With the rising incidence of mental health problems during the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s worth remembering that mental health issues, which can range from stress to anxiety and severe depression, can affect managers and other employees alike, and the impacts can very quickly affect families.

A survey of construction and engineering services business owners in late 2019 revealed that a staggering nine out of 10 managers reported some degree of mental health challenge due to business pressures, and within the survey respondents, four said they had attempted suicide.

Engineering services is a huge part of the UK construction and repair, maintenance and improvement (RMI) industry, comprising on average around 40 per cent of the cost of construction, with well over £100 of additional engineering services turnover in RMI. Within this massive sector of the economy, over 85 per cent of the construction workforce is male and over 50 per cent of the sector is made up of self-employed, agency staff or zero-hour contract workers – consistently noted as some of the most stressful working arrangements in the economy.

In the face of this considerable challenge, many large engineering services businesses have increased their mental health support. A further, more recent, COVID-19 Impact survey commissioned by ECA showed nine out of 10 large electrical and other engineering services businesses (89 per cent) now train teams of staff as Mental Health First Aiders. These findings were part of a wider benchmarking survey of larger ECA Members on the impact of COVID-19, completed by twenty four of the largest engineering services firms in the UK, with a combined turnover of several billion pounds.

Almost half of those responding to this survey went on to mention ‘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 quantifying the return on investment in mental health support measures.

Turning awareness into action

According to Mark Lawrence, CEO of leading engineering services business TClarke, one of the respondents to the survey “We have embraced well-being 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’s 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.”

Philip Hamblett, contract manager at N Smith Electrical, was one of the first to take the Mental Health First Aider course delivered by ECA. Over the last year, 20 of the firm’s employees were furloughed and on their return to work, Philip spoke to each employee individually.

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.”

In late 2019, Paul Reeve, ECA Director of CSR presented at a well-attended Access Industry Forum conference, launching the ‘Safety Steps’ suite of industry guidance on Work at Height. Perhaps surprisingly the day’s discussion turned, repeatedly, to mental health and its negative impact on site safety behaviours. “It was as if mental health was elbowing its way to the surface and saying, “you’re really missing what’s going on” says Reeve, who adds “and it’s not just about what happens on site – some 20 per cent of work absence in the sector is attributed to poor mental wellbeing. Lockdowns and business uncertainty mean we now need to deal with an additional ‘silent pandemic’ that’s affecting many owners, managers and other workers.”

The road ahead…

For many, the coronavirus crisis has worsened isolation, affected working hours, sleep and exercise patterns, and increased job uncertainty. Against this backdrop, it’s encouraging to see contractors reporting significant and increasing engagement with employee mental health. Perhaps the main progress to date is to recognise that this is a widespread, not exceptional, issue, that can and should be more openly talked about. The way forward – now and in the future, cannot be to simply tell someone to ‘man up’. There are now plenty of sources of not just support and advice (see panel) and helping to address mental health issues – including not doing the things that can make it worse – can provide massive benefits for employees and business alike.

ECA runs a series of Mental Health First Aider courses, led by Health and Safety Manager Paul Williams. Visit www.eca.co.uk to find out more.

The Electrical industries Charity are running a series of virtual mental health and wellbeing courses, to help raise awareness of the most prevalent issues affecting construction industry professionals. For more information and to book your place, visit www.electricalcharity.org/training

For further mental health advice and resources for the construction industry, visit www.matesinmind.org