Author Bio ▼

Dr Nick Bell is a Chartered Fellow of IOSH and a Fellow of the International Institute of Risk and Safety Management. Nick supports Principal Designers and construction Clients to comply with the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2015 (CDM). He delivers accredited CDM training and has been advising on construction projects up to £3.2bn in value.. In October 2018 Nick successfully defended his PhD thesis in which he examined the association between worker engagement and behaviour.  His work has attracted interest from across the globe.  He is now Managing Director of Workfulness Ltd and continues his CDM-related work.
May 31, 2018

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Constructing good mental health

Nick Bell, Dr Colin Powell and Dr Peter Sykes consider some simple ways to spread good mental health in the construction industry.

During my doctoral research I undertook surveys, focus groups and interviews with professionals, academics, workers, supervisors and managers and heard their accounts of work in construction. This article gives a flavour of the themes that arose and are split into practices that undermine or bolster mental health. There is some colourful language.

Undermining Mental Health

Treat workers like children

This quote, from a construction worker, appeared in my favourite article of the whole doctorate, written by Andersen and colleagues (2015: page 647)1:

“There was a ladder standing up against a wall, and we were told by [site managers] that we had to lay the ladder on the ground, as somebody could come and climb up and fall down on the other side. When they say this, they might as well say, ‘You have a low IQ.’ We’re not children!”

One of my own interviewees said: “You can get into that vicious circle – ‘if you treat me like a child I’ll act like a child, so I’ll be less responsible and you’ll treat me like a child more’ – so it spirals down.”

Adding to this, the interviewee described how organisations use props to denote the status of site managers, such as separate, pristine welfare facilities for managers above ‘slop houses’ for workers. I’ve seen similar things on sites.

It paints a picture of workers not feeling valued and having their self-esteem undermined (and sometimes this is done in the name of health and safety). Managers can be stereotyped as being unapproachable, impractical, arrogant and uncaring. This can only fuel adversarial relationships. It’s difficult to imagine discussions about mental wellbeing occurring in these circumstances.

In contrast, one power station I visited had a photo montage of who’s who on site. It wasn’t structured like an organogram. Everyone was muddled together and somewhere amongst the photos was the station manager. It was a simple way of conveying the message that it was one team. More importantly, the station manager genuinely felt that way.

To start with, some managers and supervisors may need coaching on how to have constructive, adult-to-adult conversations with workers.

Be angry/macho

There is still a perception that displays of anger are normal in construction, and may be seen as an acceptable social ‘tool’ to get results. In part this may be because of an enduring macho culture.

One interviewee said: “In construction… they’re under so much pressure that you actually need to be angry, you need to be the boss, you need to be that macho leader that’s telling people what to do. I think part of that comes from the environment they’re in, extremely dynamic, new contractors coming in all the time, different people. You don’t necessarily have the time to get to know people and understand their emotional needs so the best way to get things done is then to just be a dick.”

In a focus group, one construction supervisor recognised that: “If you shout and scream at everyone, the atmosphere goes crap”. Shortly after, a manager stated: “I might have a rant and rave with someone every now and again, I don’t hold a grudge but we move on, I’ll be a bastard one minute but your best mate the next… I’ll tell it as it is.”

A supervisor then responded to the manager: “I’d rather see you before I go home, because I hate the thought of coming in in the morning and facing you again, I’d rather see you on the way home and say ‘see you tomorrow – it’s all good isn’t it?’.  It might not be words [he mimed waving and making eye contact]. Job done isn’t it?”

I was left with the mental image of young, male gorillas going through rituals to appease the grumpy silverback and evaluate whether they were at risk of further attack.

Feeling safe is a fundamental human need. Without this, people are unlikely to feel well.

Rather than telling men not to be macho, there may need to be deeper discussions around what it means to be a man in construction.

Treat everyone the same

From one senior construction manager’s perspective, a construction site is a collection of different trades who drift in and out. He said that workers all have their own concerns, problems and so on, but it seemed unrealistic and undesirable to get to know them as individuals. His response was to treat everyone the same.

Senior managers in construction may need to ask themselves how they perceive their workers and explore how those perceptions ultimately influence the way workers are treated.

Building Mental Wellbeing

Cup of tea

When I asked what ‘engagement’ looked, sounded or tasted like, an interviewee responded that it would taste like tea. For them, it was as simple as a manager and a worker having a cup of tea together. The tea was a shared tradition that acted as a social equaliser and lubricated a conversation about work and life.


One principal contractor continually used the same sub-contractors who described the incredibly collaborative approach that had developed. They would lend materials between teams, trusted each other (they were not worried about tools being stolen) and worked around each other to help each other complete tasks. It was, for me, a perfect illustration of what Hollnagel (2014)2 called ‘work as done’ rather than ‘work as imagined’. Through their eyes, the workplace looked like a supportive environment.

In summary, the way sites are managed, and the way workers are treated, are just manifestations of the underlying beliefs, values and culture of the organisation. Good mental health might need to start with managers taking an honest look at their perceptions of workers and their own roles as managers.

Cardiff Metropolitan University has devised a model to describe the characteristics of four different cultural levels and outlined the training needed to reach and sustain those levels. At the most advanced level, managers and organisations are helped to understand and respond to the individual needs of workers.

  1. Andersen, L., Karlsen, I., Kines, P., Joensson, T. and Nielsen, K., 2015. Social identity in the construction industry: implications for safety perception and behaviour. Construction management and economics, 33(8), 640–652.
  2. Hollnagel, E., 2014. Safety-I and Safety-II: The Past and Future of Safety Management. Farnham, UK: Ashgate.

Nick is due to speak on 20th June at the Safety and Health Expo 2018. See his talk, entitled ‘Health and safety is a drama! – Understanding and influencing behaviour’ at 13:00 in the Operational Excellence Theatre.

Join Nick for a lively and interactive session which presents behaviour as a performance and explains how we can influence the drama.

The talk explains how and why we occupy different roles throughout the day and perform those roles using scripts (or ‘norms’). Some of our scripts help to keep us and other people healthy and safe… and some do not. Nick draws on a range of theories and case studies to explain:

  • Why we perform our roles in the way that we do
  • What it takes to change our scripts
  • How these ideas support then take us a step beyond ‘safety differently’
  • How all of this links to engagement and wellbeing

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Adam Stammers
Adam Stammers
2 years ago

Hi Nick,

Do you happen to have further details or ways we can access the model devised by Cardiff university to describe four levels of culture?

Thank you,