Author: Tracy Keep
Warning: This article contains mentions of suicide.
When considering the dangers of the construction industry, you might think about heavy machinery, working at height, or contact with dangerous materials, such as asbestos. What may not be so obvious is mental ill-health.
The reality, however, is that 10 times more people in construction die every year from taking their own lives than from occupational and industrial safety incidents,1 and those working in the construction industry are three times more likely to die by suicide than those in other sectors.2
What are the key mental health challenges?
Among the contributing factors for manual workers in construction are intense workloads, tight deadlines, money worries and working in isolation, as well as physical factors such as noise levels, inadequate temperature control and uncertainty of working location.
In the last two to three years, Brexit, COVID-19 and the Russia-Ukraine conflict have only heightened the industry’s challenges, and we are now seeing a serious mismatch between rising construction output and the number of skilled workers available to carry out the work. This can only put more pressure on businesses and employees to meet deadlines and satisfy their clients.
A large proportion of construction workers are self-employed and paid by the amount of work they produce, e.g. bricks laid for a bricklayer or work per square metre for a plasterer. This can bring uncertainty due to the underlying worry of not having enough work each month, burnout from taking on too much to compensate for the leaner times, and delays out of their control such as disruption due to bad weather or delays in the delivery of materials.
Another key consideration is the culture in the construction industry, which still has some catching up to do compared to other industries in reducing the social stigma around mental health. In an industry where the banter can build camaraderie, it can also create a culture of ‘toxic masculinity’, where workers—particularly males—are less likely to seek help and vocalise their struggles. This expectation to ‘soldier on’ can compound mental health problems further.
What should employers be doing?
Given these alarming statistics and the external pressures facing the construction sector today, it is imperative for employers to ensure their firm’s health and safety culture includes a greater focus on emotional as well as physical wellbeing.
Absenteeism due to mental health issues is high—one-third of construction workers suffer from elevated levels of anxiety, and almost half (48%) have taken time off work owing to unmanageable stress.4 In some cases, the lack of support from a line manager can push workers into a position where they will quit the job just to take time off.
With employee retention now one of the construction industry’s key risks , firms should waste no time addressing the issue, not just for the promotion of good mental health for their workers, but for the good of the business. This includes identifying the factors contributing to poor mental health, implementing adequate support initiatives and working to create a positive shift in workplace culture.
It is worth noting, also, that a company could be liable where they have failed to do all that is reasonably practicable to prevent injury to workers, whether that be physical or mental injury. Some measure of consideration of mental health issues arising from the workplace should be undertaken to ensure ongoing coverage under business liability insurance policies. As such, construction firms would be well-advised to ensure a trained mental-health first-aider is present at every site where they have a presence, as well as introducing an employee assistance programme if such a service is not already in place.
How Gallagher can help
Gallagher is a champion of good mental health in the workplace, and we can advise you further on how to manage the risks to your employees and your business arising from mental ill-health. We also provide a range of consultancy services, including employee healthcare and protection, employee benefits and culture change.
If you would like to speak to a specialist about the issues raised in this article and how insurance and prudent risk management can respond, please get in touch.