According to recent data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), one construction worker takes their own life every day – three times the rate for men in the UK overall. Far from a recent problem, mental health issues have been prevalent in construction for decades: a 2009 ONS study found that one in six construction workers was suffering from a mental health problem at the time.
Serious mental health issues are common at every level of the construction industry, from manual positions to CEOs. A combined 2019 survey by the Building Engineering Services Association (BESA), the Electrical Contractors Association (ECA), and 25 other construction organisations found that one of the biggest contributors to mental health issues in the construction industry is late payments. In fact, the BESA report found that 90% of construction bosses have suffered from mental health problems due to late payments, with 10% experiencing suicidal thoughts. Financial problems caused by late payment impact the entire workforce with the knock-on effects (find out more about these in our financial wellbeing guide) being felt by employees, families, and employers alike.
We explore some of the main reasons why mental health issues are so widespread within construction, discuss signs to look out for, and suggest how the situation can be improved for employees in the industry. We conclude with some HR best practices for helping construction workers and look at how we can take down the walls around mental health in construction and improve wellbeing.
Mental Health Issues are Fuelling Sick Days in the Construction Industry
The mental health epidemic in construction is not only tragic in its own right, but it is also costing a great deal to the UK economy. Data from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) shows that a fifth of all ill health cases in the construction sector were related to mental health in 2017/18, resulting in the loss of over 400,000 days of work and hampering productivity.
Mental health issues are problematic for the UK economy as a whole. According to the Annual Report of the Chief Medical Officer, mental health issues account for people taking almost 70 million days off sick per year – the most of any health condition – costing the UK economy between £70 billion and £100 billion a year.
Biggest Causes of Poor Mental Health in the Construction Industry
The nature of work in the construction industry is undoubtedly contributing to mental health problems. Job security is a daily concern with short-term projects and uncertainty as to where their next job will come from contributing significant stressors in the life of a labourer. As the collapse of Carillion in 2018 showed, there is also the potential for even the largest of firms to go bust, creating uncertainty which can exacerbate workers’ mental health conditions.
Alongside this, there are underlying identity-related issues in construction that catalyse the sector’s mental health epidemic. Whilst it is a generalisation to say that all construction workers try to project an image of themselves as masculine and hard-headed, there is a culture of machismo in some parts of the sector that prohibits those who are suffering from mental health problems from speaking out. With no one else to talk to, mental health issues can rapidly spiral out of control.
A final yet no less significant cause of mental health problems in construction centres around unfair payment practices. Construction work is paid on completion of a project, and disagreements over quality or difficulties with resource delaying deadlines often mean that construction workers are left in the lurch when it comes to pay day. In addition to this, some clients of construction companies to withhold or delay payment in an effort to improve their cash flow, with 90% of construction bosses suffering from mental health issues due to late payments. BESA CEO David Frise commented that this “systemic payment abuse causes broken lives and broken buildings and must be stamped out.”
Advice for Employers: Signs to Look Out For
The mental health crisis in construction has been dubbed ‘the silent epidemic’ due to the sufferers’ reluctance to speak out about their problems. With this in mind, it’s important that those in the industry remain vigilant and keep an eye out for their employees and coworkers. There are several different signs to look out for depending on the type of mental health condition in question.
The most detectable symptoms of mental health problems are physical. Employees who suffer from anxiety or panic disorders may experience panic attacks at work – these can be spotted from the physical signs of shaking, excessive sweating, struggling to breathe, and experiencing a choking sensation.
You might find yourself in a situation where a coworker is having a panic attack. Stay with them and keep calm. Ask them what you can do to help in short, easy-to-understand sentences. They may have medication that they usually take in these circumstances and you might be able to help them with this. Breathing exercises can help for some, so try asking them to breathe in and out slowly whilst counting each breath.
Some mental health problems won’t produce any physical symptoms and can be much more tricky to spot. Sufferers may experience regular, noticeable lapses in memory, causing them to become confused or distracted whilst at work. This can be a sign that someone has been extremely stressed for a prolonged period of time and could also indicate that they’re having trouble sleeping.
If you notice that a team member is crying a lot, this could also be a signal that they are suffering from mental heating problems (but be sensitive if you decide to approach them about this). The issue may be temporary or private and it’s possible that they won’t want to talk about it at all. Be respectful if this is the case – just try to be there for them if and when they do need to talk.
Certain behaviours can be indicators of underlying psychological distress. If a coworker becomes more withdrawn and avoids forms of social contact that they would previously have enjoyed, it is possible that they are suffering from some form of mental health problem. Whilst it may be difficult to speak to them directly, you could try letting sympathetic members of management or HR know.
How to Improve Mental Health in the Construction Industry
Looking out for the signs in your coworkers and employees is a great place to start and could make a huge difference to someone’s life. However, it’s clear that mental health problems are far too common in construction and that something needs to be done to address the underlying causes of the silent epidemic.
Ensure Best Payment Practices
As we’ve seen already, recent research has identified unreasonable payment practices as one of the main driving forces behind mental health issues in construction managers. Clients of construction companies should be empathetic and ensure that they adhere to the payment schedule that was originally agreed upon as long as targets are met.
Whilst last year’s study focused on payment problems between managers and clients, it emphasised the fact that financial troubles are often a spur for mental health crises in construction workers. Clearly, the same issues could affect anyone in the industry at whatever level. There are measures that employers can take to ensure that their employees don’t suffer from pay-related mental health problems including implementing payroll software, financial education programmes, and providing support. The consequences of failing to do so can have a significant effect on every part of a person’s life.
In our Financial Wellbeing Guide (part of a series of useful resources and guides for employers) research by Barclays found that whilst 70% of employers claim their organisation is concerned about the financial health of its staff, just 10% of employees feel the same. Poor financial wellbeing has an impact on everything from absenteeism to productivity and it’s therefore vital for employers who wish to remain productive and profitable to ensure the wellbeing of their employees and offer the required support and education.
For more information on how you can support your workforce’s financial wellbeing, download our Guide to Financial Wellbeing to find out what financial wellbeing is and how your organisation can better support the financial wellbeing of your employees.
Adopting a robust payroll system is a top-down way for employers to mitigate the risk of mental health issues due to poor payment practices. A payroll system which incorporates the ability for employees to draw down payment in advance would appeal to those who may be living paycheque to paycheque, or those who find themselves strapped towards the end of the month. Many conventional payroll platforms simply facilitate scheduled payments of a specific amount on a monthly or weekly basis. Flexipay payroll software, on the other hand, enables employees to cope with unexpected bills and expenses thanks to its smart integration with Wagestream services. This allows employees to draw down their wages as and when they need them rather than waiting for payday. This process is controlled by rules that are set by the employer, producing a positive outcome for both parties.
The Flexipay system also holds benefits for employers, too. With the reduction in processing time and instant gross-to-net calculations, employers have an accurate record of payroll requirements at all times allowing better overview and control of cash flow.
In addition to updating your organisation’s payroll software, mental health problems can be recognised and prevented more effectively by creating the right company culture. Whilst you can’t tell your workers how to think, you can create an environment in which people feel comfortable speaking about mental health issues by sparking conversations through talks, events, and a wellbeing programme. This programme could be underpinned by the employment of a mental health first-aider. Backing up physical health screenings with mental health checkups is also a great idea.
Take Down the Walls Around Mental Health in Construction
The mental health epidemic in construction is undoubtedly aggravated by the culture of not speaking out. Whilst individual companies and employees can make a huge difference by looking out for each other and adhering to best HR and payroll practices, we need to make wider changes that address the problem for the entire industry and change workers’ perceptions of mental health.
There are already several public programmes in place that can help with this. Working in partnership with the British Safety Council, the Health in Construction Leadership Group has launched an initiative called Mates in Mind that aims to improve workplace mental health in the UK. As well as carrying out research, this programme provides public courses and resources that are geared towards the education of employees on mental health issues.
Mental Health First Aid England (MHFAE) offers training courses that aim to educate workers about mental health matters and turn them into fully qualified mental health first aid instructors. Having an MHFAE-trained instructor in your organisation is an invaluable resource. Not only can instructors provide training to other staff members, but they can also help to create a positive, transparent company culture with regard to mental health.