Construction & Engineering

Publish date

27 March 2019

Mental health in construction – ‘The silent epidemic’

The construction industry is an almost perfect example of the difference by which society, as a whole, perceives and treats physical and mental health.

Physical health is of upmost importance, signs everywhere reminding people to wear the appropriate personal protection equipment, talks on safety at the site, details of manual handling and lifting techniques.  But where is the discussion of mental health and its importance?

Some might say that the construction industry is predominantly male dominated and with that and the work that is being done, they are ‘tough blokes’.  This perception makes asking for help, talking about feelings and mental health extremely difficult.  So much so that mental health in the construction industry has been deemed ‘the silent epidemic’.

Recent surveys suggest that 64% of construction workers want better physical and mental wellbeing support from their employers.  There is also a call for the construction industry to have a greater awareness of mental health and eradicate the stigma that comes with it.

The statistics

In the employment team, we are aware that mental health is a big issue in any workplace but we were shocked at the statistics that we discovered regarding, predominantly, male mental health:

  • Suicide is the biggest killer of men under the age of 45.  However, male site workers are three times more likely to commit suicide than the average male in the UK
  • Suicide kills more construction workers than falls
  • Depression and anxiety have overtaken musculoskeletal disorders in the construction sector
  • In 2014, 4,623 men took their own life, which equated to one man every 2 hours
  • According to the Office of National Statistics, between 2011 and 2015, of the 13,232 in-work suicides, the construction industry accounted for 13.2% of these.  This comes despite the industry accounting for, at the time, roughly 7% of the UK workforce
  • In 2016 454 construction workers committed suicide
  • In a 2017 survey, 73% construction workers felt their employers did not recognise the early signs of mental health.  Consequently, 23% of those surveyed were considering leaving the industry, in the next 12 months, due to poor mental health
  • Despite mental health being reported frequently in other sectors, the construction industry has the lowest self-reported cases.  Research suggests that employees who are absent are more likely to lie about the reason when it is related to mental health, as opposed to physical health.  Some research states that 95% of those taking time off because of stress gave a different reason for their time off
  • According to the National Building Specification, mental health accounts for people taking almost 70 million days off sick per year.  This costs the UK economy an estimated £70 billion to £100 billion per year.  Some estimate that the average UK employee costs £1,035 per year from sickness absence.

The signs

Depression, stress and anxiety are the three main mental health issues that affect the UK workforce.  Everyone who has one or more of these mental health issues exhibits their symptoms very differently with some being very good at masking them altogether.

To assist you, we have set out some ‘common’ signs that will help you recognise that someone in your workplace is suffering from a mental health issue:

  • Lateness and absenteeism
  • Decreased productivity, for example taking longer to complete a task and struggling to multi-task
  • Lack of self-confidence
  • Lack of enjoyment
  • Isolation/withdrawal
  • Agitation and volatility (with potential conflict)
  • Feeling overwhelmed/un-enthusiastic to start/complete tasks.

The dangers of getting it wrong

The law places a great deal of responsibility on employers, for example:

  • The duty to provide a safe working environment.  This includes not just physical but also mental health
  • Not to discriminate against individuals because of ‘protected characteristics’, one of which is disability.

It is becoming more commonplace that individuals are alleging that their mental health amounts to a disability under the Equality Act 2010.  Further, that the acts of other individuals within the employer were discriminatory towards them and so the individual and the employer (through vicarious liability) find themselves defending a discrimination claim, personal injury, unfair dismissal or harassment.

When considering whether an individual has a disability, consider whether:

  • They have a physical or mental impairment
  • That physical or mental impairment has a substantial impairment that affects their ability to carry out normal daily activities
  •  Whether the impairment has been or is likely to last 12 months or more.

If the answer to the above questions is yes, the individual is likely to have a disability.  If your organisation knows, or ought to know that the individual has a disability, there is also a positive obligation on you as the employer to make reasonable adjustments to the employee(s)’ work environment to remove any disadvantages they face whilst doing their job.

Our thoughts

It isn’t difficult to appreciate how the demanding work environment of construction workers, who may be subject to long hours, dangerous and sometimes costly work, working away from home, could affect or even cause mental health issues.

However, the construction industry now has the opportunity to play a fundamental role in changing the perceptions of mental health and eradicate the stigma on asking for help.

Below, we have outlined some of the practical steps you can take to begin tackling this issue.

  • Have a culture check of your organisation.  Are there areas that are more at risk than others?  If there is a culture of suppressing mental health or discouraging the discussion, change it.  This needs to come from the senior leadership to demonstrate a commitment to change
  • Provide training on mental health.  Train your staff on how to recognise the verbal and physical signs of mental health and how to respond
  • Encourage your staff to talk about mental health and ensure that they feel comfortable in doing so.  This will assist in reducing the stigma about mental health
  • Promote a culture of respect and dignity
  • Offer occupational health and/or safety nets such as counselling services.

There are a number of organisations that can assist you such as:

  • Mates in Mind, a charity dedicated to mental health issues in the construction industry
  • Crossways Community, a mental health charity based in Kent
  • Health in Construction Leadership Group.

There is also an app, launched on the 7 December 2018, called the Construction Industry Helpline developed by Lighthouse Construction Industry Charity and the Building Mental Health Campaign.  The app offers free information, advice and guidance on stress, anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts.

Many in the industry are already tackling the ‘silent epidemic’ and reaping the benefits of a healthy workforce such as fewer absences, increased productivity and increased morale.  These companies are also able to attract and retain talent which should be of particular interest to those employers who are noticing the skills shortage in the industry.

We appreciate that mental health in the construction industry is a difficult and perhaps sensitive subject to tackle.  It is made ever more difficult by the fact that those with mental health issues regularly do not discuss their issues, hence the ‘silent epidemic’.  We think that the easiest way to start the change is to simply talk.

If you feel that your organisation would benefit from talking to any of our lawyers, please do not hesitate to contact us.  We are happy to discuss practical steps that you might wish to consider, including:

  • Reviewing, updating or creating a handbook
  • Providing training on equal opportunities/discrimination
  • Helping you understand your requirements for reasonable adjustments.  Not just in the workplace but also during performance/capability/disciplinary procedures.

We have attached a link to the ACAS website, below, that will help you with your understanding of mental health in the workplace, here: ACAS – Mental health in the workplace.

Heathervale House reception

Keep up to date with our newsletters and events