SHP speaks to Tricia O’Neill is Head of Risk Management at Skanska UK about becoming one of the first construction companies to sign the ‘Time to Change’ pledge. We find out the reasons behind the move and the impact and results that have been observed amongst the workforce since.
M42 junction 6 improvement scheme
Skanska has been working with MHFA England since 2016, when it began a campaign to place greater focus on mental health and wellbeing. It wanted to remove the stigma attached to mental ill health. In February of that year, it became one of the first construction companies to sign the ‘Time to Change’ pledge, after Skanska UK’s President and CEO, Gregor Craig, had been inspired to act by his personal experiences of mental ill health. Through its sector leading mental health and wellbeing strategy, Skanska is creating a working culture where its 3,300 UK employees feel valued, able to contribute and reach their potential.
The project has been rolled out across Skanska’s M42 Junction 6 Improvement Scheme – a £255 million project to improve junction 6 of the M42. The scheme, delivered on behalf of National Highways, provides a comprehensive upgrade of the junction near Birmingham Airport, allowing better movement of traffic on and off the A45. Out of the hundred or so people currently working on the project, eight are Mental Health First Aiders. From today they will proudly display their qualification sticker on their safety helmets. This means that everyone on site, no matter their role, will know who they can talk to, should they need support.
Speaking about Skanska’s wellbeing and mental health strategy and the wider challenges faced by people in the construction sector, Tricia O’Neill said: “As a contractor, you are starting new jobs all the time and having to drop into new places and sites without a network. It’s difficult to build communities. You will often spend long periods away from your family, friends, and your GP. If you’re only there for a few months, people may not get to know you, meaning recognising if someone is struggling and offering the right support and signposting becomes more difficult.”
Through MHFA England training, Skanska began to empower a network of mental health ambassadors. They gained the skills and knowledge to spot the signs of mental ill health, including stress and anxiety, and offer support and guidance to a range of wellbeing initiatives offered by Skanska. These include the employee assistance programme run by UK provider Health Assured, which offers around-the-clock support and counselling.
How large of an issue is mental ill health amongst workers in the construction sector, what are the reasons for this and how much improvement has the sector made to address this in recent years
Tricia O’Neill (TO): “Mental ill-health is a significant issue in this sector and has been so for many years. A CIOB Survey in 2020 found that more than 1,400 construction workers died by suicide from 2011 to 2015 and 97% of those surveyed had experienced some form of mental ill-health over the last 12 months.
“This is partly due to the sector’s dominant demographic (men aged 45-60) where instances of depression and suicide are higher than in the general population.
“But there are several factors that make construction workers particularly vulnerable to mental ill-health. Tasks are often highly physically demanding and take place in noisy, stressful environments. There is often a low level of job security. Workers often need to be away from the tethering influence of their families for much of the week and may experience loneliness, drink to excess, take drugs and have a poor diet. Workers often suffer in silence, and the ‘macho’ culture of simply dealing with it and not seeking help often only makes the issues worse.
“It’s an issue which is now being tackled with a significant number of initiatives by players across the construction sector. Mates in Mind, British Safety Council and Building Mental Health are just a few of the organisations that have a focus on the construction industry making resources and support accessible.”
How has signing up for the ‘Time to Change’ pledge addressed that within the business?
(TO): “Our support for Time to Change allowed us to have an open and productive dialogue with our employees around mental health. It gave the opportunity for sites and project offices to host informal events encouraging people to have honest conversations around their health and to share helpful resources.”
As a senior leader, do you think that by speaking up, you can influence the culture within the business and help tackle the stigma?
(TO): “As with many things, change starts at the top. If teams can see that leaders and senior leaders are being open about the mental health challenges they face, it becomes one of the ways that the issue becomes normalised. It moves us closer to the goal of mental health issues being discussed as readily as a physical condition.”
Tell me about the culture surrounding mental ill health on site, how you have implemented your mental health and wellbeing strategy and what the role of your Mental Health First Aiders is?
(TO): “Our mental health and wellbeing strategy started 6 years ago so has some maturity now, but we still focus on 4 main streams: leadership, building capability, employee voice and resources and support. Year on year, we continue to develop these streams of work so have taken an incremental approach to embedding the message, support and behavioural shift towards mental health being OK to talk about.
“Our MHFAs are trained to be able to signpost distressed employees to appropriate support and deliver campaigns focused on breaking down barriers, stigma and discrimination that exists around mental health issues. MHFAs are identified on sites with distinctive helmet stickers, posters and an online register, which also provides any additional networks they belong to like LGBTQ, military etc.”
How has your work with MHFA England been received by the workforce?
(TO): “There has been a positive reaction to our work with MHFAEngland. A significant number of sites have ordered helmet stickers to identify MH first aiders. There was considerable interest in MHFAEngland’s recent My Whole Self campaign week where Skanska’s Alice Jennison represented Skanska in the week’s flagship webinar.”
What results/impact have your seen amongst your employees?
(TO): “The main impact of all this work has been the inclusion of mental health conversations across our business and projects – these are driven by people on the ground rather than top down. Our role from centre is to nudge, facilitate and support the work that goes on at project level.
“Mental health is multidimensional and therefore it is quite difficult to pin an initiative/campaign on making inroad into absence or EAP uptake. For me, it’s always been about the culture shift where its OK to share how you are feeling with others.
“The most recent Pulse survey told us that the support for their mental health through the pandemic and now has been appreciated – so we know that this remains an important topic to maintain the focus and momentum.”
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