Mental health in construction: No more "Man-up"



Something has been nagging at me since I read an article in The Guardian about the shocking number of attempted suicides by workers on the construction of Hinkley Point nuclear power station.


The Guardian's article reported that at least 2 workers had committed suicide since 2016, while there were 10 suicide attempts in the first four months of 2019. The scale of mental health issues among workers at Hinkley Point has reached such an extent that EDF, the company in charge of delivering the power station, now employs mental health first aiders.


But while I was shocked at the scale of the problem at Hinkley, I wasn't surprised at many of the issues raised by the article. Those that ultimately lead to the terrible consequences reported by The Guardian.

The Construction Industry

I'm a Chartered Surveyor by background and, although no longer working in the industry, I've worked on construction projects for over a decade - including remote sites. I've therefore seen first-hand how the industry operates at site-level.

Construction work is tough. It requires physicality and breeds a machismo culture, leading to an environment where it's tough to be open about your feelings or to be different from the pack.

I think this is common knowledge among the wider public(?) and yet the vast majority of industry players still require their labour force to work long hours, often over extended weeks. At Hinkley, The Guardian reports that workers can on site for as much as 11 days at a time with only 3 days off. For many, considerable chunks of rest days are spent travelling to and from their homes, which can often be far from these remote sites.

So, we have a culture where feelings can't be shared openly, in the pressure cooker of a remote and physically demanding environment, where people are being required to work extended shift patterns. All of which leads to fatigue and leaves little time or energy for some workers to feel like doing anything other than unwind with alcohol more frequently than is healthy.

What could possibly go wrong?

A Land of Impermanence

The Guardian's article cites the impermanence of the industry as one of the main reasons behind this shocking suicide rate. The consequences of construction workers constantly living with one eye on the next job were chillingly summed up by the Unite assistant general secretary, Gail Cartmail: "The short-term nature of employment and the constant changing of employers is a factor in the suicide rate".

I can attest to this short-termism, having seen it on pretty much every project I've ever worked on: office staff may be employed on 1 or 2-year contracts, and many have an eye on whether this job might be delayed (they usually are!) before deciding to send out their CV's to the next potential employer.

Site labourers are often on-site for a much shorter amount of time, usually months rather than multiple years, so it's no wonder that they continuously have one ear to the ground as to where the next payday might come from.

All of this creates an air of uncertainty and regular change, meaning that - with the possible exception of small 'core' teams - an office or labour force very rarely retains the same faces from project to project.

Clashes of ages, generations and even cultures, also mean that it may be equally as tough for young people as it is for more experienced workers to cope with working at a remote site. How exactly does a baby boomer understand the feelings that a Gen Z-er has when dropped into an isolated environment; without the network and familiar after-work distractions of home?



Poor Working Environment

Aside from the impermanent employment situation, many large-scale construction projects can also be, for at least a part of the construction period, fairly uninspiring places to work. A colossal, remote site for a nuclear power station or a chemical processing plant does not often fill the heart with joy.

This can also extend to the construction office environment, inhabitants of which might cast envious eyes at professionals of other industries where the office-aesthetics game has been upped almost beyond comparison.

The temporary nature of construction sites means that Client and Main Contractor offices are simple temporary offices, often with dull, function-first interiors. Smaller-tier contractors and subcontractors generally operate out of portacabins or shipping containers that can be roasting hot in summer and freezing in the winter.

There's a certain irony that whole industries are built upon creating inspirational places for people to do business (think WeWork and Workspace), while the one sector that has the immediate means to create something similar often remains an island of bleak necessity-first interiors.

And yes, although the white-collar workers of the construction industry weren't referenced in the Guardian's article, I think we must consider the ingredients that affect the mental wellbeing of the construction industry as a whole. Because why are engineers or commercial and administration staff less likely to be affected by some of the issues raised at Hinkley?

Solutions

The Guardian reports that EDF has implemented a wide range of measures to tackle the problem of suicidal workers at Hinkley, including:"200 mental health "buddies", "time to talk" rooms, an on-site GP, and plans to recruit a chaplain."

While I applaud anything that can be done to save lives, these solutions appear to be reactionary, designed to treat symptoms, rather than addressing root causes.

Once Hinkley is built, how do we ensure that the same problems don't simply arise on the next EDF project? And how do we share this knowledge with other major clients and developers?

My opinion is that Governments and developers, especially those in charge of major infrastructure or remote projects, need to take the lead in ensuring the mental wellbeing of all tiers of staff and labour. This extends to both their team and those of contractors and subcontractors.

We already have safety incentives for contractors, where certain payments are made in response to meeting positive safety targets. Can we not introduce something similar for mental wellbeing? Perhaps linked to a satisfaction score, weighted against certain factors on a 'happiness index'?

I realise that this might sound fluffy, but the time has come for the construction industry to think in different ways.

I also understand that this sort of change doesn't come for free: budgets are tight, and we've all heard of contractors, in recent years, seeking to win jobs "at cost", just to maintain turnover.

So the last thing anyone would expect to see included within a tender is a chunky budget for mental health and wellbeing costs. One can only imagine the cries of derision at the thought of building temporary offices or labour rest areas that are designed with anything other than function in mind.

So yes, money is an issue. But these attitudes need to change.

And the easiest way for that to happen is for solutions to come from the people responsible for building mega projects - the very places where these terrible issues are likely to arise: the Governments and energy bodies and trade unions of the world.

These organisations have the financial power to find solutions to these problems and, if resources were assigned to develop improvements in working patterns, site and off-site culture, as well as general mental wellbeing, we might see real change.

It's time to think about the human cost that creating our built environment can have, and the part that developers can play to improve the construction process.


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