Construction workers have been paying the ultimate price due to the industry’s outdated attitudes to mental health. This two-part blog series reveals the extent of the problem and explores how new schemes and clued-up thinking are paying off for workers and employers alike.
Mental health is big news in UK construction. Contractors, developers and civil engineers are committing themselves to increasing their workers’ wellbeing and it’s not a moment too soon.
Globally, the industry has one of the worst records for employee mental health. Tragically, every year, about 400 British workers in the engineering and construction sectors take their own lives.
Now, finally, construction firms are getting with the programme. They are de-stigmatising mental health issues and discovering ancillary benefits that could avert future deaths, along with the legal, financial and reputational considerations that inevitably flow from such an event.
This mental health blog is part one of a two-part special. Read this instalment to discover the scale of the issue, including:
- Why UK construction has a suicide rate that’s more than three times the national average
- How suicide rates compare with other English-speaking countries
- The costs of poor employee mental health in the construction industry, both to workers and companies
- Employers’ liabilities and the construction claims landscape.
Part two, Mental Health in Construction 2: How to Boost Worker Wellbeing, details employers’ legal obligations; suggests a process that enables employers to ‘do the right thing’; examines construction risk management considerations and looks at resources available to employers, both in the UK and globally.
Why is construction’s mental health record so poor?
Several risk factors combine to make construction such a damaging profession for worker mental health. They include – but are not restricted to – the following:
Construction’s workforce is predominantly male, and despite some changes, still retains a traditional, macho ‘don’t ask for help’ culture: The most common cause of death for men aged 20-49 years in England and Wales is suicide. In Great Britain, some 5,821 suicides were recorded in 2017. Of these, 75% were male *1. This percentage remains consistent year after year. The higher risk factor for males is amplified by construction’s ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ approach to the mental health issues that affect its workforce.
Difficult working conditions: Construction is a tough job that has the potential to trigger and exacerbate anxiety and depression. Long hours, irregular pay, and working conditions that have traditionally been cold and dirty are among the challenges affecting employee wellbeing. Additionally, the ‘hire and fire’ nature of the job can leave workers with worries surrounding their ability to support themselves and their families, leading to feelings of worthlessness.
Bullying: Employees who experience workplace bullying are twice as likely to experience suicidal thoughts, according to the Workplace Bullying Institute *2. It is prevalent within construction, with about 60% of employees experiencing bullying *3. Building and construction workers say they are exposed to many different types of workplace victimisation, according to a recent report, which adds that apprentices are more vulnerable to such treatment as they are less likely to report it to management *4.
Lack of support networks: Working in the construction industry can involve a lot of long distance travel, plus extended amounts of time spent away on site, away from families, friendship groups and other support networks.
Global overview: Construction worker suicide rates
Construction suicide rates all over the world were described as alarming in the 2017 conference paper, Suicide in the Construction Industry: It’s Time to Talk *5. The paper detailed how construction workers suffer from a high incidence of mental illness, adding that in many countries, the suicide statistics for those in the building trades are high when compared with the general population.
Globally, the industry’s governing bodies are introducing initiatives to boost mental health and provide advice and support to workers who are in distress. The level of uptake varies from country to country:
UK: A total of 1,419 construction employees took their own lives between 2011 and 2015 with low-skilled male construction workers having the greatest risk, at 3.7 times the national average *6. Indeed, workers in the building trade are six times more likely to take their own life than be killed in a fall from height. Employees in the building finishing trades, including plasterers, painters and decorators, have a risk twice the national average *7.
North America: In the US, suicide rates are highest among men in the construction and extraction (mining) sectors, according to a 2018 report *8. Its findings were based on the analysis of 22,000 people who died by suicide in 17 states in 2012 and 2015. The construction worker rates are markedly higher than they are for the general male population, according to the 2017 paper, Suicide in the Construction Industry: It’s Time to Talk *5.
Canada: Suicide is the second leading cause of death in the construction industry in men aged 25 to 59. The highest rates occur in male workers aged between 40 and 59 *9.
Australia: Construction workers are 70% more likely to take their lives than males employed in other industries in Australia. Builders, labourers and operators are at a highly elevated risk of suicide *10.
New Zealand: Each year, about 75% of all suicides in the country occur in men, with those of working age being the most vulnerable *11. Men in construction are more at risk than any other employed men in the country. The culture on site has been described as macho, bullying and intolerant of diversity and can be seen to contribute significantly to the poor mental health of construction workers *12.
Consequences: The costs of poor mental health in construction workers
Construction companies that adopt a progressive approach to worker mental health are putting themselves on the front foot, both legally and morally. Failure to address the issue could result in the following:
Poor outcomes for workers
Worker stress can be as toxic to the body as second-hand smoke, according to a 2015 study *12. If stress becomes excessive and prolonged, mental and physical illness may develop. High job demands increase a worker’s odds of being diagnosed with a medical condition by 35%, and if they consistently work more than 40 hours a week (perhaps to meet those high demands), they are almost 20% per cent more likely to die a premature death *13.
Employers’ Liability claims and court cases for employers
At the very minimum, stress, anxiety and poor mental health within a construction firm’s workforce can result in falling productivity, worker absence and poor staff retention rates. If the underlying causes are left unaddressed, outcomes – and consequences – become more serious.
Following on from the House of Lords decision in Corr v IBC Vehicles in 2008, depression caused by a physical injury in the workplace that subsequently leads to suicide was found not to break the chain of causation. Accordingly employers can be found liable for a suicide and its financial effects, if they are found to be in breach of duty for the original physical injury or bullying/harassment that led to the depression which triggered the suicide.
In such cases, it is common for a civil claim to be launched by the family / dependents for the “loss of dependency”. This loss is interpreted as both a loss of financial dependency (from the loss of the deceased's earnings capacity), and also a loss of services dependency to compensate for all of the contributions the deceased would have made to family life had it not been for their death. Funeral expenses and a statutory bereavement award of £12,980 are paid in addition.
The situation is compounded north of the border, where juries in the Scottish courts make additional awards for “loss of society”, to the deceased’s wider family to include grandchildren. These construction liability insurance claims are large, and often run into six or even seven figures. Discover how the Ogden personal injury discount rate (PIDR) affects the level of EL payouts here.
Additionally, employers might also be found liable for breaches of health and safety law, resulting in regulatory unlimited fines, publicity notices and prison sentences for individuals convicted of gross negligence manslaughter.
Mental health and construction: the claims landscape
Currently, the number of employer’s liability (EL) claims against contractors’ or developers’ insurance is low relative to the amount of suicide-related deaths within the construction workforce.
Employers should be mindful that the statistics could be higher than published figures due to the difficulty of ascertaining whether an on-site death was suicide or an accident.
Regardless of whether or not the death was regarded initially as a suicide, dependents / families could still bring a claim for breach of duty.
Additionally, employment tribunal claims have risen by 90% in the UK since fees were abolished *14.
The increased potential of claims, coupled with developments in the way the ‘chain of causation’ is interpreted, and the developing duty of care owed by an employer, means the issue of workplace suicide could result in a future increase in EL claims and payouts.
An increased commitment to worker mental health helps to reduce suicide statistics that have been too high for too long.
It could also head off a developers' or contractors' insurance claims issue that has the potential to leave construction firms with significant financial and reputational liabilities.
Paul Donnelly, partner at DWF Law, has a number of construction clients, and he says the message is filtering through, but there is work to be done: “Many of my clients are taking action to bring mental health awareness into toolbox talks and with communications via posters in site offices and the like. However, the increased vigilance and consideration of mental health of the workforce is essential."
“With knowledge of risk to health comes a legal duty and responsibility to ensure that the work environment does not increase the risk of causing psychiatric harm. Employers have a responsibility to take reasonable steps to identify those at risk and seek to ensure that the work environment does not contribute to the life stressors that can impact a person's mental health."
“Businesses that do not heed these warnings and do not proactively act upon this knowledge could find themselves exposed to liability. Plus, of course, the human and financial cost to the industry of a potentially underproductive and over-stressed workforce are very important factors.”
Rewards: The benefits of good mental health in construction
Clearly, there are legal, financial and also moral cases for improving mental health in the construction industry. The need to meet statutory and regulatory obligations is self-evident, and all decent employers want to do, and be seen to do, the right thing by their workers.
But employee wellbeing could also have a positive effect on a company’s financial health.
Indeed there are some indications that FTSE 100 companies that pay attention to mental health could make twice as much in profits as those that don’t.
The 46 firms whose 2017 / 2018 reports featured the words ‘mental health’ or ‘wellbeing’ three times or more had average profits of £1.568billion, found a survey by health tech company, Soma Analytics.
However, the 54 companies whose reports featured the two phrases less frequently, racked up average profits of less than half that amount; about £680 million *15.
Not only is this good news for workers and bosses alike, it is good for the nation as a whole. Improved wellbeing can increase productivity by up to a day a week *16. If the uptake of mental health initiatives increases, it could narrow the productivity gap between the UK and the other six G7 economies. Currently, the UK lags 16.3 percentage points behind the rest in terms of output per hour *17.
Read part two of this blog to discover:
- Construction companies’ legal obligations relating to employee mental health
- An action plan enabling employers to ‘do the right thing’
- Practical risk management considerations when setting up wellbeing programmes
- Resources available to employers, both in the UK and globally.
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