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There’s a crisis going on in the UK construction sector that isn’t always well publicized.

This one isn’t to do with the economy (construction being regarded by many as a barometer of the economy as a whole). It’s not connected with Brexit, changing regulations or supply chain. Nor does it have anything to do with the availability of skilled labour.

This crisis is to do the wellbeing of the sector’s workforce. It really gained prominence in 2017 with the publication of a report by the Office for National Statistics, which contained some sobering and very saddening statistics.

Between 2011 and 2015, more than 1,400 construction workers had tragically taken their own lives – the highest of any profession over that period. Even though the skilled construction and building trades account for just over 7% of the UK workforce, in-work suicides in the sector accounted for a completely disproportionate 13.2% of the 13,232 recorded total.

In the same year, findings from research conducted by the Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB) indicated that construction professionals were at high risk of experienced poor mental wellbeing.

More recently, in May 2020, the CIOB published an excellent paper ‘Understanding Mental Health in the Built Environment’, a comprehensive account containing up-to-date statistics, well-researched insight including causes, case studies and recommendations.

The intervening period had seen a number of employers in the sector publicly acknowledging the trend and taking very welcome, proactive steps to address the problem. Yet the later study highlighted the continuing problem, having found, for example, that 26% of industry professionals had thought about taking their own lives in 2019, and 97% had reported being stressed in the same period. And that was before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Causes

The study cites job insecurity, long hours, time away from loved ones, poor HR support and late payments amongst the contributory causes. Inadequate or no toilet facilities, poor sanitary conditions and poor or no catering provision also came in for mention. Females frequently found that employers failed to make workplace adjustments. Whilst for males, who represent the vast majority of the sector’s workforce, the traditional ‘macho’ culture is still very much in existence, in many cases resulting in a reluctance to challenge conditions and in turn, seek help from co-workers or their line managers. To generalize, men aren’t known for talking about their feelings, whatever industry they work in.

The Current Scenario

In the wider world, mental health has certainly been raised above the parapet in recent years, and without a doubt since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, with wellbeing afforded similar importance to physical health and financial security. Campaigns like ‘It’s OK not to be OK’, ‘Time to Talk’ and ‘Strength in Kindness’ have four main aims: to encourage people to seek help by either talking to a co-worker, friend or family member about their feelings or seek professional support; to encourage people to identify if someone has an issue and simply ask the question “are you OK?”; and to increase general awareness and both demystify and destigmatize the issue.

Recently, we’ve seen the rise of the ‘mental health first aider’, indicating that many companies are acknowledging the problem and genuinely want to help. We've also seen some local authorities playing a more active role in the wellbeing of their citizens. As well as being part of their corporate social responsibility, they're painfully aware that health and social care accounts for around 50% of most county councils’ budgets.

Whether this ethos has benefited the construction workforce has yet to be seen.

Benefits to the Employer

As well as caring (and being seen to care), employers have much to gain from a structured, well thought out wellbeing strategy. Measurably decreased absenteeism and safety incidents go hand-in-hand with increased morale and productivity. These contribute to revenue and delivery targets being met or exceeded, reputations being upheld, litigation and non-compliance being reduced and the ability to recruit and develop a higher quality workforce enhanced. It’s a win/win situation.

What Can You Do?

CIOB’s recommendations to government in its 2020 study included updating the Health and Safety (First-Aid) Regulations 1981 to ensure workplace provision for mental first aid, reviewing the CSCS to include mental health support, and implementing the recommendations of the 2017 government ‘Thriving at Work’ report.

It also called on professional bodies to take more responsibility to develop mental health and wellbeing awareness among their members and develop resources that help to increase understanding and reduce ignorance and stigma in the sector. It also recommended that these bodies’ members produce guidance on management of workers’ own mental health within the workplace.

Interestingly, wellbeing is also being afforded greater importance in the latest versions of some of the ISO standards, along with the Construction Products Regulation (CPR). If companies in the construction sector have not previously recognized the need (or been able to justify the effort and investment) to take up the internationally recognized standards such as ISO 9001, 14001 or 45001, the workforce wellbeing agenda could well represent the ideal opportunity to put in place an effective strategy and processes. Certification will not ‘only’ formalize the approach to wellbeing, but help to embed its importance in the company culture and up and down the supply chain.

Gary Beales
Business Development – Construction and Subdivisions
SGS United Kingdom Ltd