It can be hard to open up about problems especially in a male-dominated industry, but if you don’t start the conversation, who will?

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For many years, the poor mental health of (mainly male) construction workers has been a matter of great concern. Soberingly, suicide is the most common cause of death for men aged 15-49 working in the sector – far greater than death by injury – and rates are three times higher in the construction industry than in the male population overall.

The fact that the pandemic has added to the mental health pressures already facing the sector can be seen in the early findings of a recent survey conducted by Mates in Mind and the Institute of Employment Studies (IES). The research found that a third of construction workers are now experiencing increased levels of anxiety. However, given that the research itself found that men are very unlikely to talk about or recognise stress or anxiety in themselves, the true figure is almost certainly much higher.

Diane Lightfoot

The research also found that two-thirds of construction workers feel that there is a stigma associated with mental health, which prevents them from talking about it. These findings chime with Business Disability Forum’s own research on men and mental health where men told us in one-to-one confidential interviews that they had struggled with their mental health and this was the first time they had voiced it to anyone, including their partners, friends, and families. It is also concerning that less than half of the young men who took part in the research felt that it was good idea to talk more about their mental health.

Less than half of the young men in the research felt that it was good idea to talk more about their mental health

So, what causes the conversation to stop when it comes to mental health? Language is one key issue. In our research, men told us that there are common phrases that they said are still active in society and which continue to reinforce the idea that men need to remain “strong”. One respondent said: “There is still an enormous stigma attached to men being mentally unwell, with this being viewed as weakness and the sufferer being viewed as ‘less of a man’”.

Respondents also felt that gender stereotyping in society – particularly that of men as the breadwinner – continues to be transferred into places of work. One respondent commented that they felt “men have a societal expectation to be a ‘breadwinner’ and as such they should dedicate their lives to their career”. The progress for work-life balance seems to have been mostly directed towards women, with men taken as an after-thought. Some said that this leads to workplace “ridicule and bullying” of men who actively seek to find a healthy work-life balance or who talk about managing their mental health and wellbeing.

The “always on” culture of modern work is also seen as a constant pressure which men felt was applied more to them than their female co-workers (even though it was recognised that this affects everyone): “Employees are always on demand, not having an opportunity to switch off. Part of this is down to emails and calls at any time outside of work hours, with the expectation that these will be answered and responded to.”

So how can you help team members who may be experiencing poor mental health?

  • Getting to know the people you work and manage, will help you spot the signs when someone is struggling. Remember that someone who needs support may not use the terms “mental health” or “stress” or talk about it all. Look out for changes in someone’s behaviour. A person may be louder or quieter than usual or there may be a change in a person’s attendance pattern or appearance. 

    Don’t jump to conclusions, but be ready to begin a conversation, which may start simply by asking someone if they are ok – and really listening to the answer. Gently probing with questions like “I’ve noticed that you don’t seem quite yourself recently, is there something going on?” may help to encourage people to open up and communicate that you really do want to understand and to help.
  • Put a mental health policy in place, which covers mental health support and sickness. Make sure everyone is aware of the mental health support that is available to them. Make it easy for people to access this support confidentially. Our research found that some people didn’t use the support available because they didn’t want to be ‘seen’ doing so. Many of our construction sector members now offer comprehensive employee support programmes with an emphasis on Mental Health First Aid.

    Mental Health First aiders are colleagues who have been trained to recognise and offer help to co-workers who need support. You could also take a course and become a Mental Health First Aider yourself. Either way, make sure that there is support for the Mental Health First Aiders too as it can be a tough and emotionally demanding role.
  • Role modelling. The power of storytelling, particularly from team leaders and managers, can be huge in making it feel safer for others to open up about their own experiences of mental ill health. If you can encourage senior people to share their stories it can make a dramatic difference in breaking down stigma and prejudice.
  • Use the resources available. Lots of organisations, including Business Disability Forum and Mates in Mind, have free resources and information available to help you recognise the signs of mental ill health and how you can help.

Mental Health Awareness Week is the perfect opportunity to get talking about mental health. Beginning the conversation may seem difficult, but if you don’t, who will?

Diane Lightfoot is CEO of Business Disability Forum


Every Person counts

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We know the industry has no shortage of suggestions for tackling construction’s skills crisis, from reforming apprenticeships, to offering more flexibility, to increasing diversity, to providing better pathways from education to the workplace. Our Every Person Counts coverage aims to provide a place where debates can play out, views be aired and solutions shared on all these topics.

If you have an employment initiative you want to tell us about email us at with the subject line “Every Person Counts”. You can also contact us via Twitter @BuildingNews and LinkedIn @BuildingMagazine, please use the hashtag #everypersoncounts. We look forward to hearing your employment stories.

You can find all our Every Person Counts coverage in one place on our website.

And if your organisation has a particularly strong record in this area, you could consider entering the Every Person Counts – People Strategy Award at this year’s Building Awards.