Site workers are missing out on the mental health revolution, and it’s really not OK, says Fred Sherratt MCIOB.
The UK construction industry was rocked back in 2017 by statistics revealing that there were more suicides in construction than any other industry.
A quick response rightly put workforce mental health at the top of the agenda: resources were mobilised, mental health first aiders appeared and a plethora of initiatives, ranging from digital support apps to yoga classes to counselling services, were implemented to try to mitigate the problem.
Wellbeing suddenly found itself right alongside health and safety – creating a new HSW acronym (for those of us old enough to remember when ‘W’ was for ‘welfare’). Things seemed to be changing for the better.
But recent research by Glasgow Caledonian University, commissioned by the Lighthouse Club, has found that things are only getting better for some of our workforce.
While there has been positive change for non-manual occupations such as managers and other professionals, for manual workers – particularly unskilled labourers – problems and suicide rates are actually increasing.
Unfortunately, this isn’t a surprise. It’s never difficult to point out myriad people-related problems with how we ‘do construction’ on sites. Long supply chains full of insecure, temporary and zero-hours contracts, lowest-price tendering, transient work and long working hours, coupled with high production pressures and dangerous work creates a bespoke and highly toxic mental health cocktail just for our workforce – and it’s no wonder folks turn to drink, drugs or gambling to get by. There is research from across the world to back this up, some of which is now depressingly old.
“All the yoga classes in all the world can’t fix an inherently unwell and unhealthy workplace. The industry needs to fundamentally rethink how it is structured and organised to support wellbeing for everyone.”
And this is not something a combination of wellbeing initiatives can resolve. Flexible or remote working doesn’t fit with manual work. Projects move about the country; head offices don’t. We’re still doing what we’ve always done on site, and that’s the problem. And why, when we talk about sites, does the ‘W’ still stand for ‘welfare’? Because the systemic change needed to bring ‘wellbeing’ meaningfully into that space seems to be too much of a challenge – as recent evidence sadly shows.
Yes, the industry tries initiatives that focus on changing worker behaviours, such as smoking cessation, but these give no acknowledgement that something about their work (rather than the worker) may be the reason they smoke in the first place. Mental health first aiders are a great step forward but they’re not a preventative measure: they’re a sticking plaster at best. And all the yoga classes in all the world can’t fix an inherently unwell and unhealthy workplace.
The industry needs to fundamentally rethink how it is structured and organised to support wellbeing for everyone. We need to take as much notice of this latest research as we did when those shocking suicide statistics first hit the headlines and confront, challenge and, if necessary, shame the industry into change: our site workers deserve it.
Professor Fred Sherratt MCIOB is reader in construction management at Anglia Ruskin University and a member of the CIOB’s Health, Safety and Wellbeing Special Interest Group.