The industry has made progress in terms of improving health and safety. Now it needs to do the same for its employees’ mental wellbeing – or brace itself for a rush of legal claims

Tony Bingham

I was in B&Q the other day; I go there for light bulbs. Or rather I go there and gawp at the shelves, pleading with those shelves to give a hint of where I can find the right bulb, right thread or bayonet, and wattage.

Karl Easton was manager of B&Q’s Romford store at the time when B&Q decided to re-jig the layout, install a mezzanine floor and create a trade point in an effort to resemble a traditional builder’s merchant counter for plasterers, electricians, plumbers to fetch their stuff from.

The whole thing got on top of their manager; he got to his wits’ end and fell into a state of depression. His mental health problem was genuine and torpedoed his career. He fell out of the job. You can guess what the lawyers said – he made a claim under the heading of occupational stress.

Now then, hands up all those in our construction world who know all about occupational stress. And hands up all those company chiefs that have brought the issue onto the agenda. I confess to being impressed by some of the big boys in construction who have become much more engaged with the personal health and wellbeing of their staff. Carillion is one such, and there are others. It’s one of those topics that is “bloody obvious” once we give it an ounce of thought. Confidential and discreet medicals and regular on-site checks are all optional, no pressure. The hunt is on to nip the odd physical problem in the bud. Even better is detecting unacceptable levels of stress and mental health issues.

It’s seen as sissy to talk of mental and emotional problems. Mind you, I can recall when it was sissy to talk about health and safety at all

Running a B&Q store is no doubt tricky and demanding (all those bulbs), but how does that compare with a multi-million pound construction project? You know what I mean: our world changes every day; we design and build as we go, we firefight by the hour, quarrel by the minute. It is an industry full of machismo and full of very stressed people. Some people have begun to notice the staff churn, particularly now it’s not all that difficult to walk and find a new role, rather than sit and bear the pressure of the project. And, if you do damn all about this stress between your employees’ ears, watch out for a lawyer’s claim form plonking on to your desk. I can see a lot more of this coming.

Then somebody shouts from the back of the room: “Clear off with all of this psychobabble. Stiffen up. Pull yourself together.” It’s seen as a tad sissy to talk of mental and emotional problems. Mind you, I can recall when it was all a tad sissy to talk about health and safety at all. Hardly any of us wore a safety helmet, or toetector shoes, never mind goggles and a visibility jacket. All a bit daft wasn’t it?

Here we are, at last talking about managing pressure better. Learning how to recognise the signs: altered habits, altered behaviour and altered appearance. Spotting which of our folk in the firm have learned how to cope, willing to be trained to cope; to plan, to prioritise, to slow down and to think. Running a construction enterprise - and that includes you architects, engineers, and surveyors - is one hell of a task. It’s not always a healthy game we play. As for B&Q’s Karl Easton, his claim in court for compensation failed. He was, as a fact, seriously depressed and it was likely the job that caused the problem. The snag for him was what his employer B&Q knew about their particular employee or ought reasonably to know. An employer is usually entitled to assume that the employee can withstand the normal pressures of the job. Notice that word “normal”. That project of yours that has gone off the rails, bedevilled by rows, disputes and claims, begs the question of whether that is “normal”. Ask as well whether the problem project heaps work on the folk running the job. Overwork is a compensation starting point. Then fathom whether there are actual signs of harm that one can see. Folk who go off sick are signalling stress on that pain in the neck project. Then there arises a duty on the employer to take steps to protect the employee. True, different employees have different abilities to “cope” with stressful situations. These words are clumsy. Like “stress”, “cope” has a variety of meanings but the courts grapple with these meanings.

To cope is to deal successfully with something but fathoming whether success occurred isn’t straightforward. The real issue is whether the particular person has coped without damaging his or her health. Interlinked with all this is the person who chooses not to reveal to his employer that he is in difficulty; has hit the bottle, isn’t sleeping, is a pain to live with, or has lost their confidence. People like Carillion, Crossrail and others, are now driving this aspect of management, winkling out and protecting their staff from these stresses.

This is not psychobabble, just the next step.

Tony Bingham is a barrister and arbitrator at 3 Paper Buildings, Temple