‘Construction workers should not suffer in silence’

Mental health should get the same attention as safety on site, says SNP MP and clinical psychologist Lisa Cameron.

In 2019, one in four construction workers in the UK considered taking their own lives, and between 2011 and 2015, more than 1,400 construction workers died by suicide. Data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) reveals that those working in construction are 63% more likely to die by suicide than the national average.

Poor mental health within the construction industry has become a silent crisis, and we cannot afford to ignore it.

As an NHS Psychologist who worked with clients with mental health problems, I know that mental illness is one of the biggest public health challenges. It is estimated that more than 4% of the world’s population is suffering from depression alone and in Scotland, around one in three people are estimated to be affected by mental illness in any one year.

These figures are significantly higher in the construction industry, with a new report from the Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB) finding that 87% of construction workers experienced anxiety and 70% experienced depression over the course of 2019.

SMEs suffer most

Shockingly, the CIOB’s report also finds that the smaller the business an individual works for, the more likely they are to experience suicidal thoughts.

High levels of stress, long hours and financial pressures are all factors that come into play, with many small businesses struggling with cashflow and late payment issues even before the lockdown. Without appropriate support for the industry from the Chancellor, these businesses may not have the resources needed to support their own employees over the coming months.

These statistics are likely to have been made worse by the impacts of Covid-19.

Social stigma around mental health and a hyper-masculine environment within the industry are discouraging workers from seeking help

Last week, the ONS published a sobering finding – that men in low-skilled jobs are almost four times as likely to die from Covid-19 as professionals, which raises further concerns about the mental and physical safety of predominantly on-site workers such as labourers.

With construction workers now being advised to go back to work, it is only to be expected that many are concerned about returning.

Over the last fifteen years, worker safety on construction sites has improved, with the introduction of the Working at Height Regulations 2005 and a collaborative effort by industry to strive for better. But now, construction workers are more at risk of dying by suicide than falling from height, and it is time that mental health was given the same level of attention as physical safety amongst the workforce.

‘Macho’ culture

In an industry known for a ‘macho’ culture that is deeply ingrained, mental health has rarely been part of the conversation. While mental health issues are experienced by people of all genders, societal expectations, social stigma around mental health and a hyper-masculine environment within the industry are discouraging workers from seeking help and many are suffering in silence.

Although the construction industry is beginning to open up about mental health, it is revealing that the CIOB’s report finds that two thirds of workers have not received any mental health training or awareness over the past three years, and only one third said their employer would treat a mental health issue very seriously. Many companies are waking up to the need for mental wellness initiatives, but there is still a long way to go to ensure that the right support is available.

This is a complex issue and one that the industry alone will not be able to solve.

I know that many work-related mental health problems are preventable, and it is important that people can feel supported at work to manage their conditions successfully and live healthy, happy and productive lives.

We need to offer attention and investment therefore to the mental health of workers just as we do regarding the safety of construction sites, and make sure that every workplace has the resources it needs to support the mental health of its employees.

Lisa Cameron is the Scottish National Party Member of Parliament for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow and a consultant clinical psychologist.

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