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23 April 2018
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The toll stress in the workplace can take on mental health has long been a taboo topic, and recent government figures for suicide rates in construction-related trades have highlighted the crisis. But, says Kevin Stanley, the FM industry is listening.

Illustration: Shutterstock
Illustration: Shutterstock

10 April 2017 | Kevin Stanley

Every employer is required by law to ensure that work activities do not harm workers’ health, including harm because of stress. While pressure, such as deadlines, can be useful for achieving performance, stress is a person’s negative reaction to excessive or sustained high pressure. 

“Stress is never good, for either company, or individual performance,” says Paul Reeve, director of business services, at the Electrical Contractors’ Association (ECA).

Recent ECA research indicates that workplace stress is regarded as a significant hazard in around a third of building services engineering companies. “It’s a real workplace issue that needs to be carefully considered by management,” says Reeve. 

“In its efforts to combat workplace stress and mental health issues the ECA is producing a mini-series of short, practical guides in this area, and the first will be a manager’s ‘easy steps’ crib sheet on how to prevent and identify occupational stress,” he adds.

Paul McLaughlin, chief executive, at the Building Engineering Services Association (BESA) says the latest statistics covering suicide rates in construction-related trades are “truly shocking” and “should serve as a ‘wake-up call’ for employers.” In fact, according to new data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), the suicide rate in construction-related trades is 63 per cent above the national average and is far higher than most other UK professions. There were more suicides in construction than in any other profession in the five years to the end of 2015, including 1,419 suicides in unskilled construction and building trades. 

“The industry has made huge strides forward in health and safety in the past 20 years, and whilst physical safety has significantly improved, our record on health, and mental health in particular, is not so good,” says McLaughlin. “There are thousands of risk assessments being carried out across the industry, but very few mention mental health. There needs to be a significant culture change,” he adds.

According to a recent BESA survey, eight out of 10 building engineering contractors believe that workplace mental health will have a growing impact on their businesses over the next five to 10 years and that around 30 per cent admitted they found on-site mental health “hard to manage”. 

“That second figure is probably misleading and, in reality, should be considerably higher,” says McLaughlin. “I think if we’re honest, most employers would admit they find this an incredibly difficult issue to address.” McLaughlin urges employers to acknowledge where there is a problem as a first step. “How the industry behaves and how it treats people are significant factors,” he explains. “The competitive nature of our supply chains and our industry’s so-called ‘macho’ culture can put people under intolerable pressure.”

BESA has been working with the mental health charity Samaritans and during a joint workshop last year it was clear that many specialist contractor employers feared saying or doing the wrong thing, or that they might actually create a problem by trying to intervene. 

“Many people who work in so-called ‘hard’ technical professions are loath to display apparent weakness by asking for help so the situation continues to fester and deteriorate, with potentially tragic consequences,” explains McLaughlin. “Everyone is busy, so asking them to slow down and listen is asking a lot. Yet, giving someone the gift of allowing them to confide and unload is incredibly precious,” he adds.

Emma Potter
Illustration: Shutterstock
Illustration: Shutterstock

Outside strains

Another challenge for mental health and the workplace is the response for employees who are caring for people. “Carers are at a higher risk of developing mental health issues and usually don’t see that there is a risk to themselves until they are suffering themselves from lack of sleep or lack of support,” says Nick Brook, head of facilities at Mills & Reeve LLP. 

These situations are especially challenging because they are one step removed from the workplace but still have a profound impact on it. “Rarely, in my experience, will someone approach a line manager and say they need help. It’s important for the line manager to be aware of the situation and in many cases broach the topic in a caring way and offer support, be it time off, reduced hours, counselling, or the suggestion to go to the doctor,” says Brook.

There are of course difficulties in handling stress and mental health issues. 

“From a company perspective there is always a stigma issue that is attached to mental health and the awareness of mental health,” says Sarah Basford, HSE compliance manager, at Mace Macro. 

“Asking people to open up, to discuss their health issues, can often have an opposite effect. The challenge, for us, is keeping up the awareness and the good work from our partnership with Mind, highlighting issues such as stress, suicide prevention and alcohol awareness,” says Basford. “Fortunately, we’re involved with a number of initiatives including Mental Health Awareness week, Mace Health Day, the #HappyMonday social media campaign and Movember’s Move challenge, as well as offering a Mental Health First Aid Course and a free helpline.”

Andrew Mawson, owner of Advanced Workplace Associates (AWA), says: “Sadly, workplace stress and mental health issues are only discussed when it becomes a problem for the business,” says. “There’s so much required of us, leaders don’t seem to understand it, and they fail to regulate the demands they place on their employees, simply expecting them to cope.” 

Research carried out by AWA looked at the factors that affect cognitive performance to enable us to adopt best practices to maintain peak brain condition. 

“Sleep, hydration, exercise, nutrition, meditation and removal of distractions are all important factors in improving cognitive performance, which enables people to cope better when faced with stress,” advises Mawson.

Illustration: Shutterstock
Illustration: Shutterstock

Removing the stigma

Delena Naor, senior IMS adviser at Carillion Services, has personal experience of depression and anxiety. Fortunately, she had support from her line manager and used Carillion health insurance to access professional help. 

“I know that people suffering from mental health issues do not want to be off work. They want to feel normal and useful. I found my job therapeutic as it enabled me to talk to people. The feedback I received was heart-warming. My message is: Get talking, you’re not alone – let’s fight the stigma together.”

Naor now volunteers in the Friend In Need scheme, which encourages employees to support colleagues who’ve experienced ill health by sharing their own experiences, and champions the Mental Health First Aiders Training course. 

“Mental health issues should not be stigmatised and you shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help. We know that we can’t ‘fix’ anyone, but we can help them on their journey to improved mental health,” says Naor.

Carillion’s Stress and Mental Health Charter provides a framework and offers support and guidance, whilst the Carillion Health Like Safety Strategy promotes mental health and well-being. Carillion’s Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) offers access to a trained counsellor over the phone at any time of the day or night, on work or non-work related issues. Managers can engage with occupational health provider RPS to monitor an employee’s well-being and facilitate phased returns, or flexible working hours, as required. The Time to Change initiative offers employees a 12-month health and well-being programme.

Naor believes these initiatives are making a difference. “Stress and mental health issues need to be considered a normal part of life. We’re all affected at some point. It’s nothing to be ashamed of and people will help you. If we encourage people to talk about it, the stigma is reduced.”

Despite the good work being done, how many incidences of workplace stress and poor mental health are inappropriately handled or go unreported? And if this is the case how can we ever fully know the scope of the problem? As work pressures increase, so too no doubt will workplace stress. Employees need to believe that they do not need to hide mental health issues and that they can speak up. 

The only way to remove the stigma attached to mental health issues is for employers to communicative effectively and provide adequate education and support for all of their employees. We must work towards ‘normalising’ these issues and ensure all workplaces adhere to proper mental health guidelines.

Opening up: Case study 

“I decided to tell people about my mental health problems at the start of my job with ISS. I hadn’t told people before when I felt down and I know it has cost me a lot of jobs,” says Paul, a chef at ISS Food and Hospitality. “I was worried people would run screaming from me in the opposite direction if I was open about how I was feeling, but I realise now how wrong I was.”

Once he was able to explain how being down affects his work Paul was able to agree a plan to combat the feeling. “This one conversation has had a massive impact on my whole life. It’s the best thing I have ever done. When I feel down now we make adjustments to my work, anything from a cup of tea and a chat with someone, to just a walk outside: it all helps clear my head.”

My advice is to speak up. I know it’s not easy to open up, but just describe what’s happening to someone you can trust – this can release you from the feelings you may have. I’ve been surprised with everyone’s positive reaction. Once people know and understand, they support you in more ways than you can imagine. It was my idea to raise the focus on #timetotalk day. We’re making it OK to break the stigma and support anyone who needs the chance to talk,” says Paul.