January 3rd, 2024
Mental health has become a more openly discussed and accepted topic in society. This is also happening in the workplace; however, the construction industry is still plagued by the stigma of disclosing a mental health condition. There is a pervasive machismo in construction, felt by those employees seeking support for what has been previously described as the ‘silent epidemic’ (Stevenson and Farmer 2017).
The finding that the industry was identified as the third most stressful sector in the United Kingdom – with 82% of workers experiencing stress at some point each week – supports the need for positive dialogue and a change of attitude around mental health (Farrell 2018). Even though reporting rates are rising, there remains a reluctance within the workplace to openly discuss mental health (Van Ek and Le Feuvre 2021).
This sentiment is echoed by Emma Mamo, Head of Workspace Wellbeing at Mind who highlighted that in a male-dominated industry like construction, there is a lack of willingness to discuss mental health. This, in turn, is reflected in the suicide rates among tradesmen in the UK construction sector remaining staggeringly high. The image in this page shows a mural comprising 687 high-vis vests, representing the yearly average of suicide deaths among UK tradespeople in 2021.
Men working in the construction industry are three times more likely to take their own life than the national average for men, and suicide now kills more construction workers than falls every year, with two people working in this sector losing their lives to suicide every day (APHC 2022). This demonstrates the need for change and open discourse about mental health, as 83% of people in construction have experienced a mental health issue and 91% have felt overwhelmed (APHC 2022). These statistics are not something that we can afford to ignore.
Another challenge is that current legislation places the emphasis on duty of care towards physical health. Enveloping mental health under the HASAWA 1974, and making work-related mental health issues reportable under RIDDOR, would bring its importance to the forefront and give it parity with physical health. Legislative change would force an overhaul of the current education curriculum to accommodate the changes (Van Ek and Le Feuvre 2021). Education is essential to increase mental health awareness for both employers and employees, and not only in the workplace, but also through teaching in the classroom, which will foster a culture of social acceptance and understanding, supporting the current subculture shift that is beginning to emerge (Van Ek and Le Feuvre 2021).
Change is on the horizon, as attitudes and perception are evolving, but at a slow pace – and there are still barriers to overcome: fear of stigma, embarrassment and employees’ preference for self-reliance (Van Ek and Le Feuvre 2021). It is fair to say that there has been a plethora of campaigns aiming to raise the profile of mental health and create a much more open environment that encourages a culture of support and discourse. Equally, there are numerous organisations that help construction workers in all manner of positive ways and offer a range of helpful services. We need to raise the profile of mental health and the work of these organisations among learners, as they are the grassroots and can take forth a positive message, as well as fostering the seeds of change to support the innovations already emerging.
It is fair to say that transforming the culture of an entire industry will take time, but with a multifaceted approach and continued support, change is possible. We have the momentum, so let us use it as a force for positive long-lasting improvement.
Samaritans Contact Number: 116 123
Samaritans Website: www.samaritans.org/how-we-can-help/contact-samaritan/
Mind Contact Number: 0300 123 3393
Mind Website: www.mind.org.uk/need-urgent-help/using-this-tool/
The Construction Industry Helpline: 0345 605 1956
Text: HARDHAT to 85258
The Construction Industry Helpline App: Search: Construction Industry Helpline
The Construction Industry Website: www.constructionindustryhelpline.com
A More Diverse Construction Industry Is a Stronger Construction Industry
Being more inclusive and promoting diversity may help to close the skills gap
The construction sector plays a crucial role in the UK economy, contributing £110 billion per year – 7% of GDP (Gross Domestic Product) – and providing work for approximately 3.1 million individuals, accounting for around 9% of total UK employment. Alas, this industry is facing a significant and well-documented crisis: the ‘skills gap’. A staggering 22% of the current workforce are over 50 and 15% are in their 60s. At the same time, in the current labour market, the industry is also losing younger workers to competing sectors where work is perceived as more stable or appealing and pay is more competitive (constructionmaguk.co.uk 2023). Equally, Minett (2021) explained that the younger generations’ prevailing perception is that working in construction is undesirable. Polls indicate that a mere 5% of learners actively contemplate pursuing roles within the sector.
Evans (RICS 2019) reminded us that there is a challenge to be overcome in terms of explaining to young people what is attractive about construction. Minett (2021) further suggested that Brexit has introduced new complexities for EU nationals seeking employment in the UK, requiring them to undergo an expensive and convoluted visa application process.
Other challenges faced by the industry have been highlighted by RICS (2019). For example, as mentioned before, there is a perception that jobs are not necessarily as secure as in other industries. If not addressed, this skills gap could cause project delays, an increased risk of safety incidents, due to the need to use inexperienced employees, and pressure on the current already-thin margins and tight timelines (On-Site Magazine 2022).
So, what are the solutions to this issue? How do we attract the next generation of talent into our industry so they can replace our ageing workforce? When considering the growing demands of the UK’s construction sector, it is estimated that as many as 266,000 extra workers are required by 2026 to sufficiently meet this quota (Maggiaini 2022). There are the well-used tropes of education and raising awareness. These are well-known, as they do work, but there needs to be greater presence in educational settings. Collaborating with institutions and offering programmes that introduce construction-related subjects can spark an interest and provide practical experiences, as well as promoting the positive impact of construction, such as creating iconic structures and contributing to local communities – all this will help to instil a sense of purpose and pride among aspiring professionals (Approach Personnel 2023).
Another avenue is to address the lack of diversity within construction. Overcoming the industry’s historically male-dominated image is a significant objective, as the perception of construction as a career path may not be appealing to women due to preconceived notions, such as the long hours and the prevalence of older white males. Women account for just under half of the total UK workforce but only 11% of the construction workforce and just 1% of workers on site (Construction Industry Council 2023). The construction industry overall has a diversity problem, with only 5.4% of its workers from Black, Asian, Minority Ethnics backgrounds. Current UK law protects minority groups from discrimination, but neither is it a legal requirement to monitor workplace diversity nor is it compulsory to undertake diversity training or anti-discriminatory policies.
With a considerable proportion of the construction industry made up of white males, there is a significant risk of unconscious bias in decision-making, and a tendency for cultures to be shaped around the majority view (Chartered Institute of Building 2023). This can lead to a workplace culture where inappropriate behaviour and language are seen as ‘normal’ practice, leaving those on the receiving end of it with the impression that construction is not the career path for them. The skills gap is a real-time issue that needs to be addressed, and becoming more diverse and inclusive could go a long way to shore up our industry.
Construction Industry Council (2023) have suggested that cultural change is therefore needed; businesses should be supported to invest in training and become educated about the benefits of a diverse workforce. There has been a noticeable and much-needed shift within construction in recent years towards greater understanding and acceptance of the benefits of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) in the workplace and wider society. Research has shown this to be the case repeatedly: gender-diverse companies are 14% more likely to perform better than non-diverse companies, with ethnically diverse workplaces 35% more likely to perform better (NCFD 2016).
With these clear and tangible measured improvements in outcomes, the construction industry needs to act quickly to reap these benefits. The CIOB (2023) explained that if the industry is to realise its ambitions to become more inclusive and more diverse, change needs to start with leadership. Leaders have enormous potential to influence others through their own inclusive, supportive and respectful attitudes. Increased training and awareness for EDI has been linked with positive behaviour and cultural change. Furthermore, EDI programmes should set the expectations and standards, the implications of several types of bias, and the impact that organisations’ systems, processes and cultures play in either creating or discouraging inclusion (CIOB 2023).
As a sector with a looming skills shortage, construction companies should be considering ways to encourage more people than ever to pursue a career in the industry. Opening opportunities up to diverse candidates who previously may have felt excluded or unwelcome in construction could be the solution to the skills shortage and to improving workplace diversity (Minett 2021).
Encouraging diverse groups to enter the construction industry, though, is only half of the job. Perhaps the most motivational incentive for tackling this skills gap is seeing diversity succeed in action. Widening the talent pool plays a significant role in achieving this, as it enables previously unreached workers of vast experience – as well as fresh talent with modish skills and innovative perspectives – to fuel productivity, empower creativity and enhance commercial performance (Maggiaini 2022). The circular effect is observed as the diversification of the construction workforce leads to increased encouragement for Black, Asian, Minority Ethnics and women to enter the industry. Consequently, a continuous commitment is needed to foster an inclusive culture that motivates diverse individuals to pursue careers in construction.
Construction remains vitally important to the creation and upkeep of our built environment; we live in diverse, inclusive societies and construction needs to mirror this. As so much knowledge and experience are being siphoned off from our industry through an ageing working population, there is a ‘excellent opportunity’ to undertake a cultural shift towards a more diverse and inclusive industry that attracts people from a cross-section of society, and values their perspectives, experiences and ideas.
Building the future of UK construction entails collaboration among the government, industry leaders and educational institutions. Joint initiatives that support underrepresented groups and remove entry barriers can foster equal opportunities, raise awareness of construction careers, and highlight the industry’s potential for growth and innovation.