Workers shouldn’t fear calling in sick with mental ill health

Duncan Rudall is chief executive of the National Federation of Demolition Contractors

You may be surprised to learn that 91 per cent of all those working in the built-environment industry have felt overwhelmed at some point in their careers. Indeed, underneath the constant banter and camaraderie that bring the UK’s construction sites to life lie the same worries, anxieties and struggles that get people down in any sector. Construction workers are just less likely to talk about them.

“Employers must begin by creating a culture in which people are unafraid to seek support”

Although working in the built environment comes with mental health benefits – daily fresh air, friendships from working as part of a team, a tangible sense of accomplishment upon finishing a job – tradespeople aren’t immune to stress or emotional struggles. In fact, the work we do can prove challenging, whether it’s longer hours on a specific job or battling the elements on an already bad day. More often than not, it’s the personal struggles, like a demanding homelife or a recent death – or even birth – in the family that take the most toll.

In 2021, almost a third of the construction workers surveyed by Mates in Mind admitted to dealing with elevated anxiety levels on a daily basis. What’s more, almost half (48 per cent) had taken time off work due to unmanageable stress at some point. Being able to talk about the feelings behind such stress could really help, not only in terms of saving the industry an estimated £100bn in sick days each year but, more importantly, in saving lives. As charity Mind explains, sharing your struggles with a colleague, family member or friend can help lighten the load, reducing the likelihood of an overwhelming feeling escalating beyond control.  

The problem is that – in what remains a predominantly male industry – speaking out and getting others to talk is a challenge. Historically, men have been bad at acknowledging and discussing their feelings and, although construction in 2023 is a more equitable place, traces of this gender-based stigma continue to hold people back. In fact, out of 1,200 respondents to the CN Mind Matters Survey, just 53 per cent felt comfortable talking about their mental health with colleagues. This does, however, indicate progress, given it was 33 per cent in 2019. 

Turning a corner

Evidence of change can be seen all around, with the Construction Industry Training Board having awarded nearly £1.6m of funding to mental health projects and more than £1.3m in grants to support mental first aid and awareness since 2018. Nevertheless, there’s still more to be done. More than half (59 per cent) of employees still refrain from telling their employers why they need time off for mental health, perhaps fearing potential repercussions for calling in sick. 

This is all part of the stigma that needs to be shattered. It’s imperative that people understand that the brain is just another organ; you wouldn’t judge someone with a broken leg for calling in sick, nor would you refuse them help. Employers must begin by creating a culture in which people are unafraid to seek support.

A report by the Chartered Institute of Building found that 56 per cent of construction professionals work for organisations that lack policies on mental health. This highlights the need for education and training, which should be extended to managers and colleagues alike.

Recognising mental health doesn’t just mean acknowledging clinical diagnoses like depression and bipolar disorder either. It’s about time we started redefining what mental health actually means, letting those around us know that no problem is too big or small to matter. Looking out for your mates on site could make a world of difference. Remember that some people might downplay their struggles because they’re scared of looking uncool or being laughed at. It’s important to check in.

It’s OK to approach things with a sense of humour, too. It’s all about showing you truly care, which doesn’t have to mean acting differently or erasing your personality. For men in particular, especially in an industry where we’re expected to be hardy, even asking someone if they’re OK can be difficult. But it could be as easy as offering to make a brew or sitting down with that person, letting them know you’re there to listen whenever they’re ready to talk. 

Think of it as an exercise of trust. Your colleagues and employers should become your safety net or scaffolding. You trust these people every day with your lives. Likewise, there’s no reason to go it alone and refuse to open up when it comes to mental wellbeing. 

  • If you’re still not sure what to do, you can point a colleague in the direction of a registered charity qualified to deal with mental health struggles. Lighthouse has a helpline for those working in construction on 0345 605 1956. It also provides Lighthouse Beacons for those who prefer to talk in person.

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