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Written by Damon Schünmann, Strategic Consultant at Barbour ABI
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According to ONS figures, the UK suicide rate among low-skilled male labourers is three times higher than the national average for men. Yet this shocking statistic and the under-lying pressures on mental health and wellbeing received barely any attention until just a few years ago. It’s a sad indictment for a macho industry that was ill-prepared to face the truth and take appropriate measures to support its workforce in this regard. With the pressures that include long working hours, job uncertainty, tight deadlines, financial pressure and working away from home also affecting white collar workers and senior managers, it was high time for a change in the sector’s approach when it came to dealing with such issues.
Wind forward just a handful of years and employee mental health and wellbeing is beginning to get the attention it clearly deserves, with organisations starting to consider it in the same regard as onsite worker safety. It’s perhaps no coincidence then that when approached to shed light on its own measures, the nation’s largest contractor Balfour Beatty put forward its health, safety, environment and sustainability director Heather Bryant – someone who came to the position having previously served as chief inspector of construction at the Health and Safety Executive.
Get the structure right
With this background in mind, she outlines for Barbour ABI the path the contractor followed to put a structure in place. “One of the things that I brought across from the HSE was this ‘treating health like safety’ which is about its importance and it not playing second fiddle to safety,” she says. “From that, Balfour Beatty back in 2015 co-founded the Health in Construction Leadership Group whose aim was exactly that – to treat health like safety. It’s not just about talking but taking action, that’s one of the key messages.”
While Bryant is keen to underline that talking is one of the key elements in addressing issues concerning mental health, she says that the intention was to turn commitment into action. “One of the first things we did was recognise that mental health was a poor relation in the way construction looked it, so we wanted to treat it like physical health,” she says. “So it was ‘treat health like safety and treat mental health like physical health’.
Get the leadership on-board
But she realised that to gain the required traction would need leadership buy-in. “Part of this was to lead by example so we got training for our executive committee because we needed them to understand what the issues were so that they could lead the business forward on what we knew was going to be a long journey.”
With board-level momentum secured, the business embarked on a programme of training that began with mental health first aiders. “Once we had the exec’s full support we trained up nearly 600 across Balfour Beatty because you can’t open the box and start talking about mental health unless you have a supporting structure,” she says. These are individuals that can be reached for confidential support and guidance by all employees. “We wanted to have one in 40 of our workforce as first aiders but we’ve hit more than that,” she adds.
Bryant adds a note of caution about following such a path. “It’s best practice to have that structure and framework to support your workforce, before you start opening that box or you can do more harm than good,” she says.
Bryant says that the contractor played a fundamental role in the formation of the ‘Mates in Mind’ charity, something she’s not only proud to be associated with, but is also a trustee of. However, she realised that there was an opportunity to both receive and give in terms of the company’s journey. “We wanted to not only bring in learnings to Balfour Beatty but for [the company] to support the wider industry,” she says.
“We then followed what we call within Mates in Mind ‘Start the Conversation’, which is half a dozen people at a time talking about mental health and what it is, and it was entirely up to them as to whether they shared any examples or not.” But it was clear that there was enthusiasm within the business, as she illustrates. “These 45 minute conversations were for the whole of the workforce and our supply chain; many of those sessions went on for a lot longer than 45 minutes – they took as long as they needed to,” she says. “That was our commitment to saying ‘it’s ok to talk’.”
By the end of 2019, 74% of Balfour’s direct-employees in the UK had participated in Start the Conversation sessions, encouraging them to speak out if they were suffering from mental health issues and to identify signs when others may be struggling as well as signposting the contractor’s available support.
The company decided that when it came to its Employee Assistance Programme provider, it wanted to offer something beyond just a telephone helpline. Bryant explains that since the contractor pre-pays for counselling for those people that need additional support, it circumvents the need for workers to ask for the costs to be covered.
Other measures instituted by the business include a confidential Yammer social network chat site for employees to discuss issues. This features specific groups created during lockdowns, where employees can share tips and advice to support each other and discuss the challenges they’re facing. “We just wanted to create a noise and a buzz and show it was ok to talk about things,” says Bryant.
But Balfour realised that while having executive level support in place, it needed middle and senior management training as well. “We knew that we needed more support for our supervisors and line managers on how to handle situations where somebody comes forward and wants to talk about mental health,” says Bryant. “For 2020 we set a target for 85% of our senior managers to have gone through that ‘manage the conversation’ training and we hit 87%.
The Covid factor
Last year Balfour issued wellbeing-focused surveys which specifically looked into how employees felt during the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic. The quantitative and qualitative findings prompted the business to tweak its support during these unprecedented times.
The company says that while 97% of its employees reported cared for throughout the pandemic, they also said they appreciated easy access support and learning. As a consequence Balfour delivered 140 wellbeing-focused webinars to over 5,000 people and had put over 1,000 managers through wellbeing management courses by the end of the year. In addition, the contractor has set up a dedicated COVID-19 employee resource centre on its intranet that provides guidance on subjects from homeworking to financial concerns.
While no company will claim its providing perfect solutions for such a critical and complex area of health, Balfour has received external recognition for its journey so far. “We were extremely proud in 2019 to win the Construction News Health Safety and Wellbeing Excellence award for the company and a significant part of our application on that was around mental health and wellbeing,” says Bryant. “I think it was a reflection of the effort and care that we think our people deserve,” she finishes.