Mind matters: construction workers reply to CN’s mental health survey

Industry efforts to provide mental health support seem to be bearing fruit, but much work remains. Tiya Thomas-Alexander examines the results of the 2022 CN Mind Matters survey

Ian Armstrong was having trouble sleeping at night, but nobody at work noticed, let alone helped. “If I look back, I can see it. I was in a bad way, but I was hiding it. I was really hiding it,” says Armstrong, a construction worker, as he describes how the stigma around mental illness can make someone pull a cover over it until it can no longer hold.

This year’s CN Mind Matters survey, which received 1,200 respondents from within the industry, found that 59 per cent did not tell their employer that the reason they needed time off was for mental health. Although this figure continues to ring alarm bells, it is an improvement since the last time CN asked workers about their mental health in 2019. At that time, 72 per cent of workers said they could not be real with their employers about why they needed time off.

In the three years since Brexit, the pandemic, a massive shortage of workers and a scramble for materials has unsettled workers. Despite this increase in the external pressures facing construction workers, CN’s survey results seem to show industry efforts to improve mental health support are starting to work.

Support is vital

Armstrong works as senior health and safety manager at contractor Multiplex in Scotland. He says that, thankfully, his employer eventually picked up on signs that he needed professional help. His bosses gave him time off work, and directed him to a psychiatrist and a therapist. He is grateful that he was helped back on his feet.

Armstrong was lucky. The majority (59 per cent) of workers taking part in the survey say they did not receive the appropriate level of support from their managers when they were facing mental health issues.

“If I feel mentally unwell, I call in sick, but I never explain why. I just say I’m taking a sick day as I don’t feel well”

A worker

Some firms have this issue on their radar and management is reckoning with it, but what lessons does this hold for the industry as a whole? What is holding workers back, and what more can employers do to help make construction a safe place to work – mentally as well as physically?

In 2019, a startling 78 per cent of workers said that there was a stigma around mental health in construction. In the latest survey, 74 per cent say they feel that same way.

“If I feel mentally unwell, I call in sick, but I never explain why. I just say I’m taking a sick day as I don’t feel well,” says a worker who asked to remain anonymous. Another tells CN, “I don’t feel understood at work, and if I have to take time off for any reason there is eye-rolling and huffing. There is no empathy or support.”

In some cases, the lack of support from a line manager can push workers into a position where they quit just to take time off.

“I suffered from a severe level of burnout and was signed off work by a GP for a week, as well as being referred to a therapist, who diagnosed me with ‘severe psychological distress’,” recounts a construction worker who wished to remain anonymous. “This was not taken well by my line manager, who then made my life more difficult because he didn’t understand, nor was trained in mental health awareness. I was treated like I was underperforming and received a lack of support. Eventually, I left the job, having needed to take some time out.”

Gender as a barrier

This time around, the survey has revealed one emerging mental health trend: gender as a barrier in the employee/employer relationship.

A female employee who has worked with tier one contractors says: “I find being a woman in the construction industry makes it very difficult to progress and I find it hard to talk to line managers about what I want because I find I get emotional, which men don’t know how to deal with. I am a great believer in ‘helping yourself first’, but it is easier said than done when you feel so low.”

“I find being a woman in the construction industry makes it very difficult to progress and I find it hard to talk to line managers about what I want”

A female employee who has worked with tier one contractors

The same employee says it is often hard to be understood due to a lack of women in senior management positions, adding that she is the only woman on site at her current job. Data from the Office for National Statistics bears out her worry: the number of director and senior roles in construction held by women grew by only 0.1 per cent in the 10 years between 2011 and 2021.

Another woman taking part in the CN survey says her director did not value the opinion of women, did not take feedback about it well, and this eventually left her with no choice but to quit. Others say the gender pay gap in construction makes them feel undervalued and unseen.

In 2019, most workers said that long work hours had the biggest impact on their mental health. This time around, the pressure to work to tight deadlines soared to the number one reason why workers say they are struggling at work.

John Dunne, Wates

One worker describes the cyclical nature of the looming deadlines: “[It is] having to work faster and faster for less money, and then being told if you slow down there will be an investigation into why – being told ‘you know where the door is’ as a first reply when money is brought up.”

Work pressure can come from external sources, but just as often it is internal, stemming from the unspoken expectations of an industry culture that can often leave little room to slow down. Many respondents describe a “self-imposed pressure” to meet deadlines and budgets. Others feel the need to prove their worth to employers.

Looking at the overall survey results, Wates’ group safety, health, environment and quality director John Dunne says he is “disheartened” to learn that many in the industry still feel that they cannot talk to their employers.

“Now what we’re seeing is more people are open to talk about it, so we can actually tackle it. And that helps get people back to work”

John Dunne, Wates

According to Dunne, larger contractors and bigger firms have worked hard to put systems in place for mental health care. Two years ago, Wates had 100 mental health first aiders. It was then that the contractor set itself the target of having one mental health first aider for every physical health first aider. The count of mental health first aiders is now 275.

Dunne also points to changing trends in the sickness absence statistics for the contractor. Anxiety and depression used to be the second-highest reason for absence, but is now third or fourth on the list, because of the support received.

He says: “What we have found is that a lot of people – certainly up to two years ago – would not report stress, anxiety, depression, or they would not cite that as a reason for being off. They would tend to cite headache, cold or flu, or [their] back because they didn’t want to talk about it. Whereas now what we’re seeing is more people are open to talk about it, so we can actually tackle it. And that helps get people back to work. That’s why we think it’s gone down the sort of list in terms of sickness absence cases.”

Find the real reasons

Dunne emphasises the importance of finding the real reason behind why someone needs time off. “If you don’t investigate those reasons, if you don’t follow up and find the true reason why they’re off, you’re never going to be able to tackle the mental health, depression [and] anxiety issues. As a manager, it is the worst thing to hear that somebody is off work and work has caused that stress. We haven’t any right to cause that stress and anxiety, to make people feel like that.”

Dunne admits that while there may have been progress at the top-tier firms, much of the industry consists of self-employed or smaller contractors, with fewer resources. Still, he says, it is important for the “big players” to drive change, particularly with government resources under immense pressure after the pandemic.

“After being told there was no help available via the NHS, my final option was to contact the Electrical Industry Charity. There was nowhere else for me to go”

Ceri Crannis, Crannis Technology Services

“As an industry, we are now trying to sort that out for the people that work for us,” he says. “It is incredible to think that organisations like ourselves are doing the work to support the people that are working for us that the government should be doing.”

Crannis Technology Services managing director Ceri Crannis says her request for treatment was turned down by the NHS last year. She says she was told that since she had not attempted suicide, she would not be prioritised. “I went home with my husband, who had listened to it all. After being told there was no help available via the NHS, my final option was to contact the Electrical Industry Charity (EIC). There was nowhere else for me to go.”

After reaching out to the charity, by the end of the week Crannis had an appointment with a psychiatrist, was diagnosed, and given a treatment plan and medication to support her mental health diagnosis. She had greater access to help as her husband was the managing director at the time, which is not the case for most. She has since stepped into the role of managing director, and says it took her 18 months of therapy and medication to reach the place she is at today.

Crannis is now a mental health advocate for the industry and is keen to point people to where they can get support, especially because many people like her have felt there was none.

Ceri Crannis, Crannis Technology Services

ONS data shows construction output in March was at its highest level since September 2019. Meanwhile, staff vacancies were at 48,000 for the three months up to March, demonstrating just how much demand has overtaken the supply of workers. Employees feel the pressure to trudge on amid inflation, materials running short and projects facing delays.

While the demand for construction work has soared, what is the mental health cost to those on the ground? What does this mean for how the industry deals with its clients on the one hand and its workers on the other?

Crannis recently received seven purchase orders within three minutes from a major client. “There are days when it is unbearable,” she says. “I think everybody is so busy at the moment that it’s causing an additional amount of stress.”

This type of stress is the polar opposite of that felt during the early days of COVID-19, when companies and staff feared for their livelihoods and future due to a lack of work.

Wates’ Dunne says it is important for line managers to communicate with clients about setting realistic expectations of what is available. Such conversations are crucial across the entire supply chain, with each tier setting realistic deadlines and passing them on to the next. By managing pressure better, Dunne says the industry could become more attractive and welcoming, attracting more workers.

Open to talking

A significant shift in construction’s mental health journey has been an openness to talk about it with peers. In total, 53 per cent of CN’s survey respondents say they feel comfortable talking about their mental health with colleagues, compared with 33 per cent in 2019.

However, despite being a key link in the chain of worker care, line managers can sometimes be the cause of mental health worries. Armstrong says Multiplex now encourages people to reach out to those who are not line managers, because in many cases they could be the one causing the problem.

“As a director, there is no support. I am the one that others turn to when they are struggling”

A director at a small construction firm

In many cases, the bosses are under huge pressure themselves. An anonymous director at a small construction firm says: “As a director, there is no support. I am the one that others turn to when they are struggling. I am the one responsible for all health and safety, all financial concerns, all workload issues. I take a small salary, but ultimately have no one to turn to for support. The culture of late payment in the industry is a huge pressure, but also the inconsistency of workflow, where people want work yesterday and work in the months ahead, is not guaranteed.”

Utility firm National Grid recently launched a wellbeing facility at one of its interconnector sites in Kent. The firm says it used the funds earmarked for welfare facilities on site to build a 24/7 space with a gym, a personal trainer, a garden, a canteen serving healthy food and a television room. It was built by contractor J Murphy & Sons.

Nicola Medalova, National Grid

Managing director of interconnectors for National Grid, Nicola Medalova says the firm was made aware of workers struggling with their mental health, as well the industrywide data about anxiety and suicides.

“I think there’s a personal responsibility to do something about it. We, at National Grid, pride ourselves on a world-class safety performance. And yet, 10 times more people in construction die every year from taking their own lives than they do from occupational and industrial safety incidents,” she says.

The company is working with researchers from Warwick University, who visit the on-site health hub and conduct surveys about mental health. This is to help them understand what is and isn’t working for staff. The results will be published in November.

“Ten times more people in construction die every year from taking their own lives than they do from occupational and industrial safety incidents”

Nicola Medalova, National Grid

Medalova says the health hub provided construction workers across the supply chain at National Grid with an alternative to the pub. “You can come here, and you could spend a bit of time with me in the gym, and we could have a bit of a chat [with the personal trainer] at the same time, and you go home to your family being fitter and happier, but also with more money in your pocket.”

While mental health professionals from construction charity Lighthouse Club also provide support to National Grid’s workers, Medalova says there are a lot of informal ways to connect with workers and build relationships, particularly for those who feel intimidated by professional help.

At Multiplex, Armstrong is working on a new initiative, trying to get the team talking more to the workforce, not just about mental health, but engaging with them as an equal and a friend. “Once you build up that relationship, you’ve got a better chance of people opening up to you – it’s about being accessible,” he says.

Having been on both sides of the equation, as the person in need of help and the one providing it,  Armstrong summarises: “The last five years have seen a massive shift in construction. There is a lot of good stuff coming out. But there is a long, long way to go. A long way to go.”

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