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Industry taking a collaborative approach to tackling mental health challenges

It has been noticeable, and welcome, since the Covid-19 pandemic that the subject of mental health is being discussed far more openly in society.

But for many industries, including construction, working through the pandemic has provided a stark reminder that we still have a long way to go when it comes to wellbeing.

I was shocked recently to read a statistic that across the UK two people working in the construction industry take their own lives every day. Construction is, according to the research from the wellbeing charity Lighthouse Club, the profession with the highest rate of male suicide – three times the level of some other industries – with stress and anxiety also accounting for 27% of all work-related illness in construction.

The figures provide a sobering reminder that many people in construction are struggling with the pressures created by their jobs and working environments.

The reasons for these stats are numerous and vary from person to person, but it has been suggested that while there are of course daily pressures that come with finding and completing jobs on budget and on deadline, the cultural problems of a still male dominated industry with a traditionally macho image, mean people are less likely to look for support when they’re struggling. Seeking support for something that’s happening in your personal life has, for too long been seen as a sign of weakness on many construction sites.

Thankfully this is changing, and while some really good support has been available for many years, this year some of the most prominent industry bodies and large employers have come together to form a collaborative group named the Building Mental Health Alliance to deal with the issue at a sectoral level.

The initiative was created by the NI Safety Group, which includes the Federation of Master Builders (FMB), Construction Employers Federation (CEF), Construction Industry Training Board (CITB), the Mineral Products Association and major contractors including Farrans, Graham, Henry Brothers and McLaughlin & Harvey.

Collectively they have all recognised that the industry in Northern Ireland has a poor mental health record compared with other sectors, and while the group already works with charities like Aware and the industry charity Lighthouse Club, it was felt that an initiative was needed to better signpost the help and support that is available.

Whether a person is in crisis or just wants to find out a bit more about how they can improve their mental health, the campaign is aiming to show there are places to turn to. The group aims to ensure that a person is only two clicks from help.

Gavin McGuire, Northern Ireland director of FMB told me: “For too long there has been a culture in the construction sector that makes people reluctant to speak about mental health struggles, that sort of old school view that you have to “man up” and deal with your problems yourself. In the past, we have heard that a lot of people going through a tough time felt they couldn’t really share that with their managers or even their workmates.

“Thankfully things are changing and there is already a lot of really good support out there. This campaign is about the industry coming together in a collaborative way to make sure that we are doing everything we can to make people in our industry aware of how they can access that support.”

While it’s an industry-wide initiative that all members bodies are paying into, Gavin says it is vital that employers and the self-employed smaller contractors are working alongside the industry bodies.

“These larger companies are the ones with HR teams and wellness resources so to have them actively involved is crucial. Smaller contractors those in the SME market don’t have that level of resource. Many of my members are on site all day and doing quotes at their kitchen table every evening, so they don’t often have time to focus on their own wellbeing or that of their workers. So, it’s vital we get this help out to all in the industry,” he said.

This resonates with me as Hays takes a very proactive approach towards its mental health and wellbeing, with a national group focused on promoting monthly campaigns and education programmes featuring internal and external guest speakers. Staff also use the Benekit App to check mental health daily and have access to a counselling service through a company called Life Works.

A Better Mental Health Alliance website with links and signposting is now being hosted by the Northern Ireland Safety Group and they are keen to add other organisations that provide useful mental health services to it.

In addition, 1,000 information packs are being distributed across the industry along with 50,000 helmet stickers with a QR code that leads to the website. Large employers will be encouraged to put these stickers on all their helmets and give to their subcontractors too.

The idea is that it makes it easy to take the first step. If we make it an easy process to find out about the help that is on offer, it hopefully makes it easier to then go and speak to someone about it.

This is an industry collaboration, where everyone is pulling in the same direction, and it needs to be. The scale of the problem means that none of us can afford to ignore the wellbeing and mental health challenges faced by the people in the industry if we want the sector to continue to thrive in future.

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