Data published by the Office for National Statistics shows that 507 construction workers took their own lives in 2021, up from 483 in 2020. Of this number, 503 were male.
These latest figures, published in December last year, indicate that people working in the construction industry are now nearly four times more likely to commit suicide than those working in other sectors.
The topic of mental health in the construction industry isn’t a new one, but the statistics show that whatever is being done to stem the tide isn’t enough. In this blog, we’ll explore the reasons behind poor mental health and suicide in construction – and what can be done to stop the death toll mounting higher still.
Reasons for poor mental health in construction
An academic literature review published in Engineering, Construction and Architectural Management examined 54 journal articles published on the topic of mental health in construction, and identified three key themes:
- The causes of poor mental health in construction
- The effects of poor mental health
- Interventions to improve mental health.
Among the causes of poor mental health in construction were:
- A poor work/life balance
- Heavy workload
- Stigma against talking about mental health
- Poor physical health
- A lack of social support
- Workplace injustice, and
- Poor job security.
The impact of these conditions is severe, resulting in an increased suicide rate, alcohol and drug dependence, and poor workplace safety and performance. The review also found that interventions to improve mental health have typically been ineffective.
Bill Hill, CEO of the Lighthouse Construction Industry Charity (LCIC), commented on the ONS statistics: “Our messages of support are not reaching the boots on the ground.” His bleak outlook on the situation ties in with the message being reported in the literature – more needs to be done to change this tragic trend at the heart of the construction industry.
Make it visible
In 2022, LCIC and Balfour Beatty partnered with global car manufacturer Ford to highlight the issue of mental health issues in construction and to spread awareness of the support available to those who are struggling.
The ‘Make It Visible’ campaign was designed to raise awareness of the mental health support available to construction workers and direct them towards assistance if and when they needed it. Ford provided brightly coloured ‘higher-vis’ Ford transit vans to take LCIC’s mental health first aiders – easily identifiable by their matching higher-vis vests – to construction sites all over the country.
In 2022 alone, the Make It Visible campaign visited 173 construction sites and spread the message to 8,899 workers. In 2023, the team will continue touring the country, delivering informal, friendly chats to construction workers, sharing their lived experiences of mental health difficulties, and providing a safe space to talk and ask questions on a one-to-one basis.
Building a healthier work culture
As well as external initiatives from construction companies and charities, it’s up to individual firms to ensure they’re providing a work environment where employees feel able to ask for mental health support. This might involve:
- Training sessions for managers to help them spot signs of mental health issues and respond sensitively and appropriately
- Offering opportunities for open conversations about mental health – whether face-to-face or via email or online chat
- Visibly promoting spaces where workers can get help if they don’t feel comfortable asking for it at work – for example, construction-specific charities such as the LCIC or Mates In Mind, or well-known mental health organisations such as Mind or the Samaritans
- Encouraging a healthy work-life balance – while there are always tight deadlines to meet, it’s important that construction workers feel able to take time off and generally have a life outside work. This can be achieved by actively encouraging staff to take their annual leave entitlement, or offering flexible hours, parental leave and time off for appointments.
Ending the stigma
For more information about the issue of poor mental health in the construction industry, and what is being done about it, please visit:
Mates In Mind – a leading UK charity raising awareness of poor mental health in the construction, transport, logistics and manufacturing industries.
Lighthouse Club – The Construction Industry Charity – a charity that supports construction workers struggling with stress, anxiety and depression.
Ford #MakeItVisible – a campaign to make mental health support more visible to construction workers and to put mental health on equal footing with physical safety on construction sites.