The silent crisis in the construction industry
To improve structural issues around mental health, Professor Egbu advocates moves to work together across the industry | Credit: PA Images
With new research highlighting the grim reality of mental health within the construction industry, PoliticsHome recently spoke with Professor Charles Egbu, president of the Chartered Institute of Building, to learn about their plans to address the poor record on mental health in the sector.
Health and wellbeing, particularly in the construction sector, has been an unceasing theme throughout Professor Charles Egbu’s career.
After graduating with a first-class degree in quantity surveying, Professor Egbu has worked within the construction industry and academia for thirty-five years. Now pro-vice chancellor for Education and Experience at the University of East London and the 116th president of the Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB), his mission is to drive forward the mental health and wellbeing agenda.
“The construction industry has always been of interest to me, and particularly the softer side of the construction,” he tells PoliticsHome.
“Having worked closely continuously with the CIOB at almost at all levels, including today, as the president, I've always combined my research in the area of health and wellbeing and productivity and quality with what goes on in the industry.
“I still have the quest to help push the issue of mental health much more forward than is the case at the moment.”
As Mental Health Awareness Week approaches, CIOB have released startling new research that underlines the scale and impact that mental ill-health is having on the construction workforce and the contributing factors.
Surveying more than 2,000 construction professionals in October 2019, the report, titled Understanding Mental Health in the Built Environment, finds that just over a quarter of construction employees have considered taking their own lives in 2019 alone.
Furthermore, a staggering 97% of those surveyed said that they had experienced stress in the last year.
“In my view it is still a silent crisis”, says Professor Egbu.
The CIOB president explained that structural issues within the sector play a crucial role in damaging mental health and wellbeing.
“When you then look into those things that do cause stress, you begin to see that in a way it hasn't changed much because of the nature of the industry.”
He is keen to emphasise three contributing factors to stress in the industry: the nature of timelines/project-based working, pressures around payments, and not being able to guarantee or forecast the pipeline of work, particularly for small and medium sized businesses.
“These three things keep you awake at night, especially when you have families,” he explains.
“Small size organisations in the labour force, who move from project to project looking for work. They are not sure what the next work would look like. This gives them stress.”
Professor Egbu also highlighted that unsociable shift patterns can be very demanding on those working in the sector, as employees often start extremely early in the day and do not see their families for extended periods of time. The withholding of payments by contractors is also a significant cause of stress.
“It's how these people are paid, because many of them are subcontractors.
“This notion of holding payment for weeks and weeks on end, especially to those people who need it most who need to work on their cash flow, is just not supportive at all,” he says.
“If we think things have been bad up till coronavirus, just imagine what it's going to be immediately after the dust settles”
The CIOB president warns that challenges are likely to become even more acute in light of the coronavirus crisis.
“If we think things have been bad up till coronavirus, just imagine what it's going to be immediately after the dust settles,” he says.
“I'm really, really worried about the extent to which the industry is ready, the extent to which the government is ready and prepared to support these individuals, not so much financially which they will need support, but the emotional side of this, the mental health side of it. That is why we are doing this research.”
He adds: “The chances are that you’ll have a situation where the level of anxiety is high, the level of stress is high. I think it needs concerted effort from everyone.”
To improve structural issues around mental health, Professor Egbu advocates moves to work together across the industry.
“The construction industry needs to rally around. No one person can really make this happen. We need to continuously work on the structure and the environment of construction,” he says.
Many sites lack basic toiletry amenities and fail to provide good welfare conditions where people need to take a break and eat: “96% of our organisations are small size organisations and having those facilities will eat into the purse strings. That's why we need to support them more,” Professor Egbu argues.
CIOB’s report reveals women are more likely than men to have a common mental health problem and males who are employed in male-dominated industries, such as construction, are particularly vulnerable to developing poor mental health
“Over 30% of all construction sites have no hot water, and no toiletry facilities for females,” Professor Egbu explains.
“All these things have an impact on the mental health and wellbeing.
“For organisations to take this up, they need to be in a position where the financial environment is conducive for them to do that, and hence, we need support from government to help us in this regard,” he says.
Stigma in the sector
Professor Egbu calls for a culture of “openness and transparency” in construction organisations to remove the stigma around mental health.
The CIOB have been working with other professional bodies and organisations, such as Anxiety UK, to raise awareness of the issue of mental health and wellbeing in the sector.
Professor Egbu believes this work needs to go further: “I have to say, things are grim, although recently we're beginning to see some work being done.
“There are pockets of good practices, but these are not very pervasive. I think working on the culture and behaviour within the organisational setting is absolutely important.
“I think the HR departments of different organisations should understand that part of looking after the individuals that work for them is to also consider their health and wellbeing.”
When it comes to mental health, colleagues are often the first people able to spot the signals that someone may need support. The CIOB president highlights absenteeism, behavioural changes such as a reduction in socialising as well drops in productivity and engagement as key signs of declining mental health.
“We need to encourage people to engage in this.
“So you have a role for the government there, you have a role for organisations and you have a role for the construction industry,” he concludes.
You can read the full report Understanding Mental Health in the Built Environment here.