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Contributed by Wendy Jones

Stress and mental health in construction – are you doing enough?

The impact of mental ill-health in construction has, rightly, attracted attention in recent years. The recognition that over 300 construction workers die by suicide each year in the UK is particularly shocking and has helped to focus minds on some of the challenges the sector’s workforce face. It is a complex industry with tight deadlines, long supply chains, and many workers who have long commutes or live away from their families. It has one of the highest rates of self-employment in the UK, as well as many who work through agencies, which can lead to job insecurity and a potential for poor quality jobs. In a recent survey by Mates in Mind of self-employed construction workers, one third of respondents described having severe anxiety. Financial problems, relationship difficulties and high work pressure were reported by many.

Poor worker mental health is bad news for employers as well as for the workforce. A recent report identified costs to the UK economy of up to £45 billion pa, an average of £1600 per employee, from a combination of sickness absence, presenteeism, and worker turnover. So, if you have 100 workers on your books, it could be taking around £160,000 off your bottom line. The true impact in construction can be hidden, as workers are unlikely to take time off if they won’t get sick pay: they are more likely to paint on a smile and keep coming in, or to use annual leave to get themselves through their worst days. But presenteeism – coming into work despite poor health, can cost companies 3-4 times as much as absence, contributing to lower productivity and higher accident risks. As a business, you will be affected whether your workforce are employed or self-employed, and whether they work for you directly or a few rungs down the supply chain.

Not all mental health issues will be work related, but the HSE estimate that around 20,000 construction workers suffer from conditions caused by or made worse by their work. They report it to be the second most common cause of work-related ill-health in the industry and certainly there are many aspects of construction which have the potential to cause stress. In the Mates in Mind study mentioned above, 37% of respondents reported feeling low because of their business partners or colleagues and 42% because of high workload. Respondents in a study by the CIOB reported high levels of bullying, and stress from poor welfare facilities and workplace noise. Those working in professional or management roles often report stress due to inadequate planning, communication difficulties, poor work life balance and tight deadlines.

A range of  interventions to improve mental health in construction have been developed in recent years. These include:

  • training courses for workers and managers to encourage conversations around mental health, and to improve people’s confidence and skills to support those who are unwell
  • training of Mental Health First Aiders, to signpost those with difficulties towards professional help
  • provision of Employee Assistance programmes (EAPs) to provide a further level of support, sometimes including scope for treatment through talking therapies
  • provision of online resources and access to emotional and financial support

Are these things useful? Definitely! They have opened up the discussion around mental health in construction, particularly in the larger companies and on major projects, and have ensured that more people are able to ask for help, and that they know who to talk to.

Are these things enough? No! Having skilled and sensitive people who can support distressed colleagues is important , but you also need to reduce the likelihood that your workplace is the cause of that distress. Management of workplace stress is a legal requirement under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999, and the HSE ten year strategy has Reduce work-related ill health, with a specific focus on mental health and stress” at the top of the list. Since last year, HSE inspectors have been asking employers about stress risk assessment during spot checks and inspections:

The World Health Organization has also emphasised the importance of preventing work-related mental health in their recently published guidelines; and mental health risks are now being highlighted in health and safety management systems. Last year, ISO 45003 was introduced to operate alongside ISO 45001. ISO 45003 is a global standard which gives practical guidance on managing psychosocial risks in the workplace. It is broadly similar to the HSE Management Standards approach, with a few differences in how the guidance is presented and how stressors are described and categorised.

In conclusion, there are many reasons to address the risks of work-related mental health problems and stress – legal, financial, practical and moral. In the second half of this blog we will talk about where to start with assessing and managing the risks from workplace stress.

Stress risk assessment needn’t be stressful

Planning and preparation

Managing risks from stress isn’t substantially different from managing other workplace risks. You can use your standard documentation to identify the hazards and who might be harmed by them, to record the control measures you already have in place and to identify what other interventions are needed.

It is essential to have a support at a high level within your organisation and ideally a named champion. To secure this, you could highlight to senior colleagues that managing hazards in this way, in addition to being a legal requirement, is also good business. Measures to support mental health at work have a good return on investment, averaging around 5:1.The most effective interventions are those which are preventative, organisation wide and involve culture change where this is appropriate. Additional benefits such as improved morale, creativity and effectiveness are also likely, although harder to measure.

How to identify the hazard

Talk to your workforce! They will know the key things which cause them difficulties or distress and could have ideas for possible solutions. You might have an existing group you can approach in the first instance, such as an engagement forum or an HSE committee with representatives from across the workforce. Or you could ask your managers to have initial discussions with their teams, perhaps using the HSE talking toolkit to guide the conversations.

If your organisation is large or complex, consider using a survey to gather information from a wider range of people. The HSE management standards provide a good structure for this. There are other options available as well such as Britain’s Healthiest workplace, the Mind Workplace wellbeing index and the Employee wellbeing snapshot survey . You could also run a series of focus groups: short discussions with different groups from across the workplace. These can be particularly helpful if your workforce are more comfortable sharing their views in conversation than in writing. You could get someone independent to lead discussions if you think you will get more honest feedback that way.

Thank about what other information you have as well – absence data, accident records, exit interviews, grievances, information on turnover etc.

Identifying solutions

Ideally, you will want to target those things which have the biggest impact on worker health, or which affect the most people. However, you could focus initially on changes which are most achievable, to build momentum. At the same time, you can start to develop a longer term plan to address some of the bigger challenges: including passing concerns up the supply chain to the client or to industry bodies if they reflect stressors which are outside of your control.

You might get better buy-in from senior managers if you can identify solutions which will reduce stress but also overlap with other agendas. You could consider, for example,

  • streamlining business processes and reducing red tape to improve productivity and effectiveness as well as reducing workloads.
  • Improving worker inclusivity and fairness, through the FIR programme
  • Upskilling line managers and supervisors to improve their communication and management skills
  • Revising working patterns to allow greater flexibility, see the Timewisereport for more ideas
  • Increasing opportunities for worker voice and consultation

Above all, don’t panic! And don’t be afraid to make a start. Remember that you don’t have to fix everything: as with other health and safety risks you are aiming for ‘reasonably practicable’.

And if you have already started the process? Please share what you learnt from it!

If you would like to know more about how Construction Health and Wellbeing LTD can support you, please get in touch.

For further information and a case study on how this can work in practice click here.

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