GUEST ARTICLE: Why better support is needed for UK construction workers

  • 27 Nov 2019

The construction industry encompasses a vast number of rewarding careers. It’s been found that construction-related employment in Great Britain increased by 3.8% in 2017, exceeding its pre-downturn peak of 2007 to reach the highest level on record. So it seems that more Brits than ever before are embarking upon construction-based careers.

However, whilst this profession continues to rise in popularity, so too do the concerning incidents of mental illness throughout this industry. Alarmingly, it’s been suggested that men working in construction are ten times more likely to suffer from mental illness, highlighting a significant need for enhanced support.

There are numerous reasons attributable to this rise; for example, the industry carries an unhealthy ‘macho’ culture, which inherently encourages men to bottle up their emotions, taking on pressures without a healthy and sustainable outlet. Undeniably, to improve the quality of life for those working within this industry, attention must be directed to where we’re currently falling short.

Russell Stilwell is the founder of RSE, a company with vast experience and a leader in MEP services. Sharing his invaluable expertise, in an effort to improve the construction industry as it stands, Russell discusses both why better support is needed for UK construction workers and how this can realistically be achieved:

My journey as a construction worker and professional hasn’t been without struggle, throughout my life I’ve encountered hurdles which have impinged upon my wellbeing and mental health. Stemming back to childhood, I felt lost in school as a child who wasn’t academically inclined; young people often find themselves facing pressure to follow an ‘ideal’ path, whereby they’d inevitably attend university and further their academic accolades. As someone who didn’t enjoy nor flourish within academia, I feel this initiated a downward spiral with regards to my mental health. I was under pressure and the failure to fulfil these expectations made me feel like a disappointment, as I struggled to find any sense of direction.

However, at the age of 15, I was offered an apprenticeship in construction, an opportunity which genuinely transformed my life. Working with tools on the ground allowed me to develop my practical skills and technical understanding, something which brought my talents to the surface. Unfortunately, the academic pressures imposed upon young people often mean they’re not exposed to the entire spectrum of opportunities available to them. Supporting the wellbeing of construction workers begins with recruitment; as a collective industry, we must ensure we’re reaching those who would find satisfaction and success within a construction-based role.

It is for this reason that I launched ‘Constructionwise’, an initiative designed to bring construction opportunities into the limelight for interested students. By reaching appropriate candidates earlier on, we can proactively support their wellbeing throughout the entirety of their career. If I had been able to discuss the practical avenues available to me at a younger age, I doubt my self-esteem would have diminished to such an extent, lessening my mental health struggles later in life.

When actively working in the industry, construction workers subsequently face a number of difficulties which pose a substantial risk to their mental health and wellbeing. Whether you’re new to the industry, a seasoned professional, business owner or employee, the demands facing construction workers, if not sufficiently addressed, have been found to greatly enhance incidents of mental health and suicide, something we cannot afford to ignore. For example, concerning data obtained by the Office of National Statistics found that between 2011 and 2015, of the 13,232 in-work suicides recorded, those within the skilled construction and building trades made up 13.2%, despite construction only accounting for 7% of the UK workforce.

The construction industry lifestyle can be both challenging and stressful; with long and demanding work hours, off-site projects which can last for weeks at a time and the unease which can accompany this fluctuating industry, several factors contribute to poor mental health. Meanwhile, male workers are expected to maintain an impenetrable confidence, steering away from emotional conversations and admissions of increasing stress.

Poor mental health ensues a number of unwanted consequences… From increased absenteeism to decreased productivity, cognitive slowing, isolation from peers, agitation, increased interpersonal conflict, increased voluntary and involuntary attrition, a decreased problem-solving ability and more, these outcomes affect both sufferers and their employers alike. It’s subsequently in everyone’s best interest to avoid these issues before they arise, placing preventative measures in place. Failure to do so would inevitably damage a business’ financial projections and rates of employee turnover, creating a domino effect throughout the entire construction industry.

For poignant change to be made, we must make conscious adjustments. For example, employers must remain vigilant, looking for signs of stress among their employees. There are many ways by which employers can ensure they’re remaining abreast of all wellbeing-related issues, including culture checks. Regularly assessing the culture of the workforce in your business, and where there may be particular pain points for staff, will help to alleviate work-related stress. Meanwhile, providing a mental health safety net, whereby employees clearly understand that help is available to them should it be required, will highlight your business’ willingness to personally support your employees’ wellbeing.

However, our efforts to improve mental health needn’t reside solely within our own businesses. I believe we must come together as an influential entity, supporting construction workers across the UK. This belief inspired my backing of the ‘Mates in Mind’ initiative, a programme established in 2017 by the Health in Construction Leadership Group, with the support of the British Safety Council. Aiming to provide guidance for employers alongside useful tools for employees, this project sets an admirable example for every professional in the UK. I continue to champion this cause whilst overseeing our ‘Constructionwise’ venture, offering a helping hand to every construction worker, no matter their area of expertise, background, length of employment or location.

Meanwhile, as it’s been reported that about 41% of the construction workforce is self-employed, it’s vital that we prioritise our own mental wellbeing. I have personally overcome loss, a battle with severe depression and Generalised Anxiety Disorder, a partner’s bankruptcy and struggles with excessive drinking, seeking professional help to re-establish my health and success. It was only by learning how to maintain my own wellbeing, understanding that it’s ok to discuss mental health difficulties and practicing techniques which worked for me as an individual that I came to find a healthier, happier balance.

The industry must encourage its workers to invest in themselves, encouraging a sustainable approach to business ownership. Failure to support self-employed construction workers could lead to business closures, limiting the expansion of this industry and the help that it can provide to clients across the UK.

According to recent research, the construction output value of Great Britain was worth almost £164 billion in 2017, which was more than double the value recorded in 2000. As the industry continues to grow, the need for enhanced wellbeing support has never been more critical. If we hope to be part of an industry that knows no bounds, then we cannot afford to ignore the oil that keeps the construction machine churning… The workers on the ground.

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