The Silent Epidemic
“The silent epidemic” – a disturbing phrase used to describe poor mental health in the construction industry during the first annual conference organised by the IOSH Construction Group late last year.
When we think of construction sites and the individuals who work on them, we may picture hardhats, portable toilets and comradery between colleagues. We are less likely to consider that many of the hard-working men and women in the construction industry could be suffering in silence from mental health issues, lacking in support from their work colleagues and struggling to find a voice.
The stark reality of mental ill-health in the sector lays bare the desperate need for greater efforts to support staff wellbeing. The Office for National Statistics, commissioned by Public Health England, examined deaths registered in England between 2011 and 2015 and found the risk of suicide among low-skilled male labourers, particularly those working in construction roles, is 3 times higher than the male national average.
The figures, which cover people in England aged between 20 and 64, showed there were 1,419 suicides by those working in skilled construction and building trades during this five-year period – an average of over 280 employees a year. This equates to hundreds of deaths that could potentially have been avoided with better systems of support in place.
In response, charities such as Mates in Mind, led by and for the industry in partnership with the Health in Construction Leadership Group and British Safety Council, have been established to raise awareness, address the stigma of poor mental health and improve positive mental wellbeing in the UK construction industry.
Headline news articles in The Guardian and the BBC are helping to expose these issues and the severity of the problem. Employers and members of the public have been shocked by the revelation that male construction workers are at the highest risk of suicide of any industry in England.
With the mental ill-health epidemic forming a miasma over the head of the entire industry, organisations are making drastic efforts to better protect the mental wellbeing of their workforces.
The cost of not doing so could be fatal.
Selwood Housing Group
Selwood Housing Group is a not-for-profit housing association based in Trowbridge, Wiltshire. They provide over 6,500 homes for social and affordable rent and shared ownership throughout Wiltshire, Somerset and Bath and North East Somerset. Their housing provides secure, affordable homes for people living in the local community and through the planned and responsive maintenance arm of the Group, Silcoa, they directly employ nearly one hundred operatives of various trades.
In August 2017, Selwood Housing had a dilemma: they were experiencing steadily rising levels of staff absence, with 154 days of work being lost across the company because of work-related and personal-related stress throughout the month. This motivated the company to review what was already in place to support colleagues and identify how this could be further improved to have a more significant impact.
They found the best approach was to weave mental health awareness into the very fabric of the organisation and its frameworks and incorporate stress management into its HR Strategy.
“Two years ago, mental health and issues which can lead to or are impacted by poor mental health weren’t really talked about,” explains Fee Nunn, group head of health, safety and facilities at Selwood Housing. “Now this isn’t the case in our organisation. Mental health and stress are far more openly discussed and rather than being perceived as a sign of weakness, they are seen as part of every-day life."
The results speak for themselves. After rolling out their new strategy in August 2017, Selwood Housing saw a 95% reduction in work-related stress-related absences and a 73% reduction in personal stress-related absences, over a one-year period. By August 2018, the company had successfully reduced cases of stress-related absence to 26 days, with only 5 people affected across the organisation.
In a relatively short period of time, the company successfully managed to break down some of the barriers surrounding talking about and managing mental health, creating a more open work culture with a focus on wellbeing at the heart of the company.
How did Selwood Housing achieve this significant reduction in stress-related absences? It involved making a concerted effort to embed mental health awareness into the workplace culture of the company at a fundamental level.
Selwood Housing adapted the Health and Safety Executive’s Management Standards, combined with a holistic approach. They broke the guidance down into its individual components and the demands it places on individuals. Using the Standards, they built a framework mimicking the HSE tools that worked for the organisation, tailoring it for their own individual requirements.
To be successful they needed to raise awareness of the importance of good mental health across the whole organisation. They received feedback directly from the workforce through a pulse survey, which they then used to put together a plan to the executive team highlighting the issues and suggesting ways in which they could be addressed. To better understand why staff were taking stress-related absences, they spoke to them directly, learning about their own experiences to better support their requirements.
Staff surveys, workshops and forums regularly inform colleagues of the issues and help to create a culture of openness and transparency about mental health. Complementary to this is a three-tier system of counselling involving one-on-one counselling, ad hoc trauma support and mandatory quarterly support for roles identified as ‘high risk’ – including neighbourhood managers who may be exposed to challenging situations.
The improvement at Selwood Housing can be seen in both the reduction in stress-related absences and the direct feedback from staff, who have responded positively to the initiatives:
- “Selwood Housing Group is the first organisation I have worked for which has successfully implemented a wellbeing and stress management initiative. While working on a recent information, communication and technology (ICT) implementation project, the workload for the ICT team was increasingly stretching. Attending the mental health awareness workshop gave me a platform to be open and honest about mental health and share this with my team. We used the framework to identify who required support and what that support looked like, putting action plans in place to make reasonable adjustments, especially for some members of the team who had no previous experience in delivering projects to this scale, or were experiencing issues outside of work which was affecting their wellbeing. By Selwood Housing Group providing this support, not only did we see very little absenteeism due to stress, but staff who were supported became more confident and motivated throughout the project. This, I am sure, is down to those staff now knowing that support like this is available, and the organisation’s focus on employee wellbeing. It has given people a voice to speak out confidentially about any issues or concerns they have. This is a huge positive for Selwood Housing Group, I really hope other organisations see the huge advantages of offering this type of support."
- “I think it’s very positive that Selwood Housing introduced three-tier counselling. The sessions are extremely useful in giving staff an outlet for talking about stressful/complex cases. Some of the work that frontline staff deal with can be emotionally challenging, especially when listening to a customer’s life experiences. This service is useful to offload and also reduces the need to depend on fellow colleagues who, whilst incredibly supportive, are also having to deal with their own work. The mental health first aid training was an excellent two-day course, full of useful tools and insight. The stress awareness workshop was also really useful and it’s positive that this is now open to all staff. Book swap and self-help leaflets are among other good internal initiatives connected with wellbeing.”
- “The wellbeing and stress management initiative has been instrumental in getting members of my team the right support and helping them to feel that they’re back on track. The framework has not only enabled team members to get focused time and support and to feel understood but it has given invaluable support to me as a manager. I can honestly say, having had the benefit of allowing the whole process to unfold and take shape, that it has been a very positive experience for all of us. I am not sure we would be in the position we are now if it wasn’t for the wellbeing and stress management support available. I also know it has made a significant difference to others in the organisation. I’ve previously worked at a large corporate and this is something that could be received well; no matter the size or shape of the business concerned.”
The broader change in Selwood Housing’s workplace infrastructure can be seen in other initiatives around the organisation: work-related coaching; mindfulness exercises; and efforts to identify and mitigate ‘triggers’ of stress and how they can be avoided permeate the organisation and its culture.
The company has also explored encouraging some staff to keep stress diaries to highlight the primary causes, offering productivity tools and coaching in time management to accommodate the personal circumstances of staff and facilitating positive lifestyle changes, including changes to diet and relaxation techniques. These initiatives synergise to create a healthier and happier workforce.
“Investment is required to do things right,” Fee says. “Creating a more open, inclusive and nurturing workplace is a relatively small investment for the potential benefits. There are fewer absences recorded and staff feel valued. You can really see the difference the last year has made in how our staff communicate and the increase to morale is noticeable. Moving forwards, we’ll be looking to understand the impact on staff retention.”
IOSH’s Construction Group conference set the stage for an open dialogue that provided Selwood Housing with a platform to discuss their success.
“During the conference, greater mental health support for construction workers across the entire industry was identified as a priority area for improvement, creating workplaces that look after their employees and empower them to ask for help and talk about their feelings more openly,” explains Dr Michael Cash, Chair of the IOSH Construction Group. “Using the HSE's stress management Standards they have clearly shown that incredibly positive improvements can be made in relatively short periods of time.”
Selwood Housing aims to maintain its current processes, promoting the organisation as a healthy place to work with an open attitude towards mental health. They are also providing regular monitoring of stress in the workplace to ensure absences don’t start creeping back up.
While they acknowledge it can be difficult for organisations to allocate resources to mental health awareness and improvement, the potential impact of doing nothing can be a far greater cost.
“Can companies afford to ignore the issue?” Fee asks. “By failing to provide mental health support, companies can lose good staff members. Good management and investment in staff can make a world of difference. We need to unite together to create a healthier world of work.”