5th March 2020
The “silent epidemic” – opening up about mental health

For years, it has been the elephant in the room of the construction industry, an unspoken-of topic that workers have been expected to deal with alone. But in recent times, frightening statistics have brought the issue of mental health in construction to the fore. Between 2011 and 2015, over 1,400 construction workers took their own lives. In 2016 alone, this figure was put at 454. To put these figures into perspective, this makes the suicide rate for construction workers three times the national male average.

The conversation grows louder

No wonder, then, that in recent years the industry has started to sit up and take notice. Speaking at a conference in 2018, Kevin Fear, Health & Safety Strategy Lead at the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB), branded mental health “the silent epidemic” currently plaguing the sector.

A difficult working environment

According to the Health & Safety Executive, mental health issues accounted for a fifth of all work absences in 2017-18, although this number could be higher considering that employees are not always honest about the reason for their absence. In fact, Construction News’ 2019 Mind Matters survey revealed that 54% of construction workers did not tell their employer the real reason they had taken time off work.

In the survey, workers cited a range of factors that were contributing towards their stress, depression and anxiety, with the top five mainly related to the particular pressures of working in construction:

  • Long working hours (74.2%)
  • Job uncertainty (70.8%)
  • Tight deadlines (68.7%)
  • Financial pressure (67.5%)
  • Working away from home (64.1%)

These issues, combined with being part of a predominantly male workforce who often feel the need to project a macho image, have rendered construction workers particularly vulnerable to mental health problems.

Change is on its way

As the conversation grows, initiatives are springing up to promote better mental health across the industry and reduce the stigma many still feel about speaking up at work. For example, the Building Mental Health initiative was recently launched by industry experts to provide firms with advice and guidance on engaging with mental health and helping them make progress with reducing the stigma surrounding the issue. In 2018, the initiative also teamed up with The Lighthouse Club charity to provide a mental health helpline especially for construction workers.

Mates in Mind, a mental health charity that specialises specifically in the construction sector, was set up by the Health in Construction Leadership Group (HCLG) in 2016. It collaborates with companies across the industry to raise awareness and understanding of mental health in construction, and to break the silence and stigma surrounding it.

The momentum is growing

The conversation around mental health might still be in its infancy, but the industry is starting to take it much more seriously. By collaborating with the various initiatives and charities now offering help and guidance to employers, and through providing a supportive environment for their workers, construction firms can be proactive in getting people talking about mental health and help keep their workforce healthy, happy and productive.