28 February 2023
How has COVID-19 changed construction?

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.

The coronavirus pandemic has shaken up people’s lives in unexpected ways – both good and bad. An estimated two million people in the UK are living with ‘long Covid’, with ensuing complications for health and productivity. On the other hand, public health awareness has benefitted from its time in the spotlight, helping to improve knowledge and preparedness for future pandemics.

New working patterns have affected different sectors in different ways. For construction workers, daily operations on site changed drastically with the introduction of pandemic restrictions. A report from the Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB) reflects on some of the impacts that COVID-19 had on the construction industry and praises the industry’s adaptability since. This blog will consider these positive changes, alongside further opportunities for post-pandemic improvements.

Post-pandemic construction

With home working impossible for nearly all of its workers, the construction industry had to work harder than most to respond to COVID-19. With no time to prepare, working practices had to be redesigned to guarantee the safety of its workers, as well as the health of the wider population.

The CIOB report, which is based on the responses of 1,400 construction small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), notes some of the beneficial changes that have taken root since March 2020. These include:

  • Shorter payment times for SMEs
  • Greater collaboration and empathy
  • Better hygiene practices
  • The prioritising of mental health.

As well as streamlining practices within the construction industry, such improvements are “good news” for end users, the CIOB claims, since they benefit from projects being completed more efficiently.

An enduring legacy

Improvements noted by the CIOB include more than half of SMEs reporting,

  • improved hygiene facilities and mental health support
  • payments being settled within 40 days or fewer.

Temporary measures introduced during a global pandemic have become part and parcel of daily operations. To ensure the positive outcomes prompted by the pandemic can be turned into lasting change in the construction sector, the report emphasises the need to learn lessons from the pandemic experience.

The CIOB is positive about the reaction to COVID-19 but thinks more work is needed to consolidate these changes. For example, although payment delays have fallen, the next step should target getting all payments to be made within 30 days, according to the CIOB. The Government’s voluntary Prompt Payment Code needs revisiting, it said, since it has only 3,500 signatories in its current state.

Nightingale example

It is well known that the construction industry played a vital role during the pandemic, helping to ensure that buildings were in a fit state to live and work. Most directly, the building of the Nightingale hospitals was construction’s major contribution to the pandemic effort.

Building the NHS Nightingale Hospital at ExCeL London in under two weeks was one of the most ambitious medical projects ever achieved in the UK. When the facility opened in April 2020, it was one of the world’s largest critical care units for treating patients with coronavirus.

The CIOB report points to this construction feat as evidence of what can be achieved with better flexible working, collaboration and communication.

“Monumental impact”

Commenting on the report’s findings, CIOB Policy and Public Affairs Officer Daisie Rees-Evans said, “COVID-19 had a monumental impact on people’s lives and livelihoods with businesses needing to adapt how they operate to keep their workers safe while staying financially afloat.

“Since the outbreak of the virus in the UK, we have seen a shift in business practices with construction seeing large improvements in supply-chain collaboration, access to hygiene facilities and provision for worker wellbeing.

“Our report reflects on the progress that’s already been made and what further opportunities can be harnessed to deliver change that positively impacts construction businesses, workers and the communities they build for.

“With the UK Government committing to procuring for social value, the publication of our report is timely in its approach to seek true cultural change.”