Construction Cast 9 – Mental Health

This week you have the option to watch the video, or read the review which will appear below (or both if you’re keen!)…

This week we were joined by Anjali Pindoria, Elvin Box, David Barnes & Daisie Rees-Evans. Sign up for next week’s Construction Cast with Paul Darling OBE QC here.

Construction Cast – Mental Health Awareness Week

As the COVID-19 situation continues, we start with Anjali and how life has been for subcontractors with little or no cash flow. Like most of the built environment, her firm has been open throughout lockdown. Adapting has been a challenge; how do we build whilst maintaining social distancing and adhering to government guidelines?

For a subcontractor, Anjali’s firm has a good digital set up so where possible the team have been able to work from home. A lot of suppliers have shut, but the contractual obligations to complete projects still exist. It has been a matter of reviewing contractual obligations and seeing where work can be accelerated to make up time.

Many subcontractors are cash poor with cash tied up in materials, project costs and retentions. Under the current circumstances, some have been looking to prioritise spending and cut short term costs. Government schemes have helped, and many firms have been cutting overheads, putting things like accreditations on hold. Anjali recommends looking at working with main contractors and suppliers to review payment terms.

For Elvin, London Constructing Excellence Club has become digital. Whilst they were a little slow to the party, they have now held two online events, repeating one because it was so popular. However, despite events being successful, the overwhelming negative is lack of face-to-face contact.

So much of business is based on trust, and far more trust can be attained when you are in the presence of somebody. So many things you can’t get your head around over a webcam. The interaction that happens in a normal networking situation face to face is extremely difficult to create online. Taking turns, accidentally interrupting each other etc. nullifies the natural flow of conversation.

Mental Health

As we move onto the day’s main topic, we note that CLC have published another set of guidelines this week along with the government allowing construction sites to work longer hours.

Elvin worries what this could mean for the workforce. He would have preferred an expectation that people will work the same length of shift – but across longer hours. If we see people working much longer hours this could have a really bad impact on mental health.

Productivity is down between 30-40 % due to social distancing. So, allowing sites to open for longer hours could be a positive measure, but only if it is used to allow people so social distance rather than have everyone on site longer. Split shifts and teams as described by DJ Gibbs in week 1 of construction cast would work well.

Daisie was part of the team who wrote the new CIOB report on mental health in the construction industry. The construction industry has improved H&S immensely over the past few decades, but mental health and wellbeing has been neglected.

Troubling Statistics

The report highlights some scary statistics, such as construction workers are at more risk of suicide than death from falling from heights. 1 in 4 construction workers though about suicide in 2019. 71% of individuals have had no training on mental health awareness in the last three years. Prof Charles Egbu, the current president of the CIOB has made mental health a priority during his presidency. The aim of report was to look at current state of mental health in construction and what factors on sites contribute. The report included recommendations for industry, govt. and professional bodies to make sure it is not a silent crisis and we can work towards improving it in our industry and society.

97% of people in construction experienced stress at least once in 2019. Common issues in construction that contribute to that are time pressure, deadlines etc. We spend 1/3 of our time at work. In construction, this typically means on temporary sites. Poor toilet facilities are a key stress for 71% manual workers. Site facilities can vary so much from site to site.

The Subbie Perspective

For Anjali, she believes that increasing diversity could play a role in the mental health arena. Diversity has a lot to do with acceptance. If you don’t feel like you belong, that will impact your mental health. It is all about you as aa person, if you can’t be yourself this will be a problem. A diverse workforce would lead to a healthier workforce. You might then find people you can relate to – can understand your cultural norms etc. We always feel better when we find we are not the only person struggling in a situation.

Sub-contractors don’t tend to deal with mental health problems as well as some of the large main contractors. This is simply because the support system is smaller. SMEs don’t have a larger set up of people you can go to – HR, mental health first trainers etc. They lack the budgets or time to dedicate to mental health initiatives. Working for a subcontractor can also make you feel more isolated. Also, some of the common problems for subcontractors such as payment or delivery, they feel they can’t really speak out about as it could dampen relationship with contractors. 90% of industry are subcontractors. That’s 308,700 businesses – who could be vulnerable because they don’t have that support around them

Real Life Experiences

Elvin shared some candid personal experiences with us. In his early twenties he worked on site. This was a time when the industry was very different. Elvin was on site one day when a young colleague , just 24 years old, fell 6 floors to his death through a hoist tower on his second day on the job. Seeing that happen is something that will never go away, and Elvin will never forget. Probably the hardest situation he has ever been in. And despite Elvin being the calmest person around at the time, dealing with H&S executive, about three weeks later he was diagnosed with mild depression. Back in those days there wasn’t any counselling. Though Elvin came to terms with it, he found even ‘mild’ depression to be quite a challenge.

More recently, in 2016 Elvin was diagnosed with prostate cancer. A completely different life experience but both took a heavy toll on his mental health. He makes a very important point, when you have a heavy bout of mental health issues, you’ll never be the same again.

Look Out for Each Other

Elvin believes we need to look at the immense pressure certain individuals are under on a construction project. We need to take care to look out for each other and try to spot those signs that others might not be ok.

Elvin works very closely with Movember. They have a campaign to help you look out for signs  that could point to someone who is struggling with their mental health. These may include things like:

  • Less of what they enjoyed
  • Not showing up / late
  • Less interested in their appearance
  • Too much drinking/drugs – self destructive behaviour.
  • Anger quicker

When Elvin had cancer, he looked fine, but he would sometimes get very angry. He has learnt that you really have to have your sense about you ,to see if there is something wrong with an individual. You can never know what has sparked the problem. If something is nagging at you that doesn’t feel right, speak out. Some years ago, when Elvin was working with subbies, it dawned on him that one of the team had lost a lot of weight. Over coffee, Elvin asked why and if everything was ok and he broke into tears, his daughter had been in a near fatal car crash. That half hour coffee meant so much to the team member. He needed someone to talk to and ask him what was wrong for him to be able to admit he wasn’t himself.

Stuart recalls a talk he went to with the CIOB where Simon Weston was the keynote speaker. Simon survives by regularly telling everyone what happened to him in the Falklands conflict. It seems to be one of his ways of tackling the horrific things that happened to him.

How Can We Improve?

David shared some of the recommendations from the CIOB report. There is advice for industry, government and professional bodies in the industry.

With the current situation, they are recommending an increase of online courses that raise awareness on mental health. The positive of this situation means that this can be rolled out internationally. But you need to be aware mental health means different things in different parts of the world.

Hygiene on site needs to be improved. Particularly with COVID-19. Toilets and handwashing facilities need to be clean and available. Stories of female toilets being converted into specialist Corona-zones are unacceptable. People need the confidence in hygiene standards if we are going to expect them to go back to work.

David says the report highlights our duty as professionals to look out for one another. There have already been positives, for example the number of professionals who have signed up to become mental health first aiders. But now we need to take it to the next stage, measure what is working and look at how we can improve.

There are lots of good case studies in the report. Thames Tideway has healthiest workforce in the UK from some of the measures they have implemented.

Takeaways

Construction is one of the key industries which will help the UK to recovery from COVID—19. But the panel agree we must learn some of the lessons, take the positives and implement them into the new normal. Collaborative effort is required across the supply chain and across projects. How the processes have improved to enable us to build field hospitals so quickly. The positives to shift working. We now have a chance to make the industry more flexible, more attractive and do better once we are out of the current situation.