of training around mental health and how to deal with it in the workplace, so that they understand where you’re coming from. The mental health charity Mind deliver courses for organisations to increase understanding; a full list can be found here. Removing the taboo with management and your peers is so important, but it’s extremely difficult if you’re going to be the one to take the first step, and if you’re experiencing what I’ve described above, that will (unfortunately) make it a million times harder. Start by talking to friends and family, or your doctor, and maybe ask them for advice about how to approach it with your employer. You could even ask a friend or partner to accompany you to the meeting for moral support, just while you take that first step.

The powers that be are taking impressive steps to tackle this issue, though. There’s been a definite shift in attitudes since high-profile members of society like Prince Harry and the Duke & Duchess of Cambridge have opened up about their struggles, and launched the Heads Together campaign to raise awareness. Prince Harry is extremely open about his mental health and has said of the stigma: “The stigma surrounding it is a massive issue. I want to re-emphasize the point to people that [mental illness] is not a ticking time bomb.”

In addition, the Health in Construction Leadership in partnership with the British Safety Council has launched a campaign called Mates in Mind. It aims to connect with 100,000 people in its first year, and 75% of the construction industry by 2025, and was designed to simply start a conversation about mental health, as well as issues like bullying and harassment in the workplace. Over 200 organisations have already expressed an interest in the scheme, which shows that there is definitely scope for this sort of support. The Mates in Mind website has a load of really useful information on where to get help, and how to get support with taking time off to get better.