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Insight | Engineering better mental health

Road maintenance

Contractor Barhale is running a mental health awareness programme for its staff in the face of shocking statistics about mental health in the construction industry.

One in four of us will experience a mental health problem in any given year, working days lost to stress have increased by 24% in the last six years and suicide is the biggest causes of death for men under the age of 45. Those working in construction are three times more likely to end their lives compared to the national average.

“These statistics have more impact than anyone thinks,” says Barhale’s head of learning and development Rob Houghton. “One guy has told me it is the first time in 30 years anyone has spoken to him about mental health.”

Houghton is speaking at the end of a training session Barhale has just held for its workers on raising awareness of mental health. Called ”Engineering Better Mental Health Management” the civils firm has put together a bespoke course for line managers, as well as those site workers deemed influential.

As the Mental Health Foundation launches Mental Health Awareness Week today, Barhale is one of the firms in the sector looking to ensure that its employees can spot the signs of a colleague who is suffering and can direct them to the right place to get help. Other industry initiatives include Mates in Mind, an industry-led initiative with the Health in Construction Leadership Group and British Safety Council to improve awareness and address the stigma of mental health problems.

A decade on from the catastrophic crash of Ireland’s property market, Barhale’s chief executive, Matthew Behan, still feels the raw horror of the financial crisis that saw one of his acquaintances take his own life. He says it has given him a personal determination to ensure that his employees support each other and know where to go to get help. He says increasing mental health awareness is not something that can sit on the back burner.

“We (the industry) can’t afford to wait 20 years,” he says, referring to the amount of time it has taken other safety initiatives to become embedded in the wider industry.  

Barhale has been working with its local NHS Trust to devise a series of courses – a half day delivered to managers, a 45-minute session for all workers, and eventually two-day courses for a team of mental health first aiders.

The interactive course includes videos explaining the symptoms of different mental health conditions, talks from local NHS workers, and the chance for delegates to discuss the sorts of issues that affect them and their colleagues. Among the issues were travelling times to and from work, financial worries, deadlines, Brexit – particularly for non- UK-Nationals, and even worries such as the weight and fitting of PPE clothing. At the same time delegates have the chance to feedback what they think might help them and colleagues cope with stresses and mental health problems, with suggestions being fed back to management.

The delegates are also given reak-life tasks, with drama students from Walsall college filming mental health scenarios which include people displaying signs of schizophrenia or anxiety, and the delegates discussing how they would handle the situation.

“The feedback from the course has been really positive,” says  Barhale health and wellbeing adviser Jo Southan. “At least one person has come to me at the end of every session and others have spoken to the staff from the NHS. We’ve had quite a lot of emails come in a couple of days after the course when people have processed it.”

“Talking about mental health isn’t an easy thing to do,” adds Houghton. “It takes a lot of strength and there’s still a lot of machismo around.”





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