In June, the organisation’s incoming president Charles Egbu set out his vision for the next 12 months. As the former Dean of School of the built Environment and Architecture at London South Bank University, Mr. Egbu is a passionate and forward-thinking voice in construction. His vast experience and impressive array of qualifications make him an ideal president for the CIOB, and one RIFT is honoured to work alongside.
One of the main issues Mr. Egbu shone a spotlight on was the way in which the construction industry handles mental health. He rightly points out that solving the mental health problems the sector faces is a precondition of achieving every other goal we set ourselves.
A shocking 1,400 construction workers have taken their own lives in the last 4 years in the UK. Overall, suicides in construction outnumber fatal work accidents by 10 to 1. The industry is taking steps to make the modern construction workplace safer than ever before, but we’re having much less success in taking care of the people who use it.
What’s more, we’re still struggling to change the whole conversation around mental health in the building trade. We need to be better at spotting the signs when someone’s struggling, and at taking steps to help.
The construction culture as a whole is still too bound up in the rhetoric of “toughing it out”, leading to people never seeking the help they need. Even those who do reach out aren’t always getting the proper levels of support, as suicide rates almost 4 times the national average show.
As for why mental health is such a pressing issue in construction, a lot of it comes down to the nature of the job itself. Construction work is demanding and often stressful, with extended hours, tough conditions and long travel times to contend with. A largely male workforce and a culture of “hard men in hard hats doing hard work” make it tough for people to speak up when they’re having trouble, or – crucially – when they spot someone else who is. A lot of work has already gone into training on-site workers and managers to spot the signs that a workmate might be suffering with mental health problems, but it’s clear that there’s still more to be done. For example:
- Changing the conversation
Mental health needs to be brought out into the open throughout the industry. The culture of “suffering in silence” has to end.
- Training and educating
At every level of the industry, people need to learn to spot the signs sooner and more effectively. That means not just spotting when someone else needs help, but understanding when you need it yourself.
- Reaching out
From top to bottom, everyone working in the building trade needs to know what help is available to them, and how to ask for it. Employers have to make sure their mental health “safety nets” are strong enough, cast widely enough and signposted clearly enough.
It’s critical to realise that not all the signs that someone’s battling mental health problems are going to be obvious. Depression, anxiety and similar conditions can be subtle – particularly when the sufferer is making an effort to “keep calm and carry on”.
The signs may not be written across a construction worker’s face, but you might see traces of them in their work itself. People facing mental health issues can find problem solving more of a challenge than before, or may become increasingly isolated from their workmates.
You might see a rise in lateness or absences, or a general loss of productivity on the job. Identifying these signs early enough to do something about them doesn’t come easily to an industry as objective-driven and deadline-focused as construction. It is, however, absolutely essential in getting to grips with the problem.
While the safety and wellbeing of every single person involved in construction is the main concern here, there’s another point to keep in mind. Taking care of mental health issues in any industry is simply good business.
Every year, close to 70 million working days in construction are lost due to mental health issues. Figures from the National Building Specification estimate the cost of these sick days at between £70 billion to £100 billion per year. At a time when there simply aren’t enough boots on the ground, we’re pushing experienced workers out of the industry by failing to recognise and accommodate the crucial importance of mental health.
Compounding these issues is a looming skills shortage that the industry’s struggling to address. Experienced workers are bleeding out of construction, and the sector has a long way to go in making up the numbers. Increasing the appeal of construction careers and the diversity of the workforce are strong moves to make now – but at some point we need to deal decisively with the toll the job is taking on people’s lives.
CIOB president Charles Egbu has a clear, ambitious vision for the future of the UK construction industry.
Professor Egbu set out his 5-point plan in his inauguration speech in Edinburgh, which we were delighted to attend. The 5 key improvements he wanted to focus on improving in the construction industry, spelling the acronym PRIDE, were:
Professionalism – working in professional environments, delivering high quality work.
Respect – Treating each other fairly, recognising mental health, among other things.
Integrity – Acting with integrity with colleagues and clients.
Development – Continued learning and training. There is a constant talk of a skills shortage, the industry needs to appeal more to university leavers.
Equality – Woman make up just 12% of the construction workforce.
Construction is among the UK’s most ambitious, aggressively innovative sectors. Mr. Egbu’s presentation of his “PRIDE” roadmap is a clear call to action for the whole industry. By directing that world-class culture of innovation toward tackling mental health, we’re steering the building trade in a healthier, safer and more productive direction. That’s an ambition that RIFT is proud to support, an initiative we’re excited to sponsor and a vision we’re honoured to share.
Charles Egbu also stressed the importance of addressing concerns surrounding mental health within the construction sector.
Facts on this from Charles Egbu speech here: https://www.uel.ac.uk/news/2019/06/uel-professor-chosen-as-president-of-chartered-institute-of-building
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Across all industries, employers, workers and organisations are waking up to the impact mental health has on business. All told, figures from the Office for National Statistics show that around 141.5 million working days were lost to sickness in the UK in 2018. That’s almost 4.5 days for every worker in the country, up from 4.1 days the year before.