If you make a new year’s resolution, let it be to do more to promote understanding and compassion for those experiencing mental illness, says Lesley Hammond
Seasonal festivities have been and gone. Most of us returned to work and wished colleagues a Happy New Year, enquiring politely about their Christmas holiday while honestly not being remotely interested in the answer. We will all give default responses: it was fun, we ate and drank too much, maybe had a day or two of illness.
But if this really is the sum total of your trials and tribulations, you are one of the fortunate ones. For many people, though they may reply to colleagues with a smiling “fine, thanks”, that may hide the true story. Colleagues who appear outwardly to “have it all” may be struggling with any of a vast array of mental health issues.
We have to confidently assert to employees that asking for help will not impact their career progression, will not diminish them in any way
At this time of year especially, there can be immense pressure. Feelings of failure, loneliness, futility, isolation and depression may seem all the more pronounced. We sign up to the ridiculous idea that a new year means a new you and you will have everything sorted by mid-February. We reflect on what little we have achieved and what challenges are yet to come. To some, these challenges are truly overwhelming; and personal frailties and failings are more noticeable and can feel harder to forgive.
Mental health has become an ever-more pertinent topic in recent months. It has received increasing media coverage and is – I am glad to say – becoming a more acceptable subject of conversation. Good progress; but nowhere near good enough. Construction has one of the worst suicide records of any industry, and yet I feel very confident we are still a sector that is woefully lacking in support for those needing help.
There is no magic wand to wave, no cure all – and I am no expert, believe me. It is simply a topic about which I feel very strongly.
Despite recent progress, construction remains in places a very macho, masculine environment where showing emotion may be seen as a sign of weakness. This can be the case in office-based work, but there is also no doubt that construction sites can be very physically and mentally challenging places. On large sites, people come and go and faces change regularly; there are time and logistical pressures to contend with. I believe one of the main dangers on site is that pressure and speed of work may prevent someone from spotting a need in a colleague. Equally, I have seen those that are so busy on site they shelve their own issues and emotions, and never take time to ask for the help they need. We must make it clear that asking for help will not impact employees’ career progression, will not diminish them in any way.
At 8build, we have started this particular ball rolling by asking for volunteers to become our “Wellbeing Champions”. We invest in these people, educate them in mental health first aid, help them recognise signs and triggers for those among us who may need a helping hand. Their names and photographs are clearly displayed at sites and in offices as the first port of call if someone simply needs to talk. The response has been amazing. I have been enormously heartened by the number of staff from very different disciplines who have stepped forward.
In 2018, the company also became a supporter of the first-class construction mental health charity, Mates In Mind (www.matesinmind.org). With its help and that of our excellent occupational health providers we are making progress. More people come forward every day to join our team of mental health champions and we run regular events to remind people of the importance of the topic and what help is available to them. There is a long way to go and much to do, but if we collectively make a commitment to this cause, we can only improve. To adulterate a common saying: this is a very large elephant and we can only eat it in bite-sized chunks.
So, what should our new year’s resolutions be for 2019? We can aim for many things: to design and build beautiful, practical, ecological and safe structures in which people may live, work and play. But is that enough? Let us also resolve to do our utmost to put real structures in place to help colleagues and to reduce the stigma of mental illness.
There is also a promise we can make on a personal level. My own resolution this year is inspired by something that was mentioned at my daughter’s graduation a few years ago. The graduates were urged to be kind. To go out into the world and be all that they can be but, above all, be kind. That is my resolution for 2019: simply to be kind. In the words of the Greek storyteller Aesop: “No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.” We should all remember that.