Dave Lee reached a crunch point in 2006. He had built his way up and made a good career in construction, reaching the level of contracts manager, despite an unpromising start in which he spent his teenage years in and out of jail.
But even as the Brighton-based builder apparently made a success of his work life, he was deeply unhappy and dependent on alcohol. “I was married with two kids, and that’s when I realised I had to choose between drink and the family.”
Approaching this problem with his enterprising spirit, Lee read a series of books, attended workshops, met therapists and eventually became the author of The Hairy Arsed Builder’s Guide to Stress Management.
“There’s a lot of anger within the construction industry and behind the anger is frustration and depression.
“There’s the targets, the deadlines, the worries about being late delivering and having enough money. It’s a male environment. No one talks about their feelings.”
In starting what he calls a “self-development journey” back in 2006, he became part of an emerging trend. Brian Rye, national officer at the construction workers’ union Ucatt, says: “In recent years there’s been a much more serious approach to dealing with mental health in the workplace. It’s been a serious topic of conversation in construction.”
The industry in the world’s wealthier countries has an improving record on physical safety: in the UK the rate of fatal accidents has almost halved from nearly 300 per 100,000 workers in 1996-97 to under 150 in 2015-16. The figures in the US and Australia have also been on a downward trend.
While hard hats and safety managers are now ubiquitous, in recent years it has dawned on industry leaders that workers will not be truly safe unless their mental health is protected as well.
According to the Australian organisation Mates in Construction, workers in the industry are six times more likely to die from suicide than from a workplace accident.
Builders have a “significantly elevated risk” of suicide, along with farmers and police, although not as high as general labourers and cleaners, according to a review of studies on suicide published in the British Journal of Psychiatry in 2013.
Rye says workplace stresses specific to the industry may contribute to mental health conditions. “In construction, your work finishes when the current job finishes, so there’s financial stress with regards to continuing work. Then there’s the bad weather.
“Sometimes people don’t get paid at Christmas because there’s no holiday pay, then the job freezes up for two or three weeks in January — these are sets of circumstances that don’t apply in other work environments.”
The prevalence of men in construction may itself skew the numbers: according to the Samaritans, men in their 30s to 50s from “disadvantaged backgrounds” are the group with the greatest suicide risk.
Progress is being made. Dan Labbad, chief executive of international operations at Lendlease — an Australian-based construction and property company that employs 13,000 people — said his company has introduced a series of mental health initiatives over the past two years.
It has trained more than 400 people as “mental health first aiders”, who are taught to spot early signs of problems, guide people towards the right support and reduce stigma around mental illness. Lendlease allows workers to take one extra day off per quarter as “wellbeing leave”, which senior executives are encouraged to take as an example to juniors.
Labbad says it is too early to see, in data terms, if the company’s initiatives are having an effect, although he expects that any success in improving mental health will improve productivity as well.
Lee, the Brighton builder, now runs a company, Building Site to Boardroom (BS2B), which offers training to construction and other companies in how to promote wellbeing among workers — so far entirely funded by himself and his colleagues. This focuses on the values of personal responsibility, integrity, authenticity and equal dignity.
“We don’t talk about mental health, we talk about inner wellbeing,” he says. “You don’t label a builder ‘mental’.”
Language is important: “We talk about taking personal responsibility. It’s not ‘you’re making me angry’ but ‘I’m feeling angry’. There’s a difference.”
He met BS2B’s managing director, Andy Dean, at a wellbeing workshop: “It’s unusual to meet a builder in that environment. It’s all middle England, older people with time and money on their hands for personal development.”
Dean says the response within the construction industry has been positive but “it’s more of a struggle at the senior level where people are a bit more guarded.
“Because it’s their company they think it’s something they are doing for the workers but mental health is about everyone. Anger is anger. It doesn’t matter if you’re a managing director or a ground worker.”
Dean, a qualified therapist who also runs building sites, says he uses simple measures with employees such as “taking time for talking in the morning, having a cup of tea and sharing our day before. I found if I gave people 20 minutes or half an hour in the morning to unload, they weren’t carrying that throughout their day and they were more switched on, more pleasant.”
Via the Financial Times. Read the original article here.