In an era when project margins are getting tighter and tighter, adding to the pressure on site managers and their teams to deliver, what is the potential impact on their mental health? 

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Recent data shows that there is a significant human cost to the construction industry in terms of a high suicide rate, and poor mental health of staff. A 2018 report from the Lighthouse Club, an organisation which supports construction workers and their families, notes that mental health was in the top three reasons given for illness and cause of death, at a concerning 32%, second only to cancer.

The impact of poor mental health on our ability to work and perform well at work is well known. Construction businesses already have significant health and safety measures in place to safeguard the physical wellbeing of workers from visible risk, but what about their mental wellbeing? 

Some construction businesses are already taking steps to support staff by appointing workforce mental health first aiders, ‘buddies’, onsite GPs, contemplation rooms or bringing in high-profile speakers to share their experiences of poor mental health and encourage others to talk when they are concerned that they are at risk of becoming unwell, or fear they are not coping. 

Opening up to your boss can be difficult. It may be that someone has never talked about what they have going on inside, it may be that they don’t recognise that they need help. So how to create an environment where managers enable a positive and supportive ethos whilst delivering pressured projects on time and in budget? 

The first step is coaching managers in the basics of mental health first aid, so the mental health of their team is on their RADAR. In short hand this means:

Recognise the signs of poor mental health. This means observing and listening, so you know what someone’s ‘normal’ is. Once you’re aware of the team dynamic and how your team usually behave, you can look out for signs of change. Mental health issues are often difficult to spot but a common sign is a change to timekeeping, either being late to or absent, or slow at work, taking longer to do tasks. Other signs can be physical changes like poor self-care, weight change, appearing tense, withdrawn or ‘frozen’. Being short-tempered, erratic or changeable can also be a sign of mental distress.

Acknowledge what you see and commit to doing something rather than putting it to the bottom of the to-do list. This can be difficult to do because of project deadlines, or because of the fear of making it worse. The key to get across to managers is that they do not have to know all the answers, but they do need to be enabled to start the conversation and get people opening up.

Discuss: plan when you can speak to the person concerned, without distractions and without other staff being aware, so they don’t feel singled out. Find a safe space and time to talk to them. Asking ‘how are you?’ often leads down a cul-de-sac of ‘I’m fine’. Instead, supportively note that you have noticed a change in them, such as temperament, appearance, performance and ask if there is anything you can do to help. Leave space for silence and listen. Asking what you can do to help is sometimes avoided for concern that it may lead to a request you can’t deal with. In fact, in many cases, small changes can be made. Just starting the conversation and being listened to will often go a long way but follow up is essential.  

Act: what does the individual need? Can you effect changes that might help (altering work patterns, change of tasks, time out), or do you need specialist help, from Occupational Health, or the individual’s own doctor / specialist? Access to Work can provide funding and support. If you are suffering with poor mental health, having some control over your situation can make all the difference, so the key is to agree the next steps with the person, rather than a manager imposing their view of what needs to happen next.

Review: it is critical to come back to the conversation, to update the person, see whether the changes suggested / made are improving the situation. The Business in the Community Annual Mental health at Work Survey records that 41% of staff said even after opening up, nothing changed. If courage is not rewarded with action, it may have a negative effect. 

Legal obligations 

Managing staff mental health is not just a ‘nice to have’ if we have the time to deal with it, it is a legal obligation going beyond the obvious health and safety obligation to staff. Under the Equality Act 2010, employers have a duty to make reasonable adjustments for staff with disabilities, to alleviate any working practice or policy which places them at a substantial disadvantage. 

How do you know if someone may be suffering from poor mental health to the extent that the Equality Act applies? They don’t need a blue badge, they don’t need to explicitly tell you or to prove they are disabled. The duty arises when you know, or ought to know (from their behaviour or comments made) that they may be. The safest approach is to assume they may be. Knowing your team’s ‘normal’ is critical.

There is also specific legal protection from harassment. ‘Banter’ is a popular defence from staff called out on lewd or bullying behaviour, but it is rarely a good defence. Mocking someone for showing signs of mental distress, or humiliating them can be disability harassment and could lead to a tribunal claim against not only the organisation but also the alleged harasser, who can be personally liable.

Looking outside your own organisation to the mix of staff on site, how do your sub-contractors or providers of agency staff manage mental health? What levels of legal compliance and awareness of mental health support do you require from them? Oversight and strategy for achieving this is important so that the people your teams come into contact with don’t negate the good work you’re already doing. 

The approach to good mental health in the construction industry is changing, with businesses working hard to reduce the stigma of talking about mental health. The practical pointers above can help to make a difference on the ground, supported by the leadership team they can enable managers to make the time to recognise and act on the signs of mental distress.

Lindsay Hammond and Vivienne Reeve – Gowling WLG