Understanding suicide in construction
A recent Guardian report into suicides at the Hinkley Point C project is a call-for-action. Dr Nick Bell discusses the wider implications for the construction industry.
The Guardian report highlights some of the demands faced by construction workers that may impact on their mental health. Many work away from home, separating them from loved ones and putting relationships under strain. Perhaps as a coping mechanism, some workers engage in damaging behaviours (such as excessive drinking and gambling) which can lead to debt and a host of other stressors.
A recent article offered examples of management practices that impact on construction workers’ mental health. A good practice was using the same sub-contractors on projects so that supportive and trusting relationships developed over time. Bad practices include providing poor welfare facilities or ‘ranting’ at staff. A senior manager said that he could not know all the problems faced by workers so treated everyone the same. We are not, however, all the same.
The roots of these problem run deep. If clients have wildly unrealistic expectations, and these are not managed by project managers, designers and contractors who are keen to win the work, unachievable time and financial pressures filter through the supply chain. This is a breach of the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations and can contribute to highly stressful and confrontational working environments.
Procurement professionals compound the problems if they spend months haggling then award work at the last minute. Contractors have a narrow and intense window to complete their designs and installation, sometimes leading to pandemonium and bodge-ups on site.
Construction can be a precarious existence. Someone may be removed from site, for a day or permanently, if they breach a site rule (often underpinned by a culture of ‘blame the worker’). As many workers are self-employed this means that they have lost their income (and may also mean that they have no supervisor, team or friends on site).
The industry is trying to tackle the misery of modern slavery which is fuelled by demands for cheap labour. Sometimes, however, this requires little more than returning a letter declaring ‘I do not support modern slavery’.
Health and Safety professionals working in construction need a wider appreciation of, and ideally the ability to influence, commercial practices. They could sway selection criteria so consideration is given to contractors’ strategies for safeguarding mental health. The profession may support robust ‘due diligence’ exercises of the supply chain.
Campaigns such as ‘mind matters’ and ‘mates in mind’ strive to raise awareness, and break down the stigma, of mental health helping people to recognise that they or a colleague needs support and feel empowered to talk. This is particularly important given the traditional, macho culture of construction.
We do not manage risks of working at height by having fully stocked first aid kits. Similarly, it would be wrong to say that mental health first aiders (MHFA) are some sort of prevention strategy. People have to recognise they need help and feel confident to seek it. An organisation which offers MHFA or mental health campaigns could appear insincere if a worker perceives that they are being mistreated by that same organisation.
If we distil this down, mental wellbeing suffers when fundamental needs are not met. Martin Seligman, Carol Ryff and Ryan and Deci, propose that we all have (to varying degrees) the needs to feel secure, to have positive relationships, to feel valued, to feel competent and challenged, in control of our lives and to have a sense of purpose. Security includes feeling ‘psychologically safe’ – being treated fairly, not being bullied etc. In some instances, people don’t even have the right tools or information to do their work, undermining many of these needs.
Rather than focussing on what makes people unwell, positive psychology flips this over and supports people to become emotionally healthy and resilient by helping them meet these needs. However, we are all individuals with different life circumstances, personalities, existing conditions etc. so there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Having our needs met provides the emotional, physical and mental resources that we need to cope with the demands of life and work.
We have to get the basics right. Workers require adequate welfare facilities, tools and equipment and managers need simple ‘soft skills’ training (so they can explain themselves without ‘ranting’) and time to get to know workers. Getting more creative, working patterns could offer three day weekends (rather than knocking off on a Friday afternoon and spending the rest of the day stressed out in traffic).
Future articles could offer practical solutions, including application of the HSE’s stress management standards and the benefits of health and safety approaches based on ‘safety differently’. Equipped with these insights, Health and Safety professionals are ideal champions to help secure good mental health.
In a follow-up to this article, Dr Nick Bell examines some common mental health themes and lessons that can be applied by any organisation.
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