Tackling mental health problems
No one guessed, no one knew what was going on behind the cheery smile, the coroner at Maidstone Court was told. The inquest in April 2019 into the suicide of Karl Edmunds, 41, heard that the plumber had been seeking help for depression since 2017. He had been found dead at home by a friend.
Detective Sergeant Kevin Gurr, who investigated, said most people who had known Karl Edmunds were unaware of his situation: “The majority of people I spoke to, most of them just expressed how happy he was,” he said. “He just appeared to be happy and upbeat.” Sadly, his story is all too familiar.
Suicide is now a major cause of death in the UK, with over 6,500 people taking their own life in 2018. And 75% of them are men. It’s now the biggest killer of men under 45.
Construction industry workers account for the largest proportion, with the highest suicide rate of any profession. According to the Office for National Statistics, between 2011 and 2015, more than 1,400 UK construction workers took their own lives. In 2016, there were over 450 deaths.
A safety net
Bill Hill is chief executive of the construction industry charity Lighthouse Club, which has been providing mental health support to people working in the industry since 1956. He says there are a lot of reasons why.
Stress and working alone are the two biggest factors, he reveals. “Social isolation is a big problem across the board. The industry has high-risk factors. You’re often working in difficult places with dangerous stuff. There’s a lot of improvising without certain knowledge and the stress of what might happen if it doesn’t come off.”
Ruth Sutherland, CEO of Samaritans agrees: “Work can be a big part of our identity and it fundamentally influences our wellbeing. Tight deadlines, too much responsibility and lack of managerial support are the main factors causing work-related stress, depression or anxiety. Lone workers face unique challenges when it comes to mental health and wellbeing.”
She adds: “We spend a great deal of our adult lives at work, so it’s likely that there are people struggling to cope in your own workplace and trying to hide it. We all have a responsibility to support our colleagues and employees.”
Even if someone wants to talk about their problems, they may not always be in the position to do so because of the culture in a largely male-dominated workplace – or if they work for themselves.
Hill says: “Self-managing your mental health is difficult when you work for yourself and you need the job to pay the bills.”
One of the biggest issues that Hill comes across is the fear of financial hardship. It is this that is most common among older men in the industry. He says: “There’s no support if you are injured and there comes a time in your life when you realise that you’re not invincible and you’re only two pay cheques away from poverty.”
New Year is a time for resolutions – but January is also usually the toughest part of the year: with long nights, freezing working conditions and a lull after the excitement of Christmas. The good news is that help is at hand, and the CIPHE is taking action to break the silence on depression in the industry.
Change starts here
The CIPHE has begun working with Lighthouse Club and the Samaritans to help anyone who is going through tough times. And throughout the rest of this year, we will be running our Under Pressure campaign to tackle issues linked to mental health and offer practical advice and support.
Bill Hill says: “A lot can be done; no one needs to suffer alone. The industry has woken up and the dials are moving in the right direction. There’s more openness: people in the workplace are being encouraged to get help.”
There are resources for both workers who feel they need help and employers who want to change the workplace culture to lower the risk of depression spiralling. There’s an added benefit for employers: according to Lighthouse Club, 2.4m work days are lost in the industry every year to mental health. A healthy workplace has fewer sick days.
Lighthouse Club’s approach is based on the reality that mental health episodes are complex. Hill says: “It’s never just one that’s crept up and hurt your psyche.” So, it has created an app – the Construction Industry Helpline – that you can download from the App Store or Google Play onto your smartphone. On it, you will find simple advice on many of the issues people face. Once it’s on your phone, you can use it anytime, anywhere. Or, if a human voice can make a better difference, you can call the Construction Industry Helpline (0345 605 1956), which is available for families, too.
Not only that, there’s financial help, debt advice and support for injured people who need to retrain for a new career. Last year, the charity helped 1,662 families in crisis and delivered £1,486,726 in emergency financial aid.
For employers, the charity has developed a five-step charter that sets out what organisations can do and will train employees to become mental health first-aiders. Its target is to train 5,000 people. It has also created 500,000 advice cards that employers and workers can share with other people.
Hill says: “I want to surround people with the toolset. I’d love all 2.6 million people in the construction industry to either download the app or carry the card.”
It’s not the only organisation that offers help. Samaritans is the biggest support organisation in the country and it too has developed advice and training.
Ruth Sutherland says: “We know that every company and workplace culture is unique. Samaritans can help by providing courses, talks, sessions and tools to support companies to help employees.
“We’ve delivered training for over 15 years to businesses in the UK and Ireland. This includes communications, resilience and wellbeing training that provides individuals with techniques that support their emotional wellbeing in their private or work life.
“We also developed an award-winning online tool – Wellbeing in the Workplace – that gives employees the skills to intervene when someone is struggling, actively listen and manage difficult conversations. It also teaches employees the skills to look after their emotional health and to look out for others, before they reach crisis point.” People who are worried about someone can make a real difference by talking to them, and preparing for that conversation is key.
Time to listen
Everyone can help and as part of Under Pressure, we will be encouraging people to start by asking “are you okay?” – and taking time to listen to the answer.
Kevin Wellman, chief executive officer of the CIPHE says: “CIPHE members have worked long and hard to achieve the levels of qualification and professionalism that provide such public benefit. It is a loss for all of us if issues surrounding mental health prevent them from being the best that they can be. We have to be prepared to talk about this subject as it is so much more difficult to support people when they do not feel able to speak out. If we can open the way for people to share their problems, we can help them make that first crucial step – and maybe save a life.”
Hill says the biggest step forward to preventing more deaths like that of Karl Edmunds is to start talking about mental health issues. The first step towards solving a problem is admitting there is one to be solved. He says: “Stopping people dropping through the floor is something we can all get involved with. With our support, we will catch them. Stigma is our biggest enemy.”
Help a colleague to open up
- If you notice a co-worker struggling, encourage them to talk about it
- Offer to lend an ear – and listen without judgement.
- Find a good time and place to talk.
- Use open language. Don’t talk a problem down. Phrases like ‘it doesn’t matter’ may lead someone to think you are trivialising their problems.
- Remind your colleague that they are valued and appreciated.
- Encourage them to take some exercise: endorphins released in exercise can help to reduce depression.
- Arrange to meet again, or plan in an enjoyable activity on a future date that they can focus on.
- Encourage them to seek help from a medical professional.
If you’re a manager and want to improve your approach to mental health support, visit www.buildingmentalhealth.net
If you’re feeling low, there’s help on hand. Call the Construction Industry Helpline – a confidential line open 24/7 – on 0345 605 1956
Download the Construction Industry Helpline app from the App Store or Google Play.
Get more advice and updates from the Lighthouse Club charityat www.lighthouseclub.org
Call Samaritansfree anytime from any phone on116 123.Find more advice at www.samaritans.org