How can construction tackle its mental health crisis?


WARNING: This article features issues pertaining to suicide, depression and poor states of mental health, which some readers may find distressing.

We have provided contact details for various support organisations at the bottom of this article.

The founder of a construction mental health charity has called on industry leadership to do more to fight the mental health ‘epidemic’.

Steve Kerslake, founder of Construction Sport, is campaigning for suicides to be reported under the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations (RIDDOR) in order to address the industry’s suicide rate. 

Construction sees the highest number of suicides a year than any other sector, according to data from the Office of National Statistics (ONS). 

ONS data shows 1,433 skilled construction and building trades workers took their own lives between 2017-2021, 43.01 per cent more than the next highest industry, elementary administration and service occupations.

Kerslake experienced first-hand the monumental impact construction played on his and his colleagues’ mental health while working on Crossrail in 2016.

He said: “I was spending 72 hours a week at work doing 12-hour shifts six days a week and it was just burnout, burnout, burnout, every day.

I realised I just need to stretch my legs, so I put together a big walk and I got six of us on the job to walk from Reading to Shenfield across the whole of Crossrail.”

The 35-year-old realised, speaking to the other walkers, he was not the only one that needed an opportunity to step away from work and stretch his legs.

He founded Construction Sport in 2019 to provide sporting opportunities and downtime for construction workers. 

Studies have shown physical activity and exercise help significantly prevent or alleviate mental illness, including depressive symptoms and anxiety- or stress-related disease.

Kerslake believes community and creating a support network is what is needed to address mental health, especially for some men in the industry.

In 2022, the suicide rates for males were 16.4 deaths per 100,000. Kerslake, however, believes more suicides related to construction still go underreported.

Long hours, late payments, transient work, and pressures to deliver are some of the ways, Kerslake argued, that could impact mental health for construction workers.

Such pressures could be exacerbated by the current struggles of the sector, with construction remaining the worst-hit industry for insolvencies which increases work precarity.

Kerslake said: “Because workers are doing as much as they can to get paid, especially because of the cost-of-living, they’re missing out on a lot of support for their workforces.

“We need legislative change, I’m really pushing for suicide to be reported as a RIDDOR.

“To my mind, if we’re gonna get to the bottom of this, we need to understand: does construction play a part in people making the decision to end your life?”

Professor Sarah Waters, from the University of Leeds, published a report looking into 12 suicide cases and the affect workplaces had on them.

The report found that there appeared to be causal links between work and suicide.

Waters told SHP in 2021 that there is a “persistent misconception” regarding the relationship between work and suicide.

She argued the conditions that push someone to take their own life could persist because there is no obligation for an employer do address them.

Kerslake said: “There needs to be a framework created for people to work alongside and understand, so we can all sing off the same hymn sheet.

“We just need the leadership of this industry to realise they need to put ways in place to support their workers, because companies don’t know what to do at the moment and we’re getting so many companies coming to us all the time asking: ‘what can we do?’.

“Everyone’s literally taking a stab in the dark.” 

A Health & Safety Executive spokesperson said: “Suicide is not reportable to us under current regulations.

“A coroner can refer a case to HSE if they consider there is an ongoing risk to others”

Useful support contacts

Construction Sport offers advice on coping with mental health difficulties here.

If you are experiencing poor mental health, or need someone to talk to, you can also contact the Samaritans here. 

You can find more advice about mental health at Mind here. 

Rethink Mental Illness can help here.

The Sandy Health Centre offers an A-Z of mental health organisations here.

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