Building mental health

Last month there were headline stories highlighting mental health issues within our industry and specifically pointing to Hinkley Point. There is a lot of great work being done to focus on wellbeing and mental health across our sites and the industry and one area is Mates in Mind. The following is an edited article that originally ran in FMJ magazine

Russell Stilwell is a successful businessman and founder of RS Electrical Contractors, a mechanical, engineering and plumbing specialist serving the construction and FM industry. But back in 2010 he found himself coping with extreme anxiety and depression. He tried to ignore it and continued on until, as he describes it: "I couldn't fight it anymore and I was starting to become someone that my family and I didn't recognise." He adds that if he hadn't received professional help, he probably wouldn't be here today.

Sadly, his experiences are not unusual. Research suggests that suicide kills far more workers in construction than falls. According to HSE statistics, one in six workers in the UK experiences depression, anxiety or stress, and 91 million workdays are lost as a result of mental health-related problems.

While the male-dominated construction industry has improved its record in terms of physical health and safety, safeguards for employees' mental wellbeing is not as well resourced. According to Stilwell, construction go to great lengths to mitigate risks on site – but do little to notice, reduce or mitigate the risks associated with mental ill- health.

After overcoming his own anxiety and depression, Stilwell went on to champion mental wellbeing within his firm and the wider construction sector, sharing his story at the official launch of the charity Mates in Mind in September 2017. Following a successful pilot programme between February and June 2017, Mates in Mind was rolled out across the sector by the Health in Construction Leadership Group (HCLG), with the support of the British Safety Council. Its aim is to raise awareness, address the stigma of poor mental health and improve mental wellbeing in the UK construction industry.

Steve Hails is director of health, safety and wellbeing at Tideway, the company delivering the Thames Tideway Tunnel, and chair of Mates in Mind: "We set ourselves a target of reaching 100,000 people in year one and 75 per cent of the industry by 2025. The charity currently has 188 supporters whose direct employment accounts for over 185,000 employees, so we're on track. We need to ensure, though, that it's not just about training and education, it's the whole approach that Mates in Mind brings, providing support across organisations."

He continues: "Mental health awareness isn't a light-switch moment as something you can solve overnight. You need to have commitment from the most senior people within the organisation that this is something they want to address. Mates in Mind can then offer a range of support and access to a variety of resources that allow that foundation to be put in place within the organisation. It's then about how you introduce and upskill and address the stigma."

The process, he explains, works in three stages. First is a two-day mental health first aid course which gives people a greater understanding of the causes, and avenues you might explore to provide co-workers with support and to act as a signpost for individuals that may come to them with an issue.
Second is a half-day awareness programme called Managing the Conversation, delivered by the BSC. This is directed at supervisors and leaders within a business to give an understanding of how certain elements can impact an individual and put them in a dark place.

The final element is a 45-minute starter conversation for every employee within the workplace. This involves getting a group of people within an environment to start to address the stigma of mental ill-health. It aims to provide an open and confidential space where it's possible to say to individuals, 'it's OK to feel like this. It's normal.'

Says Hails: "The reason I describe the options that way round is that if you start the conversation and open the door without somewhere to go, you could make the situation worse, which is why there should be support networks in place within the organisation. Training plays a part, but most of all it's about addressing the stigma and saying, 'you know what? It's OK to feel like that, because we all do at some point.' People will then stop seeing mental ill-health as a weakness."