Let’s talk about mental health in construction

In this Opinion piece, Ian Pickard discusses a topic that the construction sector needs to talk about more openly – ill mental health.

I’ve been in the construction industry for over 30 years and in health and safety for 23 years.

My ‘journey’ in mental health started five years ago when, at a client’s board meeting, I was running through the company’s quarterly accident rates.

The Managing Director raised the issue of four operatives who had taken their own lives in the last year: he stated that we hadn’t carried out any type of accident investigation following these losses of life.

The company had lost – in one year – a foreman, a bricklayer and two hod carriers, but no one knew why, and two of the guys hadn’t even left a note for their families.

Following this discussion, I looked into the incidents. I chatted to the colleagues with whom the operatives had been working – none of them could shed any light. Treading gently, I talked to friends and families – most didn’t have any idea why the men had taken their own lives.

A premature loss is hard to accept, but an unexplained loss is even harder to reconcile.

Without me realising, my journey had started. I looked into the construction industry’s statistics and I was surprised to discover that at that point, five years ago, up to TWO construction workers were taking their own lives every day.

Sadly, these numbers haven’t reduced since, and the industry is still losing 730 men every year from ill mental health – that’s more than are dying from falls from height. To highlight the contrasting lack of progress in mental health, it’s worth remembering that in 2005 the HSC brought out the Working at Height Regulations 2005 to combat falls from height in the industry.

Where are the equivalent actions aiming to reduce suicide?

The importance of talking about mental health and breaking the stigma

The construction industry is dominated by men and, let’s admit it, men are rubbish at talking about their health in general – they’ll supress or ignore medical problems, only visiting a doctor if they absolutely can’t work.

Everyone has mental and physical health but nobody has perfect mental and physical health.

We can see if someone has broken their leg or arm but can we see if someone is suffering from ill mental health? If an operative working at height falls to their death every other site worker will be talking about it, yet if a man takes their own life not many men will be comfortable talking about it – they feel awkward, ill-equipped, perhaps scared.

People live with stress every day of their working lives – some can, and do, work under a huge amount of stress, perhaps even thriving. Everyone has an ‘invisible stress container’ and they are all different sizes – ranging from tiny to huge – and unsurprisingly, people with smaller capacities can’t cope with much stress.

For them, it doesn’t take a lot for an issue to become a major problem. When anyone’s ‘invisible stress container’ starts to overflow they will suffer with ill mental health – and this applies to men as much as women.

Most men don’t realise how to release the ‘tap’ at the bottom of their stress container and reduce their stress level. Watching football, a session in the gym, a bike ride, a run, or simply walking the dog can be enough to release a small amount of stress, enabling somebody to cope with the problems of daily life. A chat with a friend could be even more beneficial.

The all-too-common view from men in the construction industry is that it’s weak to talk about their ill mental health – they still believe that, as they are the provider for their family, they can’t show any weakness, talk about worries or express their feelings.

They are wrong.

75% of all suicides in the UK are men. This is largely because men are rubbish at talking about their health in general and especially rubbish at talking about their mental health.

We need to be open about our mental health, we need to understand our stress limit, we need to find a way to release the stress ‘tap’. Let’s start by talking.

Ian Pickard, Grad IOSH, FIIRSM, RSP, OSHCR, MInstLM

Managing Director and Health & Safety Consultant: IDP Safety Services Ltd

Mental Health First Aid Instructor: MHFA England

Co-Founder: SWAG (Sussex Wellness Action Group)

This article was originally featured in the 15th printed edition of AccessPoint, you can read the full magazine online by clicking below;

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