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The conversation has begun: Mates in Mind promotes mental wellbeing in construction

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A survey of 3,400 construction workers released by specialist recruiter Randstad in September 2017 found that 34% of respondents had experienced a mental health condition in the previous 12 months. More significantly, almost three quarters of respondents felt that employers do not recognise the early signs of mental health problems.

Mental ill health is complex, sensitive and personal, and in work, in many respects, even more so.

Mental health in construction

The number of people affected by mental health issues in the construction industry may explain why many people are able to immediate relate: they know of or about someone directly.

Construction has some highly stressful challenges – whether it be ‘tough’ clients, a culture of confrontation, low margins, penalties in the supply chain and potentially bankrupting delays in payments. The need for closer collaboration among project participants and the adoption of new ways of scheduling work can also be met with resistance.

Stigma and discrimination remain a barrier to people getting timely support. According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) data in 2014, the lack of staff awareness and expertise or specialist support are making psychological risks, including mental health, harder to address by around a quarter of all organisations across all industries, including construction.

There is still a fear about mentioning stress and mental health because they are taboo subjects. Photograph: iStock/kali9

There has been significant effort made in improving safety on site, but the statistics show that there is still work to be done in respect of addressing occupational health. In 2016/17 there were 0.5 million working days lost due to work-related stress, depression or anxiety (new and long-standing). Poor mental health affects people of all ages.

Earlier in 2017, the Office of National Statistics (ONS) released a report on data on suicide rates in England and Wales for the period 2011-2015, which showed that the rate among low-skilled male construction workers was 3.7 times above the national average. Furthermore, the rate among building finishing trades, including plasterers, painters and decorators, was twice the national average. The statistics highlight that talking about suicide is still highly stigmatised.

Work-related stress may not only have an impact upon work performance and personal lives, but also physically, causing poor health such as high blood pressure, stomach ulcers and increased risk of heart attack. It can also result in drug and alcohol abuse. Therefore, while addressing other occupational health issues, it is important to consider the association with mental health.

A clear business case

There is a clear case for considering the mental wellbeing of workers, including from a legal perspective, where it can be included as part of the larger topic of health and safety at work. Specifically:

  • The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 require employers to assess work-related risks, including stress. It also states that employers should undertake risk assessments for all employees and take steps to prevent health and safety risks and continuously monitor health and wellbeing
  • The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 ensures employers are responsible for the wellbeing of their workforce and places a duty of care on employers to take measures to control risks. This act also considers the health of employees returning to work after an illness or length of absence, to ensure that employees’ health is not made worse by the work environment.

There is increasing evidence too in respect of the benefit of investing in health and wellbeing – it’s not just in terms of realising the cost of absenteeism but also the presenteeism or lost productivity associated with employees affected by health problems who are still coming into work.

 In 2017, the Centre for Mental Health has put the overall cost of not addressing mental health at approximately £1,300 per worker – comprising the costs of staff turnover, reduced productivity at work and sickness absence. According to Thriving at Work: a review of mental health and employers. An independent review of mental health and employers by Lord Dennis Stevenson and Paul Farme, published in October 2017, over half of the cost to business is in relation to presenteeism.

It is often that dogged determination to get the job done can result in ‘poor’ practice – whether from a safety perspective or in terms of mental wellbeing – and illustrates that mental health is more than awareness campaigns; it is about behaviour and instilling a culture of wellbeing. It is therefore important to consider how this is then incorporated into safety culture and people management, and is not tackled in isolation. 

Mates in Mind: an approach to support and signpost

Championed by the Health in Construction Leadership Group with the support of the British Safety Council, Mates in Mind was born because of the growing understanding of mental health issues in the construction industry, and a desire to change that awareness into action. While we cannot create an overnight cultural shift, we can agree to act on health, and that includes mental health.

The initial unveiling was in January 2017 at the second Health in Construction summit. After a successful pilot across six leading construction firms/projects: Balfour Beatty, Careys, VolkerWessels UK, Wilmott Dixon, Heathrow and Tideway, Mates in Mind rolled out to the entire sector in September 2017.

The programme aims to raise awareness, address the stigma of poor mental health and improve positive mental wellbeing in the UK construction industry.

Importantly, based on the experience during the pilot phase in the first half of 2017, Mates in Mind offers a flexible and joined-up approach that articulates a practical programme, providing a platform that empowers people and organisations to address the issue. Simultaneously, this approach recognises that businesses will have different priorities and drivers.

The objective is to provide clear information to employers on available support and guidance to them as well as to their workforce, working across the entire sector, including supply chains, industry and trade bodies.

The framework can apply to all organisations, from those with no provision or policy around mental health through to those with the most established programmes. No one element of Mates in Mind is compulsory and the team work with organisations to help create an appropriate model and approach for them.

In the first instance, organisations should create more awareness and understanding issues about mental health, primarily through on-site action and an awareness and education programme. But it is not about siloed approaches, rather engendering a joined-up approach to awareness and education: the subject is sensitive and often personal.

This approximation to awareness and training includes the development of the ‘Start the conversation’ awareness course, aimed at construction workers. It is aptly titled, as it gets workers to start thinking and talking about mental health in work with a colleague in a facilitated way that helps to normalise the issue. It is also supported with a ‘Train the trainer’ course to allow for flexible and independent delivery within the organisation. This course contextualises the issues in a way everyone can understand and engage, and accordingly, extends to support line managers and supervisors. It includes established training on mental health first aid.

In many instances, Mates in Mind is enabling organisations to recognise that they have in some way already begun their conversation, and it is just a case of taking the next step. Without question there is still a fear about mentioning ‘stress’ and ‘mental health’ because they’re taboo subjects and there is a concern about people going off work. But the situation is now changing as businesses recognise the moral case as well as the business case. It is therefore important to look at the investment that organisations can make.

Recognising the complexity of the construction sector and considering factors such as the scope of work, the supply chain, investment costs and responsibilities, Mates in Mind provides an efficient and effective framework for all organisations to take steps in a consistent and coordinated manner. It is a balance recognising that every day matters.

Since rolling out in September 2017, Mates in Mind has been supported by eight Business Champions: Balfour Beatty, eight2O, Galliford Try, RSE Group, Mineral Products Association, Sellafield Ltd, Tarmac and Tideway.

In an industry with more than two million workers, it is essential to work collaboratively with businesses across the sector, trade bodies and associations as well as mental health charities in order to be as impactful as we can.

Partners like Samaritans, the Lighthouse Club and the National Counselling Society will be able to see – through their engagement and service provisions – the extent people are more confident in looking for assistance.

By joining Mates in Mind, organisations have access to the support, information and communication and a growing peer network.

To find out more visit www.matesinmind.org

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