Government must do more to improve the mental health crisis in the construction industry
The Chartered Institute of Building President Professor Charles Egbu has urged ministers to take a leading role in setting standards for improving mental health among construction workers.
Speaking at a Labour conference fringe meeting, the CIOB President said psychological, emotional and social aspects of the construction industry made tackling the problem of mental health particularly challenging.
Charles Egbu added that figures showed those working in the industry were at particular risk of suffering from mental illness.
Shadow housing minister Alex Cunningham MP, who also sat on CIOB’s panel, pointed to new figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) which found workers in the construction industry were more likely to face mental health issues that any other sector.
"They are six times more likely to die from suicide than a fall from height, and that statistic really shocked me when I saw it," he said.
With both a tragic personal element and an estimated £7-10bn cost to the sector, Professor Egbu has placed a focus on improving wellbeing among construction workers, which he says individual workers, companies and the government must all take responsibility for.
"There are things going on, but we need to do more," he said. "Individuals need to do more, organisations need to do more, the construction industry needs to do much more, and I dare say, the government, as the biggest procurer, needs to do more and set the stock for other organisations.”
"We know the construction industry is dominated by men, and we know it can be more difficult for men to speak out about mental health. That stereotype about machoman, you know people think that maybe it is better if they keep things inside rather than talk to someone about it.
"And that means that it can spill out, if there is no proper outlet, and worsens mental health conditions as a result. That is not how we should be operating as a society. But it is not easy for people to take those first steps."
Gail Cartmail, Assistant General Secretary at Unite the Union, said “macho-culture” was also responsible for creating a “toxic” environment for women working in the industry.
“I think the man-up culture is exacerbated by that kind of fundamental problem of the structure of construction in the UK,” she said.
“We are consciously putting those same mental health conditions on women, and increasingly women are coming into this industry and we are putting them in this toxic environment.”
And she warned that a lack of basic provision for women was damaging their mental health and forcing them out of the industry.
“If we really want to tackle the mental health crisis then we need to look at how the industry is structured and how workers are treated.
“We surveyed all of our women working in the industry. Do you know what their number one issue was? Toilets.
“They all said, the first issue...was the lack of dedicated toilets that were clean that they could go to...and the availability of sanitary projects and hygienic sanitary disposal facilities.”
She added: “Now what impact is that going to have on their mental health? Is it any wonder that women are leaving the industry?”
Cunningham also highlighted how unique working conditions and pervasive "lad culture" presented a particular challenge for improving conditions.
"We know that the construction industry can be isolating, especially for those who are self-employed and who move from job to job and area to area," he said.
And issues around working culture and inclusion were also highlighted by Professor Egbu, who said the industry faced a problem when it came to workers feeling "shame" for not working long hours.
"We have an industry... where it is accepted for you to work 10 or 12 hours, and somehow we have normalised that," he said. "We need to be able to shout out and say it is not normal. Especially when you work all these hours.
"We need to continuously provide an environment that is conducive to work, and we need to take the value of mental health and wellbeing very, very seriously. "
Meanwhile, British Safety Council Chairman Lawrence Waterman OBE said there was an imbalance when it came to prioritising safety over mental health conditions.
He said: "For years, our industry, construction, has shouted safety and really whispered health, and wellbeing hasn't really been mentioned.
"There are companies, even the very large ones, which have got miniscule HR departments but quite large health and safety departments.
And describing the rate of suicide as a "crisis", Mr Waterman urged the government to put pressure on firms to take their commitment to tackling mental illness more seriously.
He said: "I think there is a political message here, that the industry needs to be put on notice that it needs to look after its workforce, that regulations that address the construction version of the gig economy are really needed.
"And above all, when people are honest and trusting and flag up when they need help, we need an NHS that is able to respond properly to that."