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Heading off stress

There is a whole raft of frightening statistics linked to stress, anxiety and depression in the construction industry.

According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), mental ill health is the second biggest cause of illness among construction workers in the UK, after musculoskeletal disorders. Research from Glasgow Caledonian University, released in December, shows that suicide rates among construction workers in 2022 were four times higher than the UK average – their highest since 2017, when the university began its annual analysis.

Unfortunately, when times get tougher economically, stress levels rise. This is true for many people and roles, especially if there are pressures at home and at work, but construction is one of those industries where impacts can be compounded: budgets get tighter, hours get longer, disputes get tougher and uncertainty looms.

Almost every construction project or task involves some stress, and that can be positive and motivating up to a point. When the stress becomes relentless, it can start to cause or exacerbate mental health problems and it can lead to physical health issues such as cardiovascular or digestive issues. The challenge, especially for those who thrive under some stress, is how to recognise that you are reaching the tipping point, and how to pull back.

The HSE defines work-related stress (the bad type) as ‘the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them’. It says that there are six main things that can lead to work-related stress: demands people can’t cope with; lack of control; insufficient information and support; trouble with working relationships; not understanding a role fully; and not enough involvement when a business is going through change.

Clearly, different people find different things more stressful than others. And while some of the stressors listed above can be relatively straightforward to tackle – such as keeping people informed and getting input into how things are done – others may not be.

Signs of stress among a team or in individuals include more absences or arriving late for work, high staff turnover, arguments, mood swings and decreased performance. The challenge is what to do next. In large organisations there may be mental health first aiders or helplines to call on. In small business, it all falls to the manager – who may themselves be under stress.

One useful resource is a toolbox talk kit published by the HSE in late 2021, aimed at SMEs, which lays out how each of the potential work-related stressors can be talked about. Construction mental health charity Mates in Mind also has useful information and resources.

Research into work-related stress in the construction industry at Bristol University, published in September 2022 last year, highlighted the importance of putting together the right team as a way of minimising stress. ‘Banter and camaraderie’, say the researchers help offer support and deal with stress.

For individuals, Charity Mind advises learning what the signs of stress are and its causes and then working out what things have the opposite effect. From here it suggests creating a plan that balances out the two – a bit like strenuous exercise, followed by recovery. Unfortunately, the things that we sometimes use to fight stress, such as alcohol or cigarettes, only serve to extend our recovery time.

Experts also advise setting boundaries: having end-of-day routines that help signal to your brain that it’s time to stop thinking about work. If at all possible, don’t send or read emails outside work hours, and don’t expect others to do so either.

Stress cannot be eliminated from most construction jobs, but it can be better managed. Whether you are thinking about yourself, your team or your supply chain, try to make decisions that reduce – rather than increase – stress levels.

For anyone reading this who needs support or advice, here are some free and confidential services:

Samaritans 116 123

Construction Industry Helpline 0345 605 19656

Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) (for men) 0800 585858 (UK) 0808 8025858 (London)

Prevention of Young Suicide – Papyrus 0800 068 4141; text 07786 209697

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