Don’t Force Workers To Breaking Point

Don’t Force Workers To Breaking Point – It’ll soon be International Men’s Day (Sunday 19 November) which this year comes with the theme, ‘Zero male suicide’. Statistics show that more men die by suicide than any other gender identity. So, writes Vikki Wealands, Chair of the IOSH Construction group, we have to keep talking about it and, even more importantly, do everything we can to help.

Let’s be clear: while the global rate of death by suicide is showing a downward trend, any case of someone taking their life is one too many.

There are many reasons why someone may choose to end their life and, for some, their work will be a factor. In the UK, construction workers are deemed to be three times more likely to die by suicide than those from other industries, with, wait for it, two construction workers dying by suicide every single day. Also, 27% of work-related illness in the UK construction industry is attributed to stress, depression, and anxiety. So, while work isn’t the only factor that can impact a person’s mental health, these statistics shows us that OSH professionals and businesses must take mental health very seriously and act accordingly, particularly in construction.

Why is the suicide rate in construction so much worse? There are many challenges facing construction workers, many of which could make them more vulnerable to mental ill-health, including:

  • Intense workloads and pressures
  • Long working hours and the potential inability to influence these
  • Travel, commuting and living arrangements
  • Workplace conditions and facilities
  • Time spent away from home, friends and family
  • Overall work-life balance
  • Continued stigma of mental health, especially in a male-dominated environment
  • Job insecurity.

We are seeing increased discussion of mental health in the media(including social media) and in the workplace, which is helping to tackle the issues of stigma and raise awareness. This is good but we need to go beyond the discussions. OSH professionals and businesses need to realise the benefit of investing time, energy and money into supporting the wellbeing of workers.

High return

Creating a thriving workforce brings business benefits and monetary value in terms of increased productivity and reduced absenteeism. Did you know that for every £1 invested in employee mental health, the average return for employers is up to £5.30 (Deloitte, 2022). Financial benefit shouldn’t be the decider, but for many businesses, unfortunately, it will be. Yet, the financial benefits will greatly exceed the investment, particularly when it comes to proactive interventions. These show the highest return.

READ: NEBOSH Conference: Putting the People Back into ESG, EICC Edinburgh, 16 November 2023

This isn’t me saying all businesses need to invest a lot of money to manage wellbeing. Even the smallest companies can reap the benefits of positive mental wellbeing without huge investment. There are so many charities with amazing resources and support available to people and businesses, including those in construction, such as Mates in Mind, Lighthouse Club and Andy’s Man Club.

Many businesses are trying to act and support their workers, which is great to see. The extent to which I hear mental health and wellbeing being actively discussed now, compared to 10 years ago, is incredible. But we also need to practice what we preach; we need to put our money where our mouth is.

Worker support

We see many businesses implementing tertiary (reducing harmful effects of exposure to psychosocial hazards through corrective and supportive actions) and secondary (increase resource to support workers to deal with psychosocial risks by raising awareness and understanding) measures to support their employee’s wellbeing. They’re doing this through Employee Assistance Programmes, Mental Health First Aiders and mental health awareness training. All of these are extremely valuable, and I do not want to underestimate that. A lot of good has come through making these reactive initiatives more available to people and will continue to do so.

However, there needs to be enhanced focus on prevention as well as reaction. This brings us to the primary measures – those at organisational level control to prevent or reduce harmful effects and promote wellbeing (by introducing more protective factors). This is also where it can become more difficult for some businesses and OSH professionals – we need to assess what our key hazards and risks are in order to implement effective preventative strategies, as we would for any health and safety risk. I believe client organisations can also play a key role in this transition that we all want to see, since they can set wellbeing expectations of the supply chain, and influence the time and costs for works.

So, ask yourself:

  • How proactive are your mental health and wellbeing measures in the workplace?
  • What is your wellbeing policy and strategy? How is this implemented so that it is lived and breathed across the organisation? Is it successful and regularly reviewed?
  • Are you aligning to ISO 45003 to manage your psychological risks in the workplace?
  • How are you proactively preventing ill-health from occurring in the workplace and in the community?