Coronavirus Mental Health

GUEST ARTICLE: How Coronavirus has redefined the importance of mental health support in the construction industry

  • 20 Apr 2020

This article from Russell Stilwell, Founder and MD of RSE and Constructionwise Minds/Mates in Mind Champion, looks at how the COVID-19 pandemic has reaffirmed the importance of mental health assistance in the construction industry.

“We can’t deny the fact that each and every one of us is coming to terms with a ‘new normal’ as a result of COVID-19.

We’re facing an unprecedented period of time. A period of time which has so many unknowns. So many unanswered questions. So much anxiety.

For those of us working in the construction sector, we could never have predicted that our day to day working life would dramatically change within a few short weeks.

If we’re still able to work on site, we’re having to get used to a completely new definition of health and safety. Remaining two metres away from our fellow workers. Adhering to no physical contact. Additional PPE.

Meanwhile, whilst the physical practicalities of working on site are implemented and adhered to, in the back of our mind we’re constantly battling with a monumental amount of emotions.

Fear. Worry. Loss. Panic. Unease.

At the same time, we are infiltrated with a never ending stream of information, news, and fake news. Finding clarity can feel incredibly daunting.

We bottle our emotions up. Put on a brave face. Ultimately, this creates further stress, which impacts our immune system and leaves us even more vulnerable.

I fear that for many of us, our ‘stress containers’ or ‘stress buckets’ are being stretched to the limit.

Managing our stress containers is one way that we can ensure we look after our mental health throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. But what do I mean by a stress container?

Imagine an empty bucket… each time we feel pressure or stress, our bucket fills up. The more pressure we feel, the fuller the bucket becomes. As the pressure builds, our buckets become fit to burst. Many of us in the construction sector are already at our limits.

The construction sector is notorious for shocking statistics associated with poor mental health. Now more than ever, it is so important that we focus on supporting each other through this – and redefine what mental health in the construction sector really means.

I know my stress container has been very, very full in recent weeks.

As a director of a construction company, I’ve faced challenges that previously I could never have imagined.

I’m very open about the fact that I’ve previously battled my own mental health demons. And I’m proud of the fact that I’ve come through the other side. During my road to recovery I learnt so many coping mechanisms. Coping mechanisms which are going some way to helping me right now.

Over the past few years, I have been working to support others, supporting my team with their own mental health and championing causes such as Mates in Mind. I have even become a MHFA (Mental Health First Aid) instructor for both youth and adult courses. I am passionate about helping others overcome mental health challenges… the COVID-19 pandemic is no exception.

However, this battle isn’t one which is simply ‘won’, and then never to be encountered again – it is a journey and there is no doubt that all of our journeys will need to adapt as we continue to navigate uncertain times.

I’ll be honest. Over the past month my own negative thoughts have again reared their ugly head. Whilst I may have developed my own coping mechanisms, I’m certainly not immune to the stress we’re currently dealing with, and if this has taught me anything, we must constantly nurture our own wellbeing.

As a company director, whilst sites are still operational the welfare of my team is my top priority. However, I also must ensure that I navigate the current situation as effectively as possible to ensure we are able to deliver continuity for our clients… These two responsibilities are incredibly difficult to balance.

All business owners, managers and directors in the construction industry are experiencing the same as me. We’re having to make extremely difficult decisions during increasingly unpredictable times. In fact, whilst many businesses are facing unexpected closures, we are often expected to remain operational despite the public’s pleas for more stringent isolation protocols.

As I have come to struggle personally in light of COVID-19, I have found myself asking ‘How can we support each other during this challenging time?’. My passion for helping others has become more evident than ever before and I find myself wanting to lend a hand however I can. Only by bringing great minds together and sharing our expertise can we enrich one another’s mental health. 

COVID-19 has created worry for everyone in construction. It has taken up a lot of room in our stress containers, inadvertently reducing our potential to cope. 

It has therefore become ever more important than ever before for us to recognise and use helpful coping mechanisms to assist with the consuming nature of this pandemic, but also to not suddenly put aside or ignore the stresses and worries that were already in our container prior to the outbreak. 

Finding a way to cope with or release stressors will prevent overspill and potential stress burnout – exercise, positive conversations and experiences, getting adequate support and help – talking! These are all helpful coping strategies. 

I would like to emphasise how important it is to check in with both yourself and your loved ones. With fake news and intimidating headlines permanently residing on our TV screens, and social contact becoming a luxury of the past, it can become difficult to see the wood through the trees.

However, this is the perfect opportunity to engage in self-reflection; what is really important? How can we create a more positive future?

In the present, I know that I have recognised negative changes in the functionality of my own brain. For me, and most of us, this is completely natural. Yet, the stigma associated with poor mental health means that many people will not (or do not want to) know how to face this and deal with it.

We also need to think about those around us – and how they may be struggling at the moment.

Loneliness is identified as a key subject when it comes to thinking about ourselves and our colleagues during COVID-19.  The term loneliness does not necessarily relate to people living alone – it’s also important to recognise and consider those that may be lonely in their thoughts and their mental health/wellbeing. 

Throughout the day during these lockdown measures we will hear lots of news – it’s constant.  Whether it’s the BBC news in the background or the Huffpost story mentioned and spoken about on our MS Teams huddle – the term ‘we are all in the same boat’ is not the case. 

Our personal window on the world influences the way we see things.  Everything from our relationships to our likes/dislikes to our hobbies and interests. 

Consider the tone of a conversation being had… is it doomsday? Does every positive comment get matched with a negative one – quite likely! 

But consider the impact of fake news – being emotionally intelligent to understand how those around us (virtually and on the phone) may be thinking and responding mindfully to COVID-19 gets us ahead of the game.

It provides us with the opportunity to stop talking about certain subjects and start conversations early should they be needed.  Change will create thinking, thinking will create thoughts, thoughts are subjective and can create loneliness which can manifest into more in the workplace or at home.

Remember – what we can control, we can influence. The fact is, we don’t know how long we are going to be in this situation or what the world will look like when normality resumes – particularly within the construction industry.

I would urge anyone who is recognising different or unusual behaviours within themselves to check how full their stress container is.

Unless as a collective we change our thinking towards mental health we risk being out of touch with a new way of life and a new way of thinking on the other side. Let’s face this head on and tackle mental health together as one industry working collaboratively.”

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