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Last edited 20 Jan 2021
COVID-19 and mental health within construction firms
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic which began in 2020, many large construction firms have stepped up to boost mental health support for their employees. These actions come in response to rates of suicide and mental health issues that have risen in this time.
Data published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) in 2020 found that male suicides are now at their highest in two decades and peaked in the 45 to 55 age category. More than 85% of the construction workforce are male.
Paul Reeve, Director of CSR at electrotechnical trade body ECA, highlighted the magnitude of the problem faced by the industry, stating, “On average, two construction workers take their own lives every working day, and 20% of all work absence in the sector is attributed to poor mental wellbeing. The pandemic has further amplified the factors adversely affecting mental health, and we now face an additional ‘silent pandemic’ threatening the lives of owners, managers and other workers.”
Before the first lockdown in March 2020, a survey of construction and engineering services business owners revealed nine out of 10 suffered mental health issues due to business pressures – including depression, stress and even suicidal thoughts. Of all the respondents, four said they had attempted suicide.
Since the start of the pandemic, large engineering services businesses have taken huge strides to address mental ill-health. A subsequent COVID-19 Impact survey commissioned by ECA showed nine out of 10 large electrical and other engineering services businesses (89%) are now training staff as Mental Health First Aiders.
The mental health findings are part of a wider benchmarking survey of larger ECA member contractors on the impact of COVID-19. The survey also covered issues such as ‘return to work’ health and safety measures, employment and pay trends and the use of subcontractors.
 Communication issues
Since the start of the pandemic, 20 of the employees at N Smith Electrical were furloughed. Philip Hamblett, contract manager at the firm, was one of the first to take the Mental Health First Aider course delivered by ECA. As a result of this course, Philip took the initiative to speak to each person individually on their return to work.
He said, “A lot of younger staff communicate by text rather than speaking with people. This is not good if they have an issue concerning them as they do not discuss it. By meeting them separately, it gave me the chance to check they were OK and also the chance to discuss any concerns about the pandemic, be it working on site and ensuring site safety or discussing the loss of a friend or loved one.”
Almost half of those responding to the survey mentioned ‘communication’, or ‘workplace stigma and perceptions’ as challenges to managing mental health. Around a third of respondents referred to the difficulty of measuring outcomes, both in terms of improved mental health and return on investment.
 Offering support
Mark Lawrence, CEO of engineering services business TClarke, said “We have embraced wellbeing and mental health awareness. We still have a predominantly male working population, and death and ill heath due to mental stress in construction overall is far too high.
“As a result, we have teamed up with a business called Green-Hearts Mindfulness and Meditation to roll-out courses, seminars and training. Among other things, these show that there's someone here to talk to. And there have been some interesting journeys: some people have shared their stories with us, helping other people to open up as well.
“It’s been something new and different for us, but it's well worth the investment.”
The coronavirus crisis worsens isolation, longer hours and increased job uncertainty. Reflecting these increased challenges, it is encouraging to see that large contractors reported significant and increasing engagement with employee mental health.
This information was originally released by the ECA on 20 January 2021.
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