Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Mental health – the invisible health & safety crisis

Paul McLaughlin, BESA Chief Executive

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?

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.

Mental Health Awareness week is an opportunity for everyone in the ‘tough’ world of construction to pause and think about the impact of our stressful day-to-day working patterns.

We have made massive strides forward as an industry on safety issues in the past 20 years, but on health (and mental health in particular) we still have a long way to go.

A growing number of workers continue to suffer stress-related illnesses and, in the worst cases, commit suicide. Some people deal with the ‘tough talking’ involved in building projects better than others, but a modern engineering industry really must develop a more consensual approach to communication.

Our latest occupational health survey, in conjunction with the ECA, shows that mental health is now high on the agenda for employers. 80% of companies surveyed said it would have an increasingly serious impact on their businesses over the next five to 10 years, but a sizeable proportion (over 30%) admitted that they found the issue “hard to manage”.

Many of us find it far easier to deal with a physical affliction – there is no shame in admitting that. If someone has a broken leg, you offer sympathy and advice. Most people feel uncomfortable about mental health problems and find them hard to define and confront. Equally, many people who work in ‘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 – and as a result people just ‘soldier on’ keeping their gradually deteriorating mental state to themselves.

At BESA, we recognise the importance of intervening to help workers and employers tackle this increasingly worrying problem. We have started work with the Samaritans, who have offered to provide training and counselling strategies specific to our sector. We have also noted the progress made by colleagues in Australia where the Mates in Construction (MIC) charity has been operating since 2008.

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