When you think about the perils of working in the construction industry, the health and safety hazards associated with being on high scaffolding, operating heavy machinery and dealing with electrics are probably the first things that spring to mind, but there is a silent danger that lingers on the building site. Yasuhiro Kotera, Academic Lead in Counselling, Psychotherapy and Psychology at the University of Derby Online Learning (UDOL), explores the mental health challenges that construction workers face.
Mental health problems on the rise in construction
Construction is the third largest industry in the UK, yielding £150 billion annually (6 per cent of the economy) and employing 2.7 million people (8 per cent of the national workforce; Statista, 2018). But, recently the poor mental health of UK construction workers has been reported. More than half (55 per cent) have experienced mental health problems (i.e., depression, anxiety, and stress) in their lives, and 42 per cent of them have suffered from mental health problems at their current workplace. Both figures are more than twice the national average (25 per cent for lifetime occurrence and 17 per cent for at-work occurrence).
While the number of on-site accident deaths has been reduced substantially from 200 to 40, the number of incidents of suicide has remained at 300 per year, which higher than any other industry. It is especially prevalent in male construction workers who are four times more likely to commit suicide than the national average.
Highways England ask for answers
My colleagues, Dr Pauline Green and Professor David Sheffield from the University of Derby Online Learning, and I were asked by partners at Highways England, to explore mental health attitudes among workers in the construction industry and our findings have been published in leading peer-reviewed academic journals, the Work-Life Balance Study and the Mental Health Shame Study.
We found that construction workers’ had negative mental health attitudes including shame predicted variance in their mental health problems, suggesting that their mental health may be exacerbated by their negative attitudes towards mental health. 30 per cent of them have taken time-off from work due to mental health problems, but 60 per cent did not tell their boss the reason for absence. A quarter of construction workers have considered suicide and 90 per cent of the construction workers who encountered suicidal thoughts (whether in themselves or in others), did not ask for support. Moreover, the majority reported the reason for not turning to their employer was shame.
Finding work-life balance on site
We also focused on workers work-life balance (WLB), i.e. the organisation’s support for its employee’s personal life through flexible work hours, child and dependent care, and leave for a family or personal reasons.
Maintaining good WLB has been endorsed by the government for all employees in the UK, and the benefits of good WLB have been reported by the European Commission. Poor WLB was associated with poor mental health and lower productivity. Similarly, macroeconomics studies (studies that are related to a big picture of the economy) warned that poor WLB can cause lower birth rates, lowering population sustainability, which results in increased stress and decreased quality of life among workforces.
In the construction industry, we found that WLB had not been explored in depth before our study, so we focused on these constructs and how they were related to mental health of construction workers. WLB was negatively associated with mental health problems, and mental health attitudes, i.e. workers with good WLB tended to have better mental health and better attitudes towards mental health problems.
Is self-care the answer?
Among workers there is a concept called the ‘walk of shame’, which workers experience when they leave the office/site early for personal reasons. We found that construction workers who have high mental health shame (feeling ashamed for having mental health problems) tend to have poor mental health. We also identified that self-compassion (i.e. being kind towards oneself and one’s inadequacy) played an important role in this dynamic. Self-compassion negatively predicted mental health shame and mental health problems, and mediated the relationship between the two.
Further, their WLB was strongly related to their mental health and mental health attitudes – construction workers who have good WLB tend to have better mental health, and tend to have more understanding about mental health issues. These findings indicate that construction workers need to practice being more kind and understanding towards to improve their mental health and WLB.
Our next step is to investigate how construction workers can be offered support based on these findings. Allowing themselves to be more supportive of themselves is really important. We hope that our findings and future sessions will help improve their mental health and WLB for the industry.