Mental Health in UK Construction Workers

When is it OK to tell a colleague something isn’t quite right, or your site manager, or a subcontractor you’re working with? It doesn’t matter which person you talk to about mental health; the point is, do workers actually feel they can?

At Metropolitan Services, we’ve taken steps and measures to ensure workers from apprentices to directors have the support and infrastructure in place to facilitate potentially sensitive conversations. Partnering with Mates In Mind, we share a common goal of raising awareness around mental health in the UK construction industry, and we’re taking the steps needed in order to provide the proper care and support our workers need.

How big of a problem is mental health in UK construction?

According to the Office of National Statistics, over 1,400 construction workers took their lives between 2011 and 2015. This represented up to 13.2 % of the total number of in-work suicides. You can find a detailed breakdown of the statistics here by Construction Media.

Clearly, the numbers are staggering, and the question begs: why is construction such a high-risk sector? Historically, the industry is known for incredibly tight deadlines and long working hours, two obvious and contributing factors to increased stress in a working environment.

Stress at work and why you should take note

We all know what it's like to feel stressed, but it's not easy to pin down exactly what stress means. When we say things like "this is stressful" or "I'm stressed", we might be talking about:

  • Situations or events that put pressure on us – for example, times where we have lots to do and think about, or don't have much control over what happens.
  • Our reaction to being placed under pressure – the feelings we get when we have demands placed on us that we find difficult to cope with.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, routine stress - defined as a ‘constant source of stress’  can be very difficult to notice at first. However, over time, the continued strain put on the body may lead to serious mental health problems such as depression and anxiety.

If stress, and in particular routine stress, is potentially such a big driver of mental health issues, then, it’s important to look at what other stressors construction workers face that can lead to routine stress.

The ‘macho industry’

Despite the 'macho' appearance of men in construction, they’re actually the most vulnerable to mental health issues. The reason? Men don’t talk to each other. The ‘macho society’ created within construction and trade simply doesn’t allow for this to happen, and it’s this stress trigger that arguably needs addressing the most as a result, simply because it’s a constant routine stress. Statistically, men are much more likely to self-medicate using alcohol or drugs, which act as further depressants.

Metropolitan’s plan to tackle the macho culture

Our plan to tackle this culture within our workforce is linked to us partnering with Mates In Mind: providing, arguably the first, opportunity for workers to speak up.

For context, Chris Ellis, one of Metropolitan’s Associate Directors has experienced mental health issues first hand. Chris mentions that he suffers from an anxiety disorder which started in 2013. This led to depression and was misdiagnosed by his GP following on from several different physical symptoms which were not obviously related. This misdiagnosis contributed to an elongated recovery time, punctuated with crippling anxiety at work and panic attacks. When Chris confided in the MD of the company Rob Warner, this was his first step in gaining the support he required.

This was what he had to say:

“I can only say that it was the biggest relief I have ever felt and he has continued to support me through it. By opening up to that one person and not feeling judged, encouraged me to speak to more people and I found that this really helped. Along with the help I have received from the GP and counsellor, I very rarely have a bad day anymore. I know I’ll have more (anxiety attacks) in future, but I know I can manage them and I’ll come out of the other side. Recovery from a mental health issue is a constant process and my aim is to now help people who may be suffering the same as I did.”

Chris has recently completed a course to become a Mental Health First Aider, too. This will allow him to spot the signs in workers who may be suffering in silence and to offer some help. This is our goal throughout Metropolitan: to train up Mental Health First Aiders where we can in order to support the overall mental well being of our workforce. Mates In Mind is there to help us achieve this.

Remember, it’s OK to not be OK. We encourage staff to speak to a colleague or Mental Health First Aider about anything that could be troubling them at home or at work. We’re striving to provide staff with the safest space in order for you to feel comfortable in doing so. Most importantly, we want people to feel that they can do so without judgement.

In the meantime, here is a breakdown of mental health signs you can start to look out for either in yourself or in your colleagues. It is critical to understand that the signs can manifest themselves in so many ways that it is virtually impossible to list them all. Here are a few:

  • Anxiety: a constant stress of panic, potentially leading to shortness of breath or heart palpitations.
  • Depression: an overwhelming sense of unhappiness that can lead to energy depletion and a lack of motivation.
  • Poor sleep: we need on average between 7-9 hours a night. Failure to do this can lead to poor sleep habits, which have been shown to contribute to anxiety and other mental health issues.
  • Behavioural issues: being overly emotional and teary, quiet and withdrawn, prone to anger outbursts or coming across as confrontational and hostile are potential signs of someone dealing with a mental health problem.
  • Substance abuse: constant drinking or drug taking is a sign that someone may be suffering.
  • Feeling a sense of self-loathing or worthlessness: remember, suicide is a huge killer of construction workers. If you have any feelings or thoughts of being worthless or that you may want to hurt yourself, please contact someone immediately. If in doubt, contact one of the help partners at Mates In Mind, they’re there to help.

These are stark and blunt examples of mental health signs and symptoms. Within this, we hope it gives some clarity into the complex nature of mental health.

Don’t suffer in silence.