How to prevent ill-health among construction workers

27 February 2018

Failure to tackle health problems among employees can cause loss and damage to a business. Enlightened construction companies are taking a proactive approach to manage these risks.

In a resource-restrained market, a good work-life balance and an approach that safeguards employee well-being can help attract and retain talent.

Such measures are also vital for protecting a company’s workforce and business.

One major Australian contractor has set up a new control on its email system where any messages sent late at night are held and delivered the next morning.

The idea behind this move is to create a better work-life balance for its employees, bucking the trend that says long hours are a sign of commitment.

“Construction is becoming much more focused on mental health and depression,” says Jonathan Frost, General Manager of Construction at JLT Australia.

“This is a risk issue. From a business perspective, losing a member of staff through suicide causes a lot more than financial loss. There is also a loss of morale and the loss of knowledge and expertise.”

Research carried out last year by Deakin University for Australian charity Mates in Construction showed that suicide among younger construction workers, aged between 15 and 34, is far higher than for other occupations.

The researchers calculated that, between 2001 and 2015, 3,000 construction workers in Australia had taken their own lives compared with 10,400 for all other workers.

High suicide rates in construction isn’t an Australia-only problem.

A survey by UK magazine Construction News in April last year attracted 1,139 respondents, of which 55 per cent had suffered mental health problems and 24 per cent had considered taking their own lives.

Raising awareness of health issues in construction

The financial impacts are considerable. Research conducted last year by Central Queensland University calculated that the cost of suicide and suicide attempts in the Australian workforce generally in 2014 was AUD 6.73 billion, which suggests that the cost to construction was around AUD1.6 billion.

The Australian construction industry set up Mates in Construction to tackle suicide in 2008, after a report in 2004 highlighted the extent of the problem.

The UK’s Mates in Mind organisation, launched in 2016, aims to raise awareness and provide resources and training in relation to mental health issues generally.

“There are two types of people who are at particular risk,” says Frost. “Project managers, working for top-tier contractors, who work incredibly long hours and have a huge list of responsibilities.

The other group is subcontractors, whose pressures are financially related, with uncertainty around project pipelines and being able to provide financially for their families and staff.

This means they are often spending long hours on site during the day and completing paperwork and tenders for future work after hours.”

Long hours have a detrimental effect on family life too. “Divorce rates in the building industry are much higher than the national average,” says Frost.

This exacerbates poor mental health as a strong family support system plays an important part in keeping people well and helping them regain their health should they fall ill.

And then there’s self-medication with alcohol. “Heavy drinking is a cultural norm,” says Frost. “And all the studies point to the fact that this increases rates of depression.”

In an industry where people just don’t talk about mental health or emotional issues, one of the first steps towards a more proactive approach is to create awareness, for instance, through posters or other media and education.

For example, Recovre, (part of JLT Australia), provides bespoke workplace health, safety and rehabilitation solutions.

Frost says: “Our colleagues in Recovre report that they are seeing an increased demand for specialist advice and training in this area, as well as occupational rehab for those returning to work.”

Understanding mental health among construction workers

With the extent of the problem often hidden due to the fear of stigma, it may also be worth carrying out some initial research to find out just how many people might be affected by mental health.

“We undertook a study for a law firm whose number one risk was identified as mental health issues, particularly depression,” says Frost.

“To better understand the nature of the employees’ behaviour and risk factors, we provided Fitbits for all their senior managers and partners.

“Data was collected for three months to map out sleeping patterns, alcohol intake and exercise to see whether there were any linkages or patterns between these factors and good mental health.”

Changing behaviours to help mental health

The next step is to make changes to work patterns and behaviours.

As the example at the start of this article illustrated, technology can be hugely useful in this area.

Remote working can allow people to spend more time with families and friends; new ways of gathering data in real time can reduce the burden of report writing; and virtual meetings allow travelling time to be spent more productively.

Changing attitudes, technology and working practice doesn’t happen overnight. And it requires commitment and leadership from the top.

However, from a risk-reduction perspective, it is worth investing the resource required to drive these changes. Can you really afford not to?

Six steps to better health

  1. Understand the problem. Consider carrying out surveys or research to find out who is at risk and how that impacts on the risk to your business.
  2. Raise awareness. Let people know that they won’t be stigmatised for speaking up about mental health problems.
  3. Seek support. Investigate industry organisations that can provide advice, counselling and helplines.
  4. Train and educate. All line managers should be given training and support so that they know how to recognise signs of mental illness and how to deal with people.
  5. Be flexible. Consider new ways of working that can ease pressure and improve work/life balance. Technology can play an important enabling role.
  6. Restart with care. Ensure that you have robust back- to-work programmes in place so that people can return to work successfully after an illness. 

For further information please contact Jonathan Frost, General Manager of Construction at JLT Australia on +61 2 9290 6706 or email jonathan.frost@jlta.com.au