Builders cleaning and mental health awareness
With yesterday being World Mental Health Awareness day, I felt the need to pause and reflect on the impact that occupations within the construction industry and in particular, the Builders cleaning industry, could potentially have on the mental health of an individual. The focus in the construction industry has long been on Health and Safety in the physical sense; it is only more recently that there has been a shift in thinking about health and well being in the mental sense. This blog has a particular focus on Builders cleaning and mental health.
The World Health Organisation recognises World Mental Health Day on 10 October every year. This year’s theme set by the World Federation for Mental Health is suicide prevention. Suicide is a poignant topic and in fact, recent trends reveal that suicide kills more in the construction industry than falls at height. Recent reports from the Office of National Statistics reveal that male site workers in construction are three times more likely to commit suicide than the average UK male. This shocking mental health statistic is a vivid reminder of the difficulties faced by many working in the construction industry every day.
When carrying out risk assessments before commencing with works such as Builders cleaning services on a construction site, one usually stops to consider hazards such as slips, trips, and falls, working at height, manual handling, excessive noise, dust, etc. Rarely however does one stop to consider the potential impact that the works being carried out could have on one’s mental health and well being. Campaigns such as World Mental Health Day yesterday and Mental Health Awareness week earlier this year in May and the efforts of charities such as Mind and The Samaritans have resulted in a general increase in awareness of the mental health risks posed by the construction industry in particular. We, therefore, need to take note and implement what we have learned in our businesses, especially those in positions of responsibility such as Health and Safety professionals and business owners, directors and managers.
Whilst a job working in the construction industry – ground workers, electricians, painters/decorators, Builders cleaners or any similar trade might not sound particularly stressful, the long and demanding working hours such works involve can soon lead to exhaustion and a general sense of stagnation. In an increasingly competitive industry, there is also a lot of pressure to get the job done to a high standard and finished quickly. Therefore there is a stronger link between trades such as Builders cleaning and mental health, than we might initially expect there to be.
Builders cleaning for instance often involves carrying out projects far away from home for weeks at a time, away from family and loved ones. This is especially apt for migrant workers and indeed, non-UK nationals accounted for 40% of the construction of buildings workforce in London in 2018.
Those working in non-skilled trades such as Builders cleaning are also at high risk of experiencing stress and depression due to financial pressures – Builders cleaners and indeed other trades are often paid a low wage and feel uncertain about future career prospects. Such uncertainty is heightened further by the general apprehension about the future of the UK Construction industry following Brexit and following the collapse of construction giant Carillion last year.
However, it is important to note that it is not just the Builders cleaners and other workers out on site feeling the pressure. SMEs make up a large percentage of suppliers in the construction industry and business owners and directors are under increasing pressure to make ends meet. Builders cleaning companies face increased competition and thus have to rethink their pricing strategies in order to maintain a competitive edge and to continue to secure works. As a director and business owner myself, I know too well how stressful this can be. Business owners have all sorts to juggle and one of our number one priorities is to maintain a consistent flow of work in order to maintain our staff. However this often relies on things out of our control – it isn’t in our hands, for instance, the extent to which developers are going to continue to invest in new sites after the UK leaves the EU later this month.
These are just some of the factors linking Builders cleaning and mental health, as well as other trades in the construction industry. In a workforce that is predominantly male, specific risks associated with male mental health also need to be considered. The “tough guy” image widespread in the construction industry is very much to blame. Asking for help and opening up about emotions are just not things that come naturally to many of those working in the industry. The combination of these factors results in many suffering in silence.
Whilst poor mental health can manifest itself differently from individual to individual, the Construction Financial Management Association has set out some useful signs to look out for that can indicate untreated mental health conditions:
- increased lateness, absenteeism and presenteeism (showing up to work physically, but not being able to function)
- decreased productivity
- lack of self-confidence
- increased feelings of being overwhelmed
- decreased problem-solving ability
What can employers do?
The statistics as they stand are clearly unacceptable, mental health needs to be made an urgent priority by all employers in the construction industry.
- Culture check – Undertake a culture check to establish the culture of the workforce and identify any issues that could be causing work-related stress.
- Culture change – A change in the culture surrounding mental health needs to start at the top. Leadership teams can show commitment to creating a culture change towards mentally healthier workplaces and workforces by investing in a Workplace Wellbeing Strategy to create culture change in a safe and structured manner.
- Mental health safety net – Employers should ensure their employees have access to and are aware of the support available through counseling and therapy services.
- Up-skilling and education – Team leaders responsible for supporting employees should have sufficient knowledge and skills to be able to spot the signs of poor mental health and to provide support and guidance.
- Peer support – Employers should up-skill and educate employees so they can look out for any peers who may be struggling with their mental health. Knowing how to start the conversation and knowing how to safely signpost peers to mental health services can make a huge difference at the early signs of mental health difficulty.
- Reduce stigma – Employers need to reduce stigma, raise awareness, change attitudes and provide knowledge to empower employees to look after their mental health and wellbeing.
- Embed and repeat – It is essential that employers continue to provide these interventions, services, and training in order to embed culture change – not just tick the mental health box.
Insensitive words or phrases can increase the stigma surrounding mental health and make it even harder for the people around you to feel like they can talk about any issues they’re facing.
Employers need to prioritise mental health in the workplace for commercial reasons too.
Unrecognised and unsupported mental health issues can have a massive impact on a company’s revenue. According to the National Building Specification, mental health issues account for people taking almost 70 million days off sick per year – the most of any health condition – costing the UK economy between £70Bn and £100Bn a year.
The way forward
Physical health and safety is already taken extremely seriously in the construction industry. However, statistics suggest that the most dangerous thing on a building site is the human mind. At a time where suicide kills more people in the construction industry than falls from height, it is only right that mental health and safety is given the same level of thought, time and investment as other site hazards to ensure that the workers in the industry are truly protected.
The construction and Builders cleaning industries have taken steps to reduce the stigma around mental health and to improve support but there is more that each and every one of us can do just by being aware of the signs and encouraging people to talk. Do not underestimate the impact you can make just by talking to someone. You could change someone’s life.
In the words of Mother Teresa, ‘It starts with a smile’ and indeed just smiling and being kind to somebody can make an incredible difference to their state of mind.