Tackling the ‘silent pandemic’ threatening construction
Amid rising rates of suicide and mental health issues1 during the COVID-19 pandemic, many large construction firms have stepped up to boost mental health support for their employees.
Paul Reeve, Director of CSR at electrotechnical trade body ECA, highlighted the magnitude of the problem faced by the industry:
“On average, two construction workers take their own lives every working day, and 20 per cent of all work absence in the sector is attributed to poor mental wellbeing. The pandemic has further amplified the factors adversely affecting mental health and we now face an additional ‘silent pandemic’ threatening the lives of owners, managers and other workers.”
In the months before the first lockdown in March 2020, a survey of construction and engineering services business owners revealed nine out of 10 suffered mental health issues due to business pressures – including depression, stress and even suicidal thoughts. Of all the respondents, four said they had attempted suicide.2
In the past year however, large engineering services businesses have taken huge strides to address mental ill-health. A recent COVID-19 Impact survey commissioned by ECA showed nine out of 10 large electrical and other engineering services businesses (89 per cent) now train staff as Mental Health First Aiders.3
Philip Hamblett, contract manager at N Smith Electrical, was one of the first to take the Mental Health First Aider course delivered by ECA. Over the last year, 20 of the firm’s employees were furloughed. On their return to work, Philip spoke to each person individually.
He said, “A lot of younger staff communicate by text rather than speaking with people. This is not good if they have an issue concerning them as they do not discuss it. By meeting them separately, it gave me the chance to check they were OK and also the chance to discuss any concerns about the pandemic, be it working on site and ensuring site safety; or discussing the loss of a friend or loved one.”
Almost half of those responding to the survey mentioned ‘communication’, or ‘workplace stigma and perceptions’ as challenges to managing mental health. Around a third of respondents referred to the difficulty of measuring outcomes, both in terms of improved mental health and return on investment.
Mark Lawrence, CEO of engineering services business TClarke, said:
“We have embraced well-being and mental health awareness. We still have a predominantly male working population and death and ill-heath due to mental stress in construction overall is far too high.
“As a result, we have teamed up with a business called Green-Hearts Mindfulness and Meditation to roll-out courses, seminars and training. Among other things these show that there's someone here to talk to. And there’s been some interesting journeys: some people have shared their stories with us, helping other people to open up as well.
“It’s been something new and different for us, but it's well worth the investment.”
The coronavirus crisis worsens isolation, longer hours and increased job uncertainty. Reflecting these increased challenges, it is encouraging to see that large contractors reported significant and increasing engagement with employee mental health.
1Data published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) in 2020 found that male suicides are now at their highest in two decades and peaked in the 45 to 55 age category.