Tackling mental health in the construction industry

Aggregate Industries won this year’s WM People Award for Best for Mental Health for its work in addressing stigma about mental health in the construction industry which has a high suicide rate.

Construction workers in face masks and hard hats

 

Mental health issues are a big problem in the construction industry. According to the Chartered Institute of Building [CIOB], male construction workers are 2.7 times more likely to take their own lives than the average person. Its 2020 report found 26% of construction industry professionals thought about taking their own lives in 2019, 97% reported being under stress at least once a year and highlighted several work factors that contributed to their poor mental health.

The CIOB says job insecurity, long hours, time away from family and time pressures as well as a macho culture are contributing factors. 

The industry knows it has to make progress and one company that is leading the way is Aggregate Industries, which won WM People’s Best for Mental Health Award at this year’s Top Employer Awards.

Addressing stigma

Its work began several years ago on the back of its 2013 Healthy You programme when a taskforce of individuals from around the company teamed up with a number of specialists, including Health Assured (who provide Aggregate Industries’ Employee Assistance Programme), Mental Health First Aid England and Mates in Mind and Mind to deliver valuable wellbeing resources to the workforce.

The aim was to proactively address the stigma associated with mental health and promote mental health tools and resources to ensure employees knew how to recognise the signs of mental health issues. 

Just before the pandemic, in January 2020 when the business stops for a safety day after Christmas, Aggregate Industries included start the conversation training for all employees and partnered with charity Mates in Mind to deliver some bespoke line manager training on mental health during the pandemic, given one of the hurdles for men, in particular, was feeling that they could not talk to their manager about their mental health.  Initially, it had been proposed as a half-day session, but people didn’t have time to attend so it was condensed into a 1.5 hour session. Aggregate Industries also worked with Mates in Mind on a series of Mental Health Toolbox Talks to help get people back to work. 

In addition, the company launched a mental health first aid programme in 2020 and the number of first aiders has grown significantly – to over 150 – over the course of the pandemic as mental health has become more prominent.  Many volunteers have themselves struggled in the past.  

As the pandemic got under way, Aggregate Industries also re-developed its Mental Health and Wellbeing Policy and Early Intervention process. Its Business Resilience Team met daily online throughout the pandemic to manage the ever-changing government requirements and to cascade key information to employees. Areas addressed include peer support for mental health first aiders, regular check-ins, e-learning and enhancing the furlough pay and absence pay for everyone  impacted by the Job Retention Scheme and self-isolation periods.

The impact of mental health issues

In October 2020, Aggregate Industries ran an extensive survey which showed 26% of staff felt they needed mental health support, 30% had been sleeping worse than normal and 15% had been concerned and worried about money. The results of the survey determined six key pillars of focus for 2021, including mental health. 

Stephanie Kendrick, Senior HR Business Partner, says its research showed mental health issues were the second biggest reason for absence, after musculo-skeletal problems, representing a big cost to the business, but also a sizable human cost. She adds that the figures are likely to be underreported because of the stigma that is still attached to mental health and that she wouldn’t be surprised if mental ill health is in fact the top reason. 

The pillars it identified became the foundation for every communication and initiative that year with dedicated project working groups. A detailed plan was put together for each pillar and expert advice was sought. Stephanie says that mental health issues were drip fed into a range of other sessions too, such as on sleep problems and health and safety.

To back this work up Aggregate ran a quarterly mental health survey during 2021 to track how people were feeling, what they were struggling with and how they felt about returning to the office if they worked in one. Each survey contained just one question for each pillar: ‘How do you feel on this topic, compared to the previous quarter?’ This meant that Aggregate Industries  could accurately benchmark against the previous survey. 

When it comes to getting messages over about mental health good communication has been vital. During the pandemic Aggregate Industries set up a ‘Bring Your Best’ newsletter written and distributed it specifically for the different groups of employees (home working, furlough and site operatives). 

Getting to harder to reach employees

While it has been easy to get information to office or homeworking staff, it is, however, much harder to reach people working on site or in factories. Stephanie says one of the big problems is that there are many one-man plants and lone workers who are not connected to others. That can exacerbate mental health challenges. Ready Mix – the concrete supplier – is one part of the businesses where this is a big issue. Ready Mix piloted one-to-one sessions with a mental health professional. Employees were booked in for a session and not many turned down the opportunity. Stephanie says that many would probably not have sought help themselves, for instance, through the company’s Employee Assistance Programme.

The company has tried several other creative ways of reaching out to its employees. For instance, it launched a podcast with an occupational health expert so that those who are on site can listen to it while working. It is looking at writing to all employees at their home addresses this year with the idea that an employee’s partner or a family member might see the letter and encourage them to seek confidential help through the EAP or other signposted support.

Aggregate has also been putting tri-boards on lamposts on operational sites with posters or QR codes which workers can scan to get information about mental health.

Stephanie says all of this is backed by senior leaders and that mental health is taken very seriously at the top of the organisation. The Chief Finance Officer sponsors the company’s mental health work and is very passionate about speaking out about the subject in internal communications. The business also hosts group listening circles in partnership with the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion team where people can share their stories. “Sharing stories is really powerful,” says Stephanie, “and helps to break down the barriers.” 

Continuing support

At Mental Health Week in May it will put on morning and evenings sessions with an external trainer on mental health in children and young people. Feedback has shown that many parents are struggling with their children’s poor mental health. The company is also hoping to launch a tool kit for line managers and teams on its intranet for Mental Health Week.

When it comes to Covid, safety and mental health are linked. The business has decided not to lift restrictions such as masks, isolation for Covid positive people and social distancing until it knows how the general relaxing of restrictions is going. “We want our people to feel safe at work,” says Stephanie. Aggregate Industries has also trained managers in managing hybrid teams and supporting those who don’t want to return and it is allowing people personal choice on how they work.

For the future Aggregate Industries is looking to continue the support it is providing, but to encourage more mental health first aiders within operations  and offer refresher training as well as to extend line manager training to cover issues such as suicide awareness and stress risk assessment. The work continues, but awareness is building and conversations about mental health are becoming less stigmatised.

*Profiles of all the winners of this year’s WM People Top Employer Awards will be published in our Best Practice Report coming soon.



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