According to the Office of National Statistics male construction workers are 3 times more likely to commit suicide than other industries. More than 1,400 construction workers took their own lives between the years of 2011 and 2015. The highest of any profession in this period. Of the 1,419 people working in skilled construction building trades who took their own lives from 2011 to 2015, 1,409 were men and just 10 were women.

At any given time, across England and Wales, one worker in six is said to be experiencing depression, anxiety or other stress related problems. Assuming an industry population of 2.1 million people (from 2009 figures from the Office of National Statistics) therefore 6% of the UK workforce; that suggests 350,000 construction professionals may be affected. And this figure will be a growing problem for the construction industry.

Gail Cartmail, acting general secretary at trade union Unite, claims these startling numbers suggest employers in the industry are “failing in their duty of care to their workforce”.

“This is the latest evidence that the industry’s hire-and-fire culture is fundamentally unhealthy and is a major factor in these terrible and needless tragedies,” she argues.

“In the short term we need to be raising awareness of the suicide risk in construction and explaining where workers can receive confidential support. We also need to be ensuring that far higher numbers of workers, including union safety reps, are trained in mental health first aid.”

This is particularly true of those aged 40 and above, with the statistics suggesting this age group is the most vulnerable.

Terry Rigby, director at social enterprise Forward For Life, which provides suicide prevention training to businesses, says this age group is the most at risk across the whole country.

“It’s the biggest killer of men under 50, and a lot of it is around identity,” he says, adding that the changes to society over the past 30 years have made manual workers all the more vulnerable. “A lot of men have found themselves unemployable,” he suggests, arguing that opportunities to find work through many traditional forms of manual labour have become increasingly few and far between.

He adds that, for construction and other trades, where the source of the next pay cheque isn’t always clear and where a macho culture dominates, this problem is even more obvious. “Blokes don’t talk,” he adds.

Knowing the signs

Whilst poor mental health can manifest itself differently from individual to individual, the Construction Financial Management Association has set out some useful signs to look out for that can indicate poorly managed or untreated mental health conditions:

  • increased lateness, absenteeism and presenteeism (showing up to work physically, but not being able to function)
  • decreased productivity due to distraction and cognitive slowing
  • lack of self-confidence
  • isolation from peers
  • agitation and increased interpersonal conflict among co-workers
  • increased voluntary and involuntary attrition
  • increased feelings of being overwhelmed
  • decreased problem-solving ability.

Some of the more hidden manifestations of mental health issues may contribute to the following factors:

  • Legal and illicit substance abuse affecting workplace performance
  • Quality defects leading to waste and rework impacting profit margins
  • Near hits, incidents, and injuries affecting safety and risk performance metrics

Obviously these points are vital for accuracy in the construction industry.

What can employers do?

The statistics as they stand are not acceptable. Mental health definitely needs to be made an urgent priority by all employers in the construction industry.

Emily Pearson, Head of Workplace Wellbeing at Be.The Centre for Wellbeing (a mental health charity based in Newcastle upon Tyne specialising in corporate mental health and workplace wellbeing) has provided the following steps that all employers can take to actively improve the health and wellbeing of their workforce.

  • Culture check – Undertake a culture check to establish the culture of the workforce and where there may be particular pain points for staff due to job design and work-related stress.
  • Culture change – A change in the culture surrounding mental health needs to start at the top. Leadership teams can show commitment to creating a culture change towards mentally healthier workplaces and workforces by signing the Time to Change Pledge or by investing in a Workplace Wellbeing Strategy to create culture change in a safe and structured manner.
  • Mental health safety net – Employers should ensure their employees have access to and are aware of support available through counselling and therapy services.
  • Up-skilling and education – Team leaders responsible for supporting employees should have sufficient knowledge and skills to be able to spot the signs of poor mental health and to provide support and guidance.
  • Peer support – Employers should up-skill and educate employees so they can look out for any peers who may be struggling with their mental health. Knowing how to start the conversation and knowing how to safely signpost peers to mental health services can make a huge difference at the early signs of mental health difficulty.
  • Reduce stigma – Employers need to reduce stigma, raise awareness, change attitudes and provide knowledge to empower employees to look after their mental health and wellbeing.
  • Embed and repeat – It is essential that employers continue to provide these interventions, services and training in order to embed culture change – not just tick the mental health box.

Commercial Factors

Employers need to prioritise mental health in the workplace for commercial reasons too. Unrecognised and unsupported mental health issues can have a massive impact on a company’s revenue. According to the National Building Specification, mental health issues account for people taking almost 70 million days off sick per year – the most of any health condition – costing the UK economy between £70Bn and £100Bn a year.