It’s good to listen

The construction industry is starting to tackle its mental health problem with new initiatives, but simply listening is the vital first step says Gary Walpole, technical officer at the National Federation of Roofing Contractors (NFRC).

Suicide is the biggest killer of men in the UK – in fact 84 men under the age of 50 take their own lives each week, which equates to one man every two hours.

Last year, the Office for National Statistics released an in-depth report on suicide by occupation between the years 2011 and 2015. The statistics showed that the risk of suicide for those working in construction trades was 1.6 times higher than the national average.

Unfortunately, the bad news doesn’t end there because the report went on to look at each construction trade individually, and the risk of suicide in the roofing industry was a staggering 2.7 times higher than the UK average. The figures can be broken down further still by skill level, with the most unskilled most at risk.

These official statistics underpin research carried out by Construction News in 2017 and 2018. The trade magazine, whose Mind Matters campaign has been championing increased mental health awareness, conducted a survey in 2017 of 1,139 men and women working in construction, which revealed that a quarter had considered taking their own lives, rising to one in three among junior employees and graduates.

The 2018 survey of 1,300 people revealed that 32% of respondents working in small companies of 100 people or less had considered suicide.

Of course, suicide is a tragic consequence of severe depression and other mental health conditions, which currently plague construction and too often go untreated. The Mind Matters survey found, for example, that 55% of respondents had experienced mental health issues at some point, with 42% saying they had been affected in their current jobs. Those numbers remained broadly similar in the 2018 survey.

While males dominate the suicide statistics, women who make up around 20% of construction workers, suffer more from mental health conditions overall, at least according to a survey conducted HR company Randstad last year. The survey of 3,400 workers revealed that 46% of women were at that time experiencing poor mental health compared to 32% of men.

What was evident in both surveys was that respondents of both sexes did not feel able to talk. In the Mind Matters research, a fifth of those who had taken time off for mental health reasons did not admit it to their managers. In the Randstad survey, it was 46%, with almost three quarters saying that their employers were unable to recognise the early signs. And that surely has got to be a key to improving things for everyone.

There are now many ways that people can seek help (see the list at the end of the article) but there are also things that we as individuals can do to help each other, because often we are the best people spot problems in our colleagues – after all our work mates are those that we tend to spend the most time with.

We all need to work together to chip away at the frightening statistics and make the roofing industry a safe, supportive and sympathetic place to work. We only have one workforce, so we need to look after them.

Spotting the early signs

A sure way of spotting the early signs, is simply noticing a change in usual behaviour, for example, a chatty person becoming increasingly silent and withdrawn, or perhaps angry. If you’re a colleague, often as not you’ll know what the cause might be, but if you’re a manager, it’s always worth trying to make yourself aware of the personal issues that affect your staff. Either way, you don’t have to know all the answers, but you can explore some of the options they might have. Share what’s happening with your own work and life too.

Late payment and mental health

According to a survey of 1,000 SMEs by the Prompt Payment Directory last year, 29% across all industries had suffered depression and anxiety as a consequence of financial problems. That figure was backed up by this year’s Mind Matters survey, which found that 65% of those working in small companies had suffered stress often due to late payments and cash flow issues.

What do we mean by mental health issues?

Mental health issues are unsurprisingly complex and cover a wide array of conditions, including insomnia, anxiety, depression, bi-polar disorder, eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia, and PTSD.

According to the NHS, some of the side effects can include:

  • Eating or sleeping too much or too little
  • Withdrawing from people and usual activities
  • Having low or no energy
  • Having unexplained aches and painsFeeling helpless or hopeless
  • Smoking, drinking, or using drugs more than usual.

Risk factors that can cause poor mental health:

  • Transient work and the inability to obtain steady employment
  • Workplace pressures
  • Chronic illness or injury
  • Financial and legal problems
  • Bereavement
  • Relationship breakdown
  • Child custody issues
  • Substance abuse

Helplines and useful contacts

This article appeared in the August issue of RCI on page 12.