Mental health safeguards are just as important as physical ones

Mark Gordon is health, safety & environmental director at Durkan

Nowadays, it is highly likely that there are more mental health issues on construction sites than there are physical accidents. In an industry that is so focused on managing and mitigating safety risk, that is really not a surprising statement, and it unveils a major gap when it comes to the wellbeing of our staff and within our supply chain.

Let me explain. As a sector, our risk profile is high and we are rightly focused on managing that risk – the sort of safety risk you can see, such as lifting equipment, working at height and using tools that can cause harm. But, with such a stringent focus – both in legislation and policy – on physical health and safety, are we at risk of letting mental health issues go undetected? Isn’t it time for the ‘health’ in health and safety to demand equal weighting?

We have, of course, seen some positive progress. Valuable campaigns from charities such as Mind have worked hard to remove the stigma surrounding mental health and encourage all of us, men included, to be open and honest about any struggles we face.

Some way to go

But there is still some way to go to see positive attitudes at home filter into the world of work. Mental health issues are not always viewed in the same way as physical ones.

When it comes to our careers, many of us are inherently fearful of admitting that a mental health problem may be having a negative impact on our ability to do our jobs. We soldier on, concerned that one temporary challenge or difficulty may result in a professional lifetime of stigma. As a sector, we have a real responsibility to try and change that.

Imagine this: one of your team breaks a leg at the weekend while mountain-biking. He turns up at work on crutches, but you send him up a ladder to some scaffolding regardless and tell him to get on with his job. It just wouldn’t happen, would it?

Encourage openness

So why do we expect people who are battling less visible but equally debilitating mental challenges to just carry on, regardless of the way it may be affecting their professional ability or safety? The key to combatting these challenges is, in my view, to create an environment that encourages openness and honesty.

Of course, legislation and policy have a part to play. Risk assessments, for example, could be extended to identify mental health issues, but we will never truly detect those issues if people are not willing to talk about them.

“Why do we expect people who are battling less visible but equally debilitating mental challenges to just carry on?”

Creating that culture in an industry dominated by SMEs and heavily reliant on an extensive supply chain is no mean feat. At Durkan, we have a proactive programme in place for our staff, with an employee assistance phone line, toolbox talks and mental health first-aiders. Slowly, but surely, it is starting to make a difference.

But the teams we employ directly are only the tip of the iceberg. What of the small businesses and one-man bands that make up so much of our supply chain – the people who do one job for us and then move on? Is a member of this transient workforce really likely to talk to one of our mental health first-aiders and admit a problem when they’ve only met them once during an initial site induction? The short and honest answer is no.

That’s why we are sponsoring the Lighthouse Club and heavily promoting its 24/7 industry helpline to everyone who engages with us, whether they are directly employed or not. It is also why we are focusing not only on triage but also on prevention – promoting activities such as mindfulness and meditation, which can provide a valuable toolkit in helping to cope with whatever life may throw our way.

Consistent messages

We are not, by any stretch of the imagination, the first to do this. We cannot even claim to be early adopters. But we are making a difference and we need more businesses like ours to do the same. It is only when an individual who is struggling sees a consistent message about mental wellbeing and support on every site he or she visits, that they will take that first step and open up.

Of course, we can’t afford to be complacent about physical health and safety. This remains a critical part of our work. But, to overlook an issue simply because we can’t see it is at best naive and at worst irresponsible.

It is high time that we put the mental wellbeing of our teams and supply chains on a par with their physical safety. The two are, after all, entirely interrelated.

To read the results of CN’s Mind Matters 2022 survey, which asked construction workers for their views, click here.

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