The prevalence of construction workers suffering from mental health issues is shocking, yet we struggle to speak openly about the crisis. We are facing the “silent epidemic”, and the real change means breaking that silence and speaking up. Read about the personal experience of a mental health crisis from one of our colleagues - Richard Scott.
Warning: this article discusses mental health issues, mental disorders, and suicide. If this topic might cause you distress, please consider not reading it. If you are struggling, reach out for help: you can call Samaritans for free on 116 123, email them at [email protected].
Mental health is crucial to our well-being. Yet, for a long time, it has been neglected and overlooked in the construction industry...
There are some serious occupational hazards in construction, like working at height and with dangerous machinery or materials. But, did you know the biggest occupational hazards in this sector are related to state of mind?
The first step to dealing with the problem is to acknowledge it - that's we want to contribute to the honest discussion about mental health.
Richard Scott, our VP of Global Partnerships - is a devoted mental health awareness advocate, and decided to share his experience and insight on his battles.
83% of construction workers have experienced mental health issues
3x higher risk of construction workers committing the suicide than the average person their age in other industries
73% of construction workers feel a lack of sufficient support for mental health in their companies
Behind all these numbers, there are people who suffer.
The problem of mental health in construction may be amplified because of specific demographics and the image of the workforce. In the male-dominated industry, the image of “tough lads”, and harmful stereotypes can prevent people from seeking help and talking openly.
That way, the industry is daunted by the "silent epidemic" of mental health problems, where no one shares their struggles, and nobody asks.
More than 50% of workplace absenteeism is mental health-related. But people don’t ring in and say, “I’m really struggling with my mental health today”. People say, “I caught a cold, I got a bad stomach” because this is a more socially acceptable label.
We all have to keep breaking the silence around mental health to create a space for understanding and openness. Only from that place can we start building better mental health support.
On that note, let’s speak to Richard about his experience of mental health issues, from early warning signs he noticed through seeking support, recovery process and becoming an advocate.
Richard has been a successful entrepreneur since he was 26. His work, though stressful, has never overwhelmed him. It was easy to deal with all the highs and lows he was experiencing. But at the beginning of 2020 he found himself facing several challenging situations. On top of that, the world had just entered the uncertainty of Covid’s first wave with restrictive lockdowns and isolation.
I think the combination of social isolation, family issues, and work challenges just came together and created this perfect storm. All of that gave an overwhelming feeling of being out of control, not being able to do anything that would make any significant difference.
Reflecting back on his experience, Richard says the first signs that something was wrong were the feelings of detachment, a slow buildup of fatigue and the inability to rest.
I remember that I took some holidays, because I just thought that I needed rest, and then I came back and it was just the same as if I didn’t have any. Physically it was like my mind and my body couldn’t get any rest.
On top of numbness, anxiety about the future, and constant fatigue, he started to self-medicate with increased intake of caffeine and alcohol.
He noticed his personality slightly changed as he became more irritable and snappy. He didn't recognise this feeling. It felt alien. Through all of this, he didn’t connect the symptoms with the stress he was experiencing.
Richard began experiencing chest pains, which led him to believe all symptoms were the effects of long covid. It was his boss at that time who suggested they were telltale signs of severe stress. He told Richard to take time off work and get professional help.
This was quite emotional really. I didn’t fully understand what was happening, but someone mentioned “stress” and “get help” and it clicked. It immediately took some weight off my shoulders. It was like, I’m not alone with this anymore, someone understands.
After talking to his doctor and coming to terms with the fact he’s having a mental health crisis, Richard started psychotherapy.
After 3 months, Richard thought he was ready to return to work. But he opened his computer on the first day and was flooded with stress. He realised he needed to take a step back and give himself more time.
Full recovery took him about 9 months, and a big part of it was acknowledging that he went through a mental breakdown.
At that 3-month mark, I was talking to a friend about not being ready to come back to work and he said, “Well, you’ve had a breakdown”, and I was shocked. This word has never been used before and it was really pivotal for me. I have gained a bit of that theoretical knowledge about how the mind works and I thought I could just fix it, but it all lacked this emotional component of acknowledging what I experienced. The use of that word kind of made it happen.
Richard has never made an explicit decision to become an advocate for mental health awareness. When going back to work he wondered how to explain his absence and what he should tell people.
It very quickly came to me that I’m just gonna tell the truth. Why shouldn’t I tell them that I had a mental health crisis when there is nothing to be ashamed of? I thought that if I decided to just call it something else and pretend, brush it under the table, I will just support the stigma around it.
When he started to openly share his experiences, he was shocked to find people saying they resonated with this story. That they had gone through something similar. Owning his experience has proven beneficial too, as one can’t fully recover if one lies and doesn’t own their story and experiences. Keeping it a secret reinforces the feeling there is something wrong or shameful with experiencing mental health issues.
We sort of developed a bad habit of thinking that the failure of mental health is a failure of a human being. And it’s an illness. When somebody catches cold or covid, you don’t think that it’s a failure of them as a person, right?
While the current situation in construction is bad there are already signs the mindset is shifting, with mental health initiatives showing it’s a priority going forward.
Constructing Excellence and Construction Innovation Hub have developed a Value Toolkit that provides a framework. Supporting the creation of new value across four aspects of the built environment: Human, Produced, Natural & Social. The goal is improving overall sector performance consistent with key policy objectives such as driving Modern Methods of Construction (MMC), delivering social impact and accelerating the path towards Net-Zero.
The bodies put strong emphasis on human capital. It’s about improving the physical and mental health of the community. It’s one of the most important values that should be taken into consideration in the decision-making process.
UK public sector projects have started to include a set of requirements on workers' mental health and well-being from all the contractors involved in building educational facilities. Public sector clients are putting mental health requirements into their project tenders, which sends a strong message that the industry and client base is responding to this issue.
Read more: Mental Health in Construction Industry.
To see real change in how we deal with mental health, we start with opening up, and with talking and listening. Only when we welcome these conversations are we able to impact on change.
Let’s start with ourselves! Be open to these conversations. Check not only on your employees’ tasks and metrics, but about challenges they face, how they deal with stress, and how you can support them.
Establish a 1-1 weekly or monthly meetings between employees and team leaders, creating dedicated time to talk through issues.
Provide mandatory mental health training to grow awareness and to truly invest in well-being.
Include mental health coverage as part of your healthcare plan, and make sure that it includes direct access to a psychologist and psychiatrist.
Provide regular reminders about access to mental health support and make sure all employees can easily find the information.
Develop a return to work process so employees who take leave because of mental health feel supported.
The most important thing in any organisation is to make it abundantly clear that it’s okay not to be okay. And when you feel like that, it’s okay to talk to us about it.
Construction is capable of change. It’s possible. Physical safety was once a huge concern as workers died onsite because of insufficient training, equipment, and precautions.
The industry laser focused on health and safety, making an enormous improvement. Now it’s time to do it again for mental health.
But first, we must accept reality and open ourselves up to real conversations.
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