The UK's mental health is currently under scrutiny with high profile dignitaries, businessmen and organisations all helping to raise awareness of the problems it can cause in the workplace. Many campaigners come from the construction industry – an industry not renowned for its workers' empathy and compassion. Like diversity in the construction industry, which we commented on last month, mental health has, traditionally, been one of those topics everyone avoids both on and off site. But this is not a new topic for construction: back in 2014, Building considered why talking about mental health is taboo in construction. Building focused on the hidden health and safety risks that mental health problems pose in the workplace which can be just as serious a threat to workers as physical injuries and fatalities.

That article was nearly three years ago, but the statistics are still a major concern. The Considerate Constructors Scheme's initiative "Spotlight on… mental health" reports that one in four people will experience a mental health issue in any year. Of the one in five who call in sick due to stress, 90 per cent will feel unable to explain why to their boss. Fearing discrimination and stigma, they keep their ill health to themselves, unfortunately, in some cases, with justification.

When could day-to-day work pressure become a problem?

Other bodies, far better qualified than us, explain the diverse ways in which mental ill health can manifest and affect workers. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) gives simple definitions:

  • Work-related stress is the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them at work.
  • Mental health is how we think, feel and behave.
  • Common mental health problems are those that: are most frequent and more prevalent; and are successfully treated in primary care settings like GPs rather than by specialists such as psychiatrists
  • Anxiety is an unpleasant feeling when you feel worried, uneasy or distressed about something that may or may not be about to happen.
  • Depression is when you have feelings of extreme sadness, despair or inadequacy that last for a long time.

From an employment law perspective, an employee (or job applicant) with a mental impairment, may be legally disabled for the purposes of the Equality Act 2010 where their impairment has a substantial and long-term effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities. If employers fail to adhere to their obligations to make reasonable adjustments, or discriminate against an individual on the grounds that they are disabled, they could face a grievance, or an employment tribunal (ET) claim.

Unsupported mental health issues can exacerbate construction disputes

If you need any incentive to take part in the current mental health campaigns, quite apart from looking after your team's best interests and avoiding potentially costly and time-consuming employment claims, then think also of the business ramifications.

The World Health Organisation's forecast that depression could be the second biggest health problem by 2020 is – or should be – a sobering prediction for employers. The nature of work in the construction industry can make workers susceptible to stress, anxiety and depression. Construction projects, with their multiple parties, complex contracts and conflicting interests are a minefield – those involved are continually navigating their way around unexploded bombs. Some thrive on the adrenalin rush of materials not arriving on time or missing a completion date and rise to the challenge of sorting out the consequent problems. Others succumb to the pressures.

Whether the stress of day-to-day life on a project is bottled up, ignored or dissipated in other ways (in the pub, maybe), the effect on the individual can be marked. Maybe they cannot face dealing with a stroppy site agent and avoid him/her. Maybe they have made a mistake and are too worried about keeping their job or their reputation to report it. Maybe they are behind with record keeping. You can see where this is going … These are common behaviours which can, if not checked, lead to a dispute. If appropriate action is not taken quickly, small issues can quickly escalate into disagreements, omissions can accumulate and before you know it, a notice of adjudication has landed on a director's desk. By that stage, the individual responsible might have been worrying about the problem for weeks and – if still at work – might be in urgent need of support and possibly treatment.

What can employers – and employees – do?

Both employers and employees can take steps to ensure that mental health issues do not affect the health and safety of their staff and co-workers and the smooth running of their projects.

  • Recognise that a mentally well workforce is an efficient workforce. Employees struggling with ill health take time off and/or operate less productively. Reduced manpower, wasted talent, inefficient employees, low morale, recruiting new staff and lost staff days all cost, whether in lost hours, delays on site or the toll that is taken on other co-workers.
  • Introduce a mental health policy, or otherwise cover mental health explicitly within your equal opportunities policy. Consult with your staff about its contents as well as with professionals. Work with one of the mental health charities so that you understand the issues and how they affect your workforce. The HSE's guidance is an excellent starting point. See, for example, their:
  • Train an appropriate number of your staff as mental health first aiders.
  • Train all staff on mental health issues and how to deal with them (including as part of any sickness absence management process). This training should also teach how to look out for signs of stress in co-workers and to recognise when that stress is tipping over into anxiety and depression.
  • Lead from the top: set examples on how to deal with mental health issues when they arise and promote equal opportunities at all levels of the organisation.
  • Provide discreet and readily available services for those who need support and treatment.
  • Foster a culture of openness in which employees feel able to report mistakes without fear of retribution. Mistakes happen – it is how they are dealt with that makes the difference both to the mental health of the individuals involved and the profit margin.
  • Encourage individuals to take responsibility for their actions and ensure that their line managers are taught to offer support with resolving the issue.
  • Recognise that clashes of personalities, whether internally or externally, might exacerbate the smooth running of a project and be prepared to swap roles within your teams.
  • Allow those affected by mental health issues sufficient time to recover and ensure their return to work is managed carefully so that they are not stigmatised or discriminated against.
  • Seek medical advice (for example, from an occupational health adviser, or the employee's doctor) where appropriate, This will help all parties to better understand the employee's condition and make informed decisions about the next steps.

Tips for employees

  • Support fellow workers by lobbying your employer to implement a mental health policy and train staff on the issues.
  • Look out for the warning signs that stress, anxiety or depression might be reducing your productivity. Are you avoiding difficult people, discussions or a challenging job? Are you finding it difficult to make decisions? Are your stress levels rising?
  • If you are finding it difficult to cope and your work and personal relationships are suffering, speak to your doctor and seek help either through your organisation or by contacting one of the many mental health organisations. (See the links below for some examples.)
  • If you've omitted or forgotten to do something, act as soon as you can to rectify the issue. You are probably acutely aware that small mistakes on site can lead to bigger issues for the project and might affect your organisation's relationship with clients as well as the success of the project. Try to work out a solution but do not hesitate to seek help in implementing that solution. This in itself takes courage and, if you are suffering from anxiety or depression, it might help if you have the support of a fellow colleague or manager.
  • Recognise that keeping the issue to yourself will only increase your own stress and anxiety levels: the sooner you share the issue, the sooner a solution can be found.
  • If you do not have confidence in your immediate manager, seek help further up the chain of management or speak to your human relations team in confidence.
  • If you notice stress levels rising in a colleague, don't ignore them. Provide support in whatever way you think appropriate. A chat might be all that is needed. If the health and safety of the team and other workers on the project is at risk, have a word with a senior manager.

Changing your organisation’s culture – what we're doing at Dentons

Commercial lawyers have a longstanding reputation for long and stressful hours and you would be right to point a finger back at legal businesses’ mental health track records. But times are changing – and the changes are at last coming from the management level down. Last year, Dentons announced a new health service "Working bodies and stronger minds" making it easier for employees to access treatment. This type of employee service is not unusual but its announcement was accompanied by partner support and encouragement. One partner openly recommended the service from personal experience. Acknowledgements like this go a long way to removing the stigma of mental health struggles in the workplace.