ThinkingThe mental health crisis in construction: How to safeguard wellbeing

Darren Hockley, co-founder of eLearning specialist DeltaNet International, says simple changes to the work environment can prove life-saving for those employed in construction.
Sophie Barton5 years ago9 min

The crisis in worker wellbeing within the construction industry has recently dominated the headlines, and for good reason. 

Shockingly, according to figures from the Office of National Statistics, the suicide rate for male labourers is three times higher than the average male suicide rate for the UK.

Some 20% of all cases of ill health in the sector are due to work-related stress, depression and anxiety, says the Health and Safety Executive. As a consequence, over 400,000 work days are lost each year.

Factors such as long hours, extended time working away from home, the temporary and precarious nature of many construction projects and a “macho culture” have all contributed to these difficulties.

A welcome shift in attitude

Traditionally, the health and safety focus in construction has been on the more immediately-apparent physical hazards and their impact on site safety, with the issue of mental wellbeing pushed to the side. But attitudes are now changing, as people realise that the silent issue of mental health is just as dangerous.

And thankfully, as awareness around mental health builds and stigma is steadily eroded, the discussion is expanding around how to tackle the problem. Here are seven relatively simple ways to enhance wellbeing and ensure mental health stays at the forefront of the agenda…

Create a communal core

The immediate environment has a huge impact on the mindset of the workforce, and consequently on mental health. Isolation – common in construction – can all too easily feed into feelings of loneliness, which is one of the driving forces of wellbeing problems. But by creating pleasant communal areas, where workers can take time out during breaks, employers can encourage socialising and relaxation during off-times.

Improve access to daylight

Consider enhancing access to natural light too, which creates attractive relaxation spaces that staff will actively want to spend time in. Good lighting, in fact, is an important consideration throughout the site, preventing health problems such as fatigue, headaches and eye strain, all of which can increase stress levels.

Consider colour schemes

Likewise, calming colours, such as green and blue, can contribute to a positive atmosphere in break areas. Shades of bright red and yellow are stimulating, and should be avoided in relaxation spaces, unless they’re used as accent colours or in small doses for decoration. Kitchens, canteens and break areas can all be designed – or redecorated, if they exist already – with these principles in mind.

Provide a quieter space

Ideally, sites should have a mixture of spaces – some for private relaxation and some for socialising during breaks. This allows workers to “switch off” in their preferred ways during their own time. Consider acoustics too – if possible, the relaxation areas should be protected from site noise, for both health and safety reasons and mental wellbeing.

Keep communication open

Of course, it’s vital that employees know their health and safety – both mental and physical – is the top priority when they’re working, too. Communicating the health and safety policies for the site, and making sure they’re followed at all times, shows that the employer values them and their safety. That in itself contributes to a sense of wellbeing.

Offer support

For anyone wondering which wellbeing initiatives would be most beneficial to your workforce, I’d suggest asking them.  Every workplace is unique and the steps you need to take to protect your staff’s mental health will vary according to their specific circumstances.

In all cases, providing support for employees who might have concerns about their mental health is a crucial move. Unfortunately, there’s still a stigma attached to these issues, so not everybody will feel comfortable raising them, especially in a work environment.

But knowing there’s a safe place to turn to for help can be a huge comfort to many construction workers and, adopted industry-wide, this measure may even save lives.

Take training seriously

Stress management training can also provide strong benefits too, both for individuals and for teams. After all, informed managers will be far more likely to spot the signs of somebody who is struggling.

Employee wellbeing is a traditionally undervalued subject, and one that employers are increasingly seeing the benefits of tackling. It needs to be taken seriously on an ongoing basis, with regular reviews to ensure workers’ needs are being met.

Though the culture of the industry has arguably contributed to the problems, times are changing and there’s plenty that employers can do to play their part in the recovery.

Improving wellbeing doesn’t have to be a difficult or especially time-consuming project, and many of the measures to take are quite simple. However, putting some thought into the subject can greatly improve the working environment of a large number of workers, and perhaps even prove life-saving.

To find more information about wellbeing in construction, click here

Darren Hockley is co-founder and managing director of DeltaNet International, an eLearning business which specialises in the development of engaging, web-based courses and diagnostic tools, designed to mitigate risk and improve employee performance. 

Sophie Barton

Sophie Barton is our Features Editor. She a journalist and editor with 20 years’ experience in the national media, specialising in wellbeing and lifestyle.

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