13th May 2019

Starting the conversation about mental health in the construction industry

Mental health issues in the construction industry have been described as the ‘silent epidemic.’ Yet it isn’t that silent when you consider the statistics. According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), anxiety and depression have overtaken musculoskeletal issues as the most reported health problem in the construction sector; suicide in the sector is high - with 454 construction workers dying by suicide in 2016. 

And presenteeism can have a huge impact when it comes to mental health issues. If someone comes into work when they are (knowingly or not) mentally unwell, it can affect productivity, safety and others in the workforce. 

Remote workers

So, what can be done about mental health issues in the sector, when many are not working at a desk, don’t have access to on-site benefits and facilities designed to aid staff mental health, and may have only ad-hoc access to HR teams or managers?

The challenge of communicating with remote workers full stop is a significant one for managers, leaders and internal communications professionals. Even more so when considering a difficult topic like mental health. I advise that managers are your key channel with staff who might be struggling - they are the people who will see that person most often, notice changes in them and, generally, be best placed to start a conversation about their wellbeing.

However, this just isn’t always the case in construction. So, how can you get information through to remote workers and who can talk to them about their mental health? Research just off the presses from Redefining Communications and Social Optic found that only 36% of remote workers see their manager as an accurate source of information, while most workers got their information from other colleagues.

This makes sense - your colleagues are the ones you will see every day, who you will chat to over a cuppa and share stories about your day. However, the research revealed that staff questioned the accuracy of information from their peers, so businesses need to ensure that this is backed up by clear, simple, visible information.

So, how can you do something about mental health with a remote workforce?

Mental health is a complex, personal, sensitive issue. However, there is nothing so powerful as empathetic, simple human connection. To try and cut through the confusion, I use this model when thinking about how to do something about mental health at work:

  1. Understand how your people’s mental health might be affected

  2. Learn to talk confidently about mental health issues and the support available

  3. Take action. Train people to understand the issues, have these conversations, help people when they are actively managing a mental health issue in or out of the workplace, support someone back into work

This model still works with a remote workforce, but you need to think more creatively about who your target audience is and how to get to them.Where in an office-based organisation, managers would be your key audience group (the ones you want to understand and be able to talk about mental health at work), in a diffuse or remote workforce, your target audience is much broader.If people trust and listen to colleagues (which research shows us that they do), then you should aim to equip all of your staff with these skills

Now for the how

That sounds like a pretty daunting prospect, doesn’t it? Let’s break it down into some simple action you can take:

  • Educate yourself about the signs and symptoms of some of the most common mental health issues

  • Use your existing communication channels - even remote workers said that the intranet was one of the top channels for information, along with on-site notice boards

  • Start the conversation - could your internal communications or employee engagement teams develop a visible and engaging communications campaign around mental health at work? Here is a free worksheet to get things started

  • Identify advocates - could you start things by identifying a series of mental health advocates across sites? These people could be responsible for spreading the message locally

  • Share insights across the industry - talk to your peers, what are they doing in this area? Could they share their learnings and what has worked?

  • Ask people how they are doing - include questions around mental wellbeing and the impact of projects in project wrap ups and evaluations. This will have the effect of starting to get people understanding that the organisation is trying to do something about mental health at work

Simple steps to start a conversation with someone you’re worried about

Taking action on mental health at work can be role-modelled immediately. You don’t need to be a clinical professional to have an impactful, human conversation with someone struggling. 

  • Don’t be afraid - it’s natural to worry that you might say ‘the wrong thing.’ Be sensitive and you won’t. Keep it simple and you will be fine. Be a human and you could have an incredibly positive impact

  • Don’t try to fix it - if someone opens up to you, the natural thing to say is ‘how can I fix this’ - the reality is that you can’t, the person struggling has to do that for themselves

  • Do notice - if someone seems different, more introverted, is struggling with their work, seems more tired than usual, more irritated - something could be up

  • Do tell them if you think they’re not OK - one of the most impactful things someone said to me was ‘I don’t think you’re very well’ - it made me realise I wasn’t and began the two year process of trying to ‘get better’

  • Do be brave - it takes guts to start a conversation with someone about their mental health. They might be a bit surprised at first, you might need to try a few times, but they are likely to be grateful in the end - or at the very least feel like someone cares, which can make a huge difference

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