Caring for mental health in construction must continue post-pandemic

It’s crucial that we all work together in order to look after our construction workforce, especially as the second wave of the pandemic begins to emerge, says Pagabo executive chairman Gerard Toplass.

All for One! Caring for mental health in construction must continue post-pandemic, says Pagabo executive chairman Gerard Toplass.

There is no doubt that the coronavirus pandemic is going to have huge mental health implications on the nation, and figures released by the Office for National Statistics in July showed that the number of people in the UK affected by depression has risen from one in ten to one in five since the same time last year. 

As the construction industry has historically had higher-than-average rates of suicide and negative mental health, it’s crucial that we all work together in order to look after our construction workforce, especially as the second wave begins to emerge.

When the country sat down on the fateful Monday evening in March that lockdown was announced, we were suddenly, collectively facing multiple unknown factors. 

The pressures of home working, social isolation and things like balancing home schooling with day-to-day life all came rushing to the fore, and we were all faced with more questions than answers about how the world would keep turning. 

In these circumstances, the mental health implications were sadly bound to be profound, and indeed a global survey of around 300,000 people by Kantar Health shows that the proportion of people experiencing depression symptoms rose from 7% to 11% since the start of the pandemic.  

The topic of mental health in the construction industry has long been a challenging one to discuss. Construction is a largely male-dominated industry, and thanks to a traditionally butch stereotype, many of these workers won’t have felt particularly comfortable talking about their feelings and emotions. Thankfully, changes both within the industry and in wider society are changing this, but there is still a way to go. 

The two most recent episodes of our Building Blocks podcast have been focussed on the issue, and the discussions about how the industry is tackling the challenges it faces when it comes to dealing with mental health have been very encouraging. 

A common theme we heard from the contributors across the two episodes was that it is not that difficult to see why our industry has a particular problem when it comes to mental health. Construction is a highly demanding sector, with those working in it often facing a lack of resources, long hours and plenty of time away from home in a lot of cases, all of which can feed into mental health issues.  

Identifying that there is an issue is the first step in our industry dealing with this, but more needs to be done. Only a couple of decades ago, we looked at the rates of accidents on site – and thanks to cross-industry collaboration we’ve been able to identify the root cause and make changes to bring those accident rates right down. We now need to do the same with mental health. 

The speakers across both episodes agreed that it is in the past three to four years that we’ve seen the biggest shift in attitudes towards mental health within the construction sector specifically. Five years ago, when looking at the HSE statistics, it would have looked as though there were low levels of people reporting mental health conditions, especially within the construction industry. However, when we began to examine other data – such as the suicide rate in construction workers – it revealed that there was indeed a problem that wasn’t being picked up before it reached crisis point.  

We now have a clearer idea not only of the scale of the mental health crisis in the sector, but crucially how we can help our workforce to have a voice, speak up and seek help when needed.  

On the most recent episode – a World Mental Health Day special - Sarah Fraser from Wilmott Dixon told the story of how a senior colleague of hers stood up at one of the company’s conferences in front of several hundred people and shared his own personal story of his mental health challenges.  

As someone from the generation where we were told to shrug things like mental health off, pull our socks up and get on with it, it was encouraging to hear that these conversations are being had in the open – it’s a huge step. 

The positive progress is one of the reasons we set up the Pagabo Foundation. On the most recent podcast, Jason Stapley – who leads the board of trustees – talked about the foundation’s work and achievements so far. With a board of trustees handpicked from across the industry and pledges from the supply chain that make up the Pagabo ecosystem, the foundation has the ability to not just be thought leaders, but to be real influencers in ensuring that the construction industry makes a step change on mental health. 

For all its challenges, we work in an incredibly supportive industry, with a very ‘all for one’ attitude – this has never been more apparent than in the face of the challenges that Covid-19 has brought, and will continue to be crucial to our success as a collective going forward. 

There are many individuals across the industry who will be extremely nervous about returning to the workplace – especially given the second wave of the virus we are currently facing. In the earlier episode, Martin Hall of Morgan Sindall Construction noted that one-to-one sessions will prove invaluable in helping the anxieties around this process, allowing him to discuss at length the safety measures in place for his employees. 

Whether it’s making sure there is a reassuring, friendly face to greet employees on return to the office to walk them through the safety measures in place, or a line manager supporting a member of staff with any struggles or concerns, it’s important that we adopt an ‘extra mile’ attitude to looking after our staff not just now, but as an ongoing measure.  

Click here to listen to the most recent episodes of Pagabo’s Building Blocks podcast.

Gerard Toplass is executive chairman of procurement specialists Pagabo.

If you would like to contact Rob O’Connor about this, or any other story, please email roconnor@infrastructure-intelligence.com.