Just one life
Published: 06 October, 2016
If even one life was saved, then all the industry’s efforts to tackle mental-health issues in the workplace would be worthwhile, says Paul McLaughlin, chief executive of the Building Engineering Services Association.
We hear a lot about depression and stress-related mental illness these days. There seems to be a particular problem with young people struggling with self-esteem issues and whose tragedies are often played out on social media.
However, this is also a growing problem in our own industry. Attendees at a workshop led by the mental health charity Samaritans were given a startling statistic; someone working on a building site is six times more likely to die from suicide as from falling from a height.
Samaritans’ regional partnerships officer Will Skinner, who led the workshop, said, ‘With the amount of energy being put into managing physical risk, you have to question whether the industry is getting the health and safety balance right.’ He expertly orchestrated a very engaging (but troubling) evening jointly sponsored by the Building Engineering Services Association (BESA), the Electrical Contractors’ Association (ECA) and CIBSE Patrons.
There were plenty of other worrying numbers to consider. Someone in the UK takes their own life every 90 minutes, and there were 6122 recorded deaths by suicide in the UK in 2014 compared with 1775 people who died in traffic accidents. Suicide is the biggest killer of men under 50.
There are a number of contributory factors — ranging from money worries to drugs and alcohol, but increasingly we are seeing evidence that the working conditions experienced by people in construction-related professions, like ours, are stoking up stress and anxiety.
The construction sector is rightly proud of its much improved health-and-safety record. The past 20 years have seen a huge improvement in accident rates, but while we have clearly made good progress on safety, our record on health is not so impressive — and on mental health it is positively shaming.
Growing stress levels in construction-related trades are responsible for alarming suicide rates and a wider epidemic of mental-health problems. There are thousands of risk assessments being carried out across the industry, but very few even mention mental health. There needs to be a significant culture change.
However, eight out of 10 building engineering services firms believe that workplace mental health will have a growing impact on their businesses over the next five to 10 years. This was another eye-catching statistic, but one that was generated by the industry itself from the recent occupational health survey carried out by BESA and the ECA.
The survey also revealed that around 30% admitted they found on-site mental health ‘hard to manage’. This second figure is probably misleading and, in reality, should be considerably higher.
It is difficult to admit that you find something hard to manage, and mental-health issues are often hard to pin down; they are not so easy to pigeonhole as a fall from height or other physical injury. It is also increasingly obvious that both employees and business owners in our sector are dealing with more highly pressurised situations as a result of tight deadlines and slim profit margins, all of which have the potential to build up stress levels. The question is how do you deal with this.
When someone has an accident on a building site, everyone around them has a pretty good idea what to do. If someone is feeling depressed or stressed, does anyone even notice? Someone suffering from a physical affliction will be bombarded with sympathy, support and good advice to help them heal, whereas people shy away from a perceived mental problem and would rather not talk about it at all — further isolating the victim.
The very first thing you have to do is acknowledge there is a problem. We know that how the industry behaves and how it treats people are significant factors — and a number of speakers with real, raw experience blamed the aggressively competitive nature of our supply chains for putting people under intolerable pressure.
However, during our Samaritans workshop, it was clear that employers were concerned and wanted to help their staff, but were worried that they might do or say the wrong thing — or even create a problem by intervening. They also feared making things worse through the typical male/engineer response of trying to ‘fix’ a problem.
A friend of mine committed suicide two years ago. The last time I saw him, he seemed his normal self and showed no outward signs of the internal pressure and depression that had built up inside his head. I’m not sure he felt willing, or able, to ask for help. I and, more importantly, his wife and young daughter, wish that he had.
Many people who work in so-called hard ‘technical’ professions are loath to display apparent ‘weakness’ by asking for help, so the situation continues to fester and deteriorate — with potentially tragic consequences.
The time and budgetary pressures we face are more intense than ever, leaving no room to fail, or even pause for breath. As a result, people just ‘soldier on’, keeping their gradually deteriorating mental state to themselves.
Samaritans point out that the vast majority of calls they receive are from people who just need a ‘sounding board’. Around 80% of callers are not suicidal — they just need someone to talk to. And that is the first step towards addressing the pressures modern life places on us.
Mr Skinner explained to our workshop that anyone could intervene and help a person suffering from emotional stress — including depression and suicidal thoughts. ‘You don’t have to be a trained mental health specialist. Just listening is a great gift to give someone who is having a crisis,’ he said.
Listening — properly listening — is quite a skill. Samaritans chief executive Ruth Sutherland has spoken widely about the importance of people becoming better listeners. ‘The scale of the problem is so big that Samaritans cannot address it alone. Everyone has a role to play in reducing suicide,’ she says. ‘As family, friends, colleagues, parents and professionals, we all know the dangers of ignoring someone who’s feeling lost, hopeless or ignored.
‘The UK is going through challenging times socially, politically and economically. Samaritans is there for anyone feeling overwhelmed, but we can all do more in our immediate circles,’ she added.
Greater visibility of the causes of stress and the behaviours that exacerbate mental-health problems will make it easier for people to speak out and be heard. It is important for sufferers to see that they are not alone and, far from being a sign of weakness, it takes considerable courage to face up to this kind of problem.
Once faced and brought out into the open, possible solutions come that bit closer. The industry bodies which joined forces to set up the workshop with Samaritans are now liaising on a strategy that will continue to raise awareness and put training in place to help both employers and their employees.
In the end, however, it will come back to listening. Everyone is busy, so asking them to slow down and listen is asking a lot. Yet, giving someone the gift of allowing them to confide and unload is incredibly precious, and it will definitely be worth the effort if even one life is saved.