Last edited 26 Oct 2020

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Keeping your mind on the job

Addressing issues of mental health within the built environment.

When you hear the term health and safety, what comes to mind? Hi-vis, hard hats and steel toe-capped boots? Yes, they are all good tools to keep us safe in our working environments. As an industry, we have come a long way, we promote a safety culture on site and we identify risks and mitigate against them.

We have trained first-aid personnel at hand should the unfortunate happen. All the above protect the individual from hazards within the environment they work.

Is this enough? Keeping alert and keeping your mind on the job is also key to staying safe.

Keeping your mind on the job’ is an interesting phrase. For some, it can be challenging. For others, the mind can be a troubled place and old taboos around mental health can make discussing the subject uncomfortable. It is likely that most of us have, at some time, encountered a colleague who has been troubled. Sometimes troubles can be concealed under a veneer of banter or a cloak of silence.

The HSE recorded 30 fatalities on building sites in 2017 with 64,000 non-fatal injuries reported each year. However, stress, anxiety and depression accounts for 15% of work-related ill health cases. More information here.

The number of deaths or injuries that result from a troubled mind being elsewhere and not on the job is impossible to tell. Certainly, a person’s state of mental health has an influence on attention and focus and it is probably fair to say that a proportion of incidents are as a result of a troubled mind being distracted from the task in hand.

It has been encouraging to see how campaigns within our industry have focused through the lenses of mental health. Mates in Mind ‘aims to provide clear information to employers on available support and guidance on mental health, mental illness and mental wellbeing’.

The Architects’ Benevolent Society also ‘offers practical support to people experiencing anxiety, stress or anxiety-based depression through [its] partnership with Anxiety UK.’ These industry-specific organisations provide excellent support both to someone who is suffering from anxiety, depression and stress and to those who spot the signs in a colleague.

The key is taking that first step. This is where, as an industry, we need to build courage within the culture to act in a supportive way when a mental health issue becomes apparent. It is easy to find that courage to shout out when someone is not wearing a hard hat, but perhaps not so easy to identify the risks or find the courage to reach out, when a troubled mind is not focused on the job. Courage is a more accessible commodity when one knows how to offer guidance and point the way to professional support. That first conversation where the threshold is crossed into the space of sincere discussion about how one is really feeling is far less daunting when the landscape of professional support is on the horizon. Beyond that horizon can be a tangible support to find a road to recovery.

One instance observed by the author was where a site manager was in a place of darkness in his life. On the surface, the intelligent, witty and charismatic leader was held in great respect within the team. But over a number of months, hints that life at home was not going well surfaced from time to time, often laughed off with some flippant remark. After one particular meeting, the conversation took on a different tone. It was clear that the spark of wit and charisma was being extinguished by a flood of dark emotions. A long conversation took place where the author listened intently.

The site manager was not afraid to share his fears articulately. There were tears, fears and moments of panic…even the author shed a tear on hearing the story. Following the conversation, and knowing there was a way to offer support, a call to Mates in Mind was made to convey the site manager’s story and find out what help might be available. In fact, the range of support from legal, financial and emotional matters was superb. Equipped with more knowledge, further contact with Mates in Mind for support and guidance was encouraged.

Without a doubt, the decision to call was instrumental in changing the course of the situation and increasing the range of possible outcomes.

Unfortunately, not everyone is as articulate and willing to share their experiences. Signs can be subtle and finding the courage to cross that threshold into an honest and meaningful conversation can be more than challenging.

Training is available via Mates in Mind which offers Mental Health First Aid – a two-day course that teaches people to spot the symptoms of common mental health issues and recognise the early signs that someone may need support.

Many of the large construction companies already support the Mates in Mind initiative. The opportunity to receive training in mental health first-aid is a great step forward. Raising awareness of the support available within the industry is the mission to give us all the courage to lend a supporting hand when needed.

[edit] About this article

This article was written by Niall Healy MCIAT. It first appeared in Architectural Technology magazine (AT128) and on the website of the Chartered Institute of Architectural Technologists. It can be accessed here.

[edit] Related articles on Designing Buildings Wiki


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