How can we improve the mental health of construction employees?

Trigger warning: suicide.

The statistics speak for themselves, and they don’t make for pleasant reading at all. Construction workers are taking their own lives at an alarming rate; a rate which seems to be increasing.

A study by Glasgow Caledonian Universty, commissioned by the Lighthouse Construction Industry Charity, revealed that the rate of suicide among construction workers rose from 26 to 29 per 100,000 in the four years from 2015 to 2019. Worryingly, this data precedes the additional mental strain caused by COVID, lockdown and furlough in 2020 and beyond.

The suicide rate is highest in unskilled and blue collar workers, where it increased from 48 to 73 per 100,000 in the period. In comparison, white collar workers and managers experience a much lower rate, with less than 7 per 100,000 in 2015 falling to just under 5 in 2019.

And, overall, those working in the construction industry are three times more likely to take their own life than in other sectors.

What are the influencing factors?

Putting aside the fact that the construction workforce is more than 80% male, and that men are statistically far more likely to take their own lives than women, there are a number of factors within the construction industry which combine to create a high-pressure environment.

53% of the construction workforce is self-employed, agency or on zero hours contracts. This means that job insecurity is high, and that increased competition in the industry can lead to lower margins, and painful financial worries. Unfair or retained payments often also lead to additional pressure and distress.

In addition, the work itself is high-risk: construction work is dangerous, with heavy workloads, long hours and tight deadlines adding to the stress within the supply chain.

Meanwhile, spending long periods of time away from family, working in isolation or travelling frequently can also take its toll. Some turn to alcohol or gambling as an escape from the loneliness: studies carried out in Sweden have shown that those in the construction sector are more likely to participate in gambling, and the industry has the second highest rate of heavy alcohol use and substance abuse amongst full-time workers.

Finally, with the construction workforce predominantly men aged 35 or over, there may exist a ‘macho’ culture within the industry; people who feel uncomfortable or unwilling to communicate their concerns or issues with other people, instead choosing to bottle up their emotion.

What can I do to help?

First and foremost, all those in the construction industry, at all levels, must foster a culture of talking and communication. Providing workers with an environment in which they feel comfortable discussing how they feel will allow burdens to be shared and others to help.

Managers and leaders should be trained to identify signs of mental ill-health, and provide guidance when it arises.

Organisations must ensure that initiatives launched by charities such as Lighthouse reach all workers on site, so that everyone knows where to turn if they are struggling with their mental wellbeing.

Businesses must also commit to prompt and fair payments, to support the supply chain – especially during difficult economic climates. Whilst money cannot buy happiness, as the saying goes, it certainly contributes to peace of mind.

Where to go to find help

Construction Industry Helpline – 0345 6051956 (UK), 1800 939122 (ROI). Lines open 24/7, and calls are free.

Samaritans – call 116123 for free, 24/7.

Mental Health First Aid Awarness Training

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