Mental health affects workers from all industries and sectors, but recent figures show the issue is particularly acute amongst construction workers.

In support of National Rail Safety Week (25-29 September), we spoke with some of our closest clients and professionals about mental and physical safety issues that are at the forefront of the industry.

Dr Catherine Hallahan,of Platform Medicals, was working as a leading healthcare practitioner when she learned that despite poor health, people failed to visit their GP due to fear, long working hours, pressures of their job, and delays in getting a suitable appointment.

She experienced first hand how stress and stress-related issues were rife and impacted her patient’s work, personal lives and wellbeing.

Wellbeing strategies in the workplace.

Platform Medicals is a health and wellbeing company that recognises the importance of sound physical and mental health. They fill a gap in the workplace health market by providing a mental health assessment questionnaire inclusive with a physical health check.

The company also provides health and wellbeing strategies, and is currently working with a wide variety of industries including leading construction, rail, and FTSE 100 companies.

Together they plan to:

  • promote: health and wellbeing on project sites
  • support: education and training to influence changes in behaviour and habits, and to improve sensitivity towards mental health
  • deliver: positive health outcomes by taking preemptive actions and preventive behaviours. This saves thousands in the cost of treatments, incapacity and mortality in the industry

We spoke to Catherine to find out more about the work of Platform Medicals and how they are supporting employees with a mental illness.

Problems in the workplace in relation to mental health are an unfortunate reality.

Q: More than one third of construction workers have experienced a mental health condition in the last 12 months. Is this a reality that you are aware of? Has it been affecting your business?

CH: Yes this is a reality I am aware of. After selling my previous health related business I took some time out. On re-entering the business world, I wanted to do something that would make a real difference in the medical industry.  

I set up my company primarily focusing on health and wellbeing in general. I was invited to attend a conference run by Network rail and their principal contractors at the Oval back in July 2016. The event held 350-400 people of all management skills, ranging from newcomers to people at retiring age.

A survey carried out at the conference highlighted that an overwhelming one third of the people in the room had experienced mental health conditions.

I saw there was a huge need for someone to focus on mental health. I was astonished to see that there was such a problem, with very little being done about it.  

I took this into account and moulded my company specifically to make mental health as important as physical health. I have designed my health assessments and company around making people more aware of their mental health. 

This initiative has been a great success as both strategies and assessments are now major requirements for main contractors involved in HS2.

Mental health support.

Q: What are the main support structures that your organisation offers to your workforce to help cope with mental health conditions?

CH: The companies I am working with have a number of services in place ranging from counselling services, an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP), mental health first aiders, stress management training and educational talks.

However, the resounding message I have been getting from speaking with companies and individuals is that EAP and other available employee services need to be more widely promoted.

You would be amazed at how employees are not aware of what an EAP is, the wide range of services that are available to them through their EAP or even that their company has an EAP in place.

"We need to take action, early."

Q: Just under a quarter (23%) of construction workers are considering leaving the industry in the next 12 months. Is this alarming statistic for you?

CH: It is very high, though sadly, it is something I already became aware of through research. However, when I first saw that statistic, I was very alarmed.

The dropout rate in construction is remarkably high. 30% of men aged 45 will leave the construction industry by the time they hit 50. Retaining an ageing workforce is a challenge for all industries, however, the average for all other sectors is just 2%.

The DWP also surveyed men aged 50-64 to find out why they left their last job. For those who had left construction, 46% said it was because of ill health.

This was significantly higher than in any other sector, including other manual and skilled areas such as mining and agriculture. The average number of men retiring across all other sectors for health reasons was just 25%.

We need to take early action and help prevent workers from developing work related injuries that can lead to both mental and physical ill health.

'Industry of choice.'

Q: What effect do you think this could have on the sustainability of the industry's workforce?

CH: This could derail the industry if it continues. The UK construction sector is one of the country’s leading economic forces, but a perceived shortage of skilled professionals is becoming a challenge for a field that relies on its manual workforce more than most.

Employers and recruitment agencies are experiencing first-hand the lack of qualified candidates in the current job market. It is essential now more than ever for construction to be viewed as an ‘industry of choice’ or a ‘caring industry’ as a means to recruit and retain talent critical to the workforce.

Employee health and wellbeing needs to excel and to be viewed as a factor that differentiates the industry from other industries.

Q: In 2010, one in four of the working age population was aged 50 or over, and this is projected to increase to one in three by 2022. What does this mean for the workforce? 

CH: By 2035, people aged 50 and over will comprise half of the UK adult population! We need to take measures to attract, retain and keep people within the industry. We need to be at the forefront of all industries by excelling in mental and physical health and wellbeing.

Ensuring there are mental health provisions.

Q: 73% of respondents said that early signs of mental health are not recognised by their employer. What do you have in place in your organisation to recognise early signs of mental health?

CH: Companies I work with are putting mental health programmes in place for early detection. We use health assessments, staff trained in mental health first aid, educational talks and online tools to make people aware and get them talking about mental health.

Having people talk to employees about their own personal experience is extremely powerful. I am working with some principal contractors for HS2 to satisfy the requirements that are included in the main works civil contract information, which specifically requires a mental health programme to be in place.

Statistics have shown that most people will seek help once they recognise they have a problem. Mental health questionnaires, paired with a physical health assessment can increase the visibility and awareness for the individual. This in turn allows companies to efficiently assist their employees as mental health concerns are identified.

Starting the conversation.

Q: Do you have any plans in your business to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health in the rail industry, and to encourage communication?

CH: Companies we are working with are striving to reduce the stigma by encouraging people to start a conversation about mental health. Health assessments are one way of starting this conversation.

We are encouraging companies to educate their employees and hold seminars about common issues which affect everyone, for example, stress management.

Q: 20% of 3,400 surveyed have increased their use of tobacco and alcohol due to stress. What can organisations do to lower this?

CH: Organisations can reduce this figure by providing health assessments for their employees, which will highlight to individuals the need to decrease their alcohol or smoking habit.

Companies can also hold educational talks where individuals who may have struggled and overcome their dependence on alcohol or tobacco talk to employees.

This is extremely effective in encouraging employees to make the necessary lifestyle changes. Organisations can also put in place smoking and alcohol cessation groups and telephone support.

Drinking especially affects health, work, emotions, relationships and finances. Companies need to become the first line of defence for their employees before the issue becomes a real illness. Spotting the problem before it is too late is the key to prevention.