Amos Simbo is director of Winway Consultants and founder of the Black Professionals in Construction Network (BPIC)
Poor mental health, at times referred to as stress, is something we all deal with on a daily basis within the construction industry.
Every day when we arrive on site, we are faced with the pressures of a programme and a deadline to meet. This is so much a part of our daily lives that sometimes we don’t even notice the amount of pressure we are constantly under.
Construction workers are more likely to die through suicide than a fall from height, according to ONS data in recent years, but when was the last time you heard someone talk about mental health in construction with the same urgency given to physical safety? Despite increased awareness of the issue, health and safety toolbox talks tend to focus on the physical activity going on around a building site.
‘Man up’ and ‘crack on’
The fact that mental safety is not routinely highlighted, or doesn’t gather as much traction as physical safety, shows how far the industry still has go to address this issue. We still see a lot of the industry’s traditional culture in the attitude of ‘manning up’ or ‘cracking on’. These terms have arisen due to the industry’s nature, of having to get things done no matter what, being creative, overcoming obstacles and delivering what the client wants. There is a lot of pride tied up in these attitudes – much like the sense of achievement that comes from having completed a complicated structure, or overcoming difficult ground conditions.
“We often hear about a race to the bottom on price and profitability, but what about the race to the bottom in terms of mental health?”
There have been many efforts to raise the profile of mental health within the industry. Organisations such as Mates in Mind have done a lot, as have initiatives like the Mental Health World Cup, in which I’ve personally been involved. It is vital to have places where mental health can be discussed openly, and for people to feel a sense that workplace culture is improving.
But while we may be making progress, we can all help to bring more visibility to this topic, by putting mental health at the centre of our work. Next time you are in your workplace, find time to ask a colleague how they are doing, and really mean it. We are all going through a lot, and sometimes just talking can help to solve our issues.
Mental health from the beginning
But we also need change on a much larger scale. For example, it would be great to see more evidence of concern for mental health in the tender process.
Big clients in the private and public sector will typically have strong policies about mental health within their own workforce, but when it comes to appointing a building contractor, that particular risk seldom seems to get any consideration when selecting who wins the work.
We often hear about a race to the bottom on price and profitability, but what about the race to the bottom in terms of mental health? Where is the consideration for the amount of stress being placed on the builder when the procurement process puts so much emphasis on cutting out time and cost?
All too often, well-meaning policies go out the window when it comes to construction. Government is construction’s biggest client but, with all the work being done on its behalf, mental health is mentioned just once in its 80-page best-practice guide, the Construction Playbook.
Our industry is known for solving problems, innovation and engineering. Mental health is surely an issue where we can put our heads together and come up with a real solution. But it will take a lot more than just putting up a poster in the site canteen. The solutions will lie in the way work is conducted, because the actual issues arise from how business is conducted in the industry, with tight project deadlines, small businesses not being paid on time and cost pressures on projects. All these factors, the ethics of business, are things we can work to change.
We can come together to find better ways to conduct business, to ensure sustainability not only for materials but also for our workforce. Setting high standards and leading by example, from the client side all the way to small subcontractors, will ensure change can happen quicker than we think.