As someone without any inside knowledge of the construction industry, but with a keen interest in Wellbeing at Work, I thought I would take a look at the statistics for suicide rates by occupation, to see if there was anything to learn – see what the facts were. The results were STARTLING – and not in a good way.
If you had asked me (and, I suspect, the majority of the population) for the leading cause of death for construction workers, I might guess at
- falls, or perhaps
- accidents with machinery, or
- dust inhalation, possibly
- collapsing floors/buildings
But suicide would not have entered my head. And yet this is the group of people who have the highest rates of suicide (ONS). Lower skilled labourers are 3 times more likely to end their lives by suicide, but even skilled workers have twice the national average rate of suicide.
Well to put it into context this is a male heavy industry – and the suicide rate for men is 3 times higher than for women. And they are also working age, and suicide is the leading cause of death for males under 60 – another statistic which may be news for you. Whatever the explanations, it makes total sense to suggest that a massive suicide prevention initiative needs to happen in this industry.
If you think of health and safety in the construction industry you think of hard hats, safety harnesses, ear defenders, face masks, prohibited areasetc etc, You do not think of a mental health or wellbeing policy.
And yet from April 2015 to April 2016 there were just over 40workplace accident fatalities – but over 400deaths by suicide from construction workers.
I will let you think about those figures for a moment. Ten times more people end their lives by suicide.
You could say this is a triumph for traditional health and safety on sites – and you would probably be partially correct. Their interventions, legislation and changes in practices have impacted positively and saved lives. But you could also say that this demonstrates that we are ignoring the main issue here – wellbeing amongst construction workers and their greatly elevated risk of suicide. This isn’t to say take your foot off the pedal for the “traditional” H&S rules, but we are ignoring an elephant in the roomhere.
Why would these men be at such increased risks? We have to know what is happening to them and who they are to come up with an effective plan. What might the issues be?
Does the industry at the unskilled level attract men who may also have complex social “issues” – such as alcohol dependence, relationship problems and/or other stressful life events? This “self-selection” may bring people together who have many existing risk factors – there has been some evidence found in research of this (Heller et al, 2007 and AISRAP, 2006).
Possibly some of the men are immigrants with poor social and family connections, which is a protective factor for many. They may lack language skills and be more isolated as a result? Isolation is known to be a risk factor – Public Health England equate the dangers of isolation to that of smoking 12 cigarettes a day.
Even at the skilled worker level – your plasterers, painter & decorators, roofers and tilers – the rate is twice the male national average. High alcohol consumption rates? “Toxic Testosterone” culture? Could these be factors?
Are there quality of life issues that may be factors?
- Low pay
- Insecure work
- High levels of alcohol consumption
- Poor personal relationships
- Isolated for a variety of reasons – broken families, immigration, language barriers
- Long hours?
- Are there particular pressures or demands intrinsic to this industry?
- Male culture – toxic testosterone
- Poor coping strategies to deal with life’s ups and downs.
- Poor self-care – sleep, diet, relaxation
- Few days off/holidays
- Unsustainable long hours, 7 days a week
- Some work may be seasonal – feast or famine is unsettling and insecure.
- Lack of awareness of risks of suicide
- Lack of awareness of impact of wellbeing at work
Understanding the issues will help to find ways to make a difference – these deaths are not inevitable – changes to wellbeing at work practices can make a difference. Just as previous health and safety policies have saved lot of lives, attention now needs to focus on the far more likely cause of death in the construction industry.
So what can be done?Fortunately, there are new initiatives springing up and the world of H&S is now taking mental health, stress and wellbeing at work seriously because the numbers speak for themselves.
I have come across two particular organisations that are taking real concrete action (no pun intended). The first is Mates in Mind (https://www.matesinmind.org. The second is The Lighthouse Club (http://www.lighthouseclub.org/).
Mates in Mind, a relatively new charity (2017) aims to raise awareness, address the stigma of poor mental health and improve positive mental wellbeing in the UK construction industry. It has a goal to reach 100,000 in its first year and 75% of the workers by 2025. It aims to be a repository of information and advice for employers who want to improve mental wellbeing – and is doing this in partnership with organisations who are experts in these field such as Mind, Samaritans and Mental Health First Aid England.
Their focus will be on tackling and preventing stress and creating more healthy workplaces by promoting positive mental wellbeing. Additionally, they will carry out research and collate information to build a credible evidence base to provide effective solutions for the industry.
The Lighthouse Clubhas a different though complementary approach. It has a 24/7 Helpline for construction industry workers and their families. It has a focus this year on mental health – raising awareness of the very real problem it poses for the industry, promoting conversations about mental health and wellbeing – including the “Stop. Make a Change”initiative in April 2018. The charity also provides financial and emotional support to construction workers and their families.
Both of these charities are doing sterling and much needed work. The Health & Safety industry are beginning to take wellbeing at work more seriously, and there is legislation in place to protect employees. The organisations Mates in Mind have linked up with are not focused on the construction industry but the entire population and are leaders in their field.
Mind campaigns nationally for improvements in services for mental ill health and provides advice and information across the mental health field. They have many resources for improving wellbeing in the workplace.
Samaritans have volunteers ready to listen to anyone in distress 24/7 and are highly trained especially in discussing suicidal thoughts and feelings.
MHFA England provide the most comprehensive training courses which are internationally acclaimed. They provide evidence-based training to provide first aid – for mental or emotional crises. There are surely physical first aiders on all sites? But how many mental health first aiders are there? Every manager/site manager/foreman should attend – especially those from an industry with such high suicide mortality figures.
The dangers to the lives of construction workers are no longer predominantly physical, but now mental – we must adapt our response to this reality.
What is needed – where can we start?
- A clear lead from the top of the organisation with a clear message that wellbeing at work matters.
- Health & Safety Assessments – where health includes mental health,
- Disability Discrimination Act being applied for those it covers,
- Occupational Health embracing all matters regarding emotional and mental wellbeing
- HR practices which promote wellbeing – hours of work, time off work, facilities on sites etc. adequate training (e.g. MHFA, stress reduction, resilience) and challenging “toxic” cultures
- Stress awareness & reduction – it is everyone’s business
- Wellbeing and Resilience workshops offered to everyone
- Debt management/financial advice/gambling support where appropriate
- Anti-bullying campaigns – signed up to and led by the CEO
- Alcohol and drug policies enforced
- Employee Assistance Programmes
- MHFA training for all managers – 2 day course
- MHFA training for everyone else – at least the half day “Awareness” training
There are some easy answers – some of the above are easy, simple & cheap. Many are about attitudes and awareness.
There is an obvious ethical and humane case here to the loss of lives, to lives lived miserably, to people not fulfilling their potential, to the loss and suffering of people touched by every suicide – friends, family, colleagues and the wider community. There is also the business case.
The business costs of mental ill health: –
- £8.4 billion a year in sickness absence – 400,000 lost working days in the construction industry for stress, anxiety and depression alone.
- £15.1 billion a year in reduced productivity at work
- ‘Presenteeism’ accounts for 1.5 times as much working time lost as absenteeism and costs more to employers because it is more common among higher-paid staff.
- £2.4 billion a year in replacing staff who leave their jobs because of mental ill health (staff retention is increasingly important in many areas where skills are in short supply)
- 91 million days are lost each year due to mental health problems.
The Centre For Mental Health has calculated that the total cost to employers is estimated at nearly £26 billion each year – equivalent to £1,035 for every employee in the UK workforce.
Taking simple steps to improve the management of mental health in the workplace enables employers to save 30% or more of these costs a year. This is the bottom line.
And note this – from TED Talk by Shawn Achor
“A happier work force is a more efficient workforce. Our brains perform significantly better when positive/happy than at negative, neutral or stressed. Your intelligence rises, your creativity rises, your energy levels rise. Every single business outcome improves. Your brain at positive is 31% more productive than your brain at negative, neutral or stressed. You’re 37% better at sales. Doctors are 19 percent faster, more accurate at coming up with the correct diagnosis when positive instead of negative, neutral or stressed.”
A happier, fairly paid, secure, well trained, well supported, cared for workforce, who are encouraged to communicate about the issues that are troubling them, in a culture that is friendly and safe, where there are only realistic expectations – will flourish. Positive wellbeing practices, which can be put in place for the benefit of everyone, will increase productivity and reduce stress – and will save lives.
Do you feel inspired to bring Mental Health First Aid training to your workforce – whatever industry you are in? Contact Unlock Your Wellbeing – we also provide stress reduction, wellbeing, resilience – all the skills you and your colleagues need to develop a wellbeing at work policy to support you all. Contact us by email for further information [email protected], or call us 07963 733 328.
If reading this article has upset you, or triggered difficult memories remember that you can ALWAYS talk to the Samaritans, 24 hours a day, every day of the year. Call them on 116 123 or visit them in your local town or city. If you want to donate to them to help with their running costs click – https://www.samaritans.org/support-us/donate-online