Reports of a mental health crisis at Britain’s largest construction project, Hinckley Point, have once again highlighted the challenges the construction sector faces with mental wellbeing.
This struggle to manage and improve mental wellbeing leaves companies open to legal challenges, delay and cost. Employers and schemes that do not take steps to better protect and provide for the mental wellbeing of staff and contractors may also find they struggle to recruit the staff they need.
The law is straightforward, and the courts are increasingly sympathetic to staff struggling with mental ill-health.
Get creative to meet prevention requirements
It’s legally given that employers and contractors have responsibilities under health and safety law and many of these duties are preventative. An employer will have breached their duty of care by failing to do everything that was reasonable in the circumstances to keep the employee safe from harm. When that risk is from stress and depression, employers should actively consider creative attempts to encourage relaxation at work and not rely solely on telephone hotlines for stressed workers.
A recent survey by recruiters Morson Group found that more than half of workers with a mental health condition did not inform their employer because they feared their reaction and the repercussions. Employers who dismiss or treat staff less favourably once mental ill-health issues have been raised are automatically considered unfair and will be breaking the law, leaving themselves open to claims through the employment tribunals.
But it is clear that the industry needs to do more than just meet its legal responsibilities. There are ethical and moral responsibilities too.
The causes of mental ill-health in the sector are varied, but some very clear pointers emerge from Hinckley Point. Stress and the anxiety caused by long hours, loneliness and isolation, the struggle of being hundreds of miles away from family and loved ones, and relationship breakdowns are all clearly identified. The similarities to the offshore oil and gas industry are striking.
The business model adopted on many large-scale projects is also partly to blame, with the use of highly paid contractors and agency workers with often scant regard to their wellbeing.
Be proactive to meet the challenges
Hinckley Point has introduced a number of measures to improve mental ill-health and wellbeing including a mental health ‘buddy’ system, access to GPs, chaplains and ‘time to talk’ rooms. Clearly a more proactive programme of support is needed, including measures to address the causes of mental ill-health. This may mean shorter periods of time onsite, with regular ‘shore leave’ to spend with loved ones and families. There are also many softer approaches that have proven benefits, including meditation, yoga and breathing exercises.
And it is not a problem limited to the very large schemes and employers. Small employers may argue that they do not have the time or financial resource to explore and undertake such programmes, but that will curry little favour with the courts when assessing whether there was a duty to take reasonable care of employees’ health and welfare in the first place.
A response appropriate to the size of the scheme and workforce needs to be considered. There are many charities, such Mates in Mind, Lighthouse and other organisations, that companies in the industry can turn to for support and advice. In addition there is a wealth of resource such as targeted coaching and even mediation coaches specialising in the construction sector, who aim to address mental health issues before they arise and, in particular, provide workers with tools to manage effectively the stress which is often an integral part of the job.
The sector is taking steps to address mental ill-health, but on the evidence brought to the fore by the tragic circumstances at Hinckley Point, there is clearly much more that needs to be done.
This article was originally published in Construction News on 19 August 2019.