Matt Kimber, our Co-founder and Operations Director, shares his thoughts around how mental health and wellbeing is impacting the construction industry and the steps we’re taking to advocate for positive mental health for all in our industry.
As someone who has spent the better part of my career in the construction industry, I have witnessed first-hand the demanding and often gruelling nature of this profession. While we continue to build structures that shape our cities and communities, we often overlook an equally vital aspect of construction, the mental health and wellbeing of those who build them. In recent years, there has been a growing recognition of the importance of addressing mental health concerns in the construction industry, and I want to share my views on why I think this focus is so crucial and what we are doing here at Urbanise to support it.
Why is supporting mental health and wellbeing in construction important?
At Urbanise, we’ve made a considered effort over the last year to implement longstanding initiatives and procedures that help to promote positive mental health and wellbeing, both amongst our team and our wider network of suppliers. My motivation comes from listening to members of our team who have faced mental health and wellbeing challenges. Their own experiences and those of people around them are reflective of what we see so often on social media, with concerning stats outlining the dire situation the industry finds itself in. When compared to virtually any other industry, the statistics are absolutely shocking. Every single day in the UK, two construction workers take their own lives, every year there are over 82,000 new cases of work-related illnesses that can be directly attributed to construction and stress, depression and anxiety account for 27% of all work-related illness in construction. These are just a few of examples of many and they are simply unacceptable. For me personally, these figures were a call to action to do something meaningful, as they should be for everyone in our industry.
As a business leader, I believe it’s my responsibility to understand the problem as best I can. I want to really grasp the effects of pressure on all our team, however that manifests itself. These conversations are transforming our thoughts and understanding as a business, leading to the implementation of our new Mental Health and Wellbeing Policy. This policy is a critical step forward and something everyone in the industry should be doing to keep their team members as informed and safe as possible, whilst also opening the door for these difficult conversations to start taking place.
I often get asked what I believe causes poor mental health and wellbeing in construction. This isn’t a black and white subject in my opinion as I believe there are a myriad of factors that play into it. What is clear to me, however, is that it affects all levels and roles. It’s not just an issue for people on the tools, it can impact anyone and any gender, although of course encouraging men to talk openly about their issues has been a challenge and this will no doubt continue to be the case for some time. So often in the past we’ve heard the term ‘man up’, a phrase now in sharp focus as attempts are made to break the association between being able to talk and being a typical blokey bloke, and rightfully so. All this said, what we do know is that our industry is renowned for its demanding tasks, long hours and relentless deadlines. These factors can create a breeding ground for stress, anxiety and depression among workers, be it on site, on the road or in the office.
I also think it’s important to remember that we’re all human, and it’s unrealistic to think that people don’t bring personal issues to work. In a time when we encourage people to bring their whole selves to work, we must realise that this will include a host of other issues, such as personal relationships, money worries, family issues and health concerns – it all adds up and can weigh heavily on a person’s wellbeing.
As society is changing its attitude towards mental health, thankfully I am now starting to see some positivity in our industry. More people talking openly, both socially and professionally. We are still right at the start of the journey, like when Health and Safety first came in, but it feels like there’s more openness now, which is tremendous to see. There’s a long way to go, but we must start somewhere.
What are we doing to encourage change?
Everything we’re doing at Urbanise now is underpinned by our Mental Health and Wellbeing policy. The policy aims to promote a positive cultural change, break the stigma of mental health, and provide support to our team and contractors. So far, we’ve introduced regular Wellbeing Wednesday sessions with a focus on different activities that promote positive mental health and provide some respite from the site or office. We’ve started doing mental health check ins – essentially informal chats to ensure our team members are ok and to talk about any pressures they are facing. If we can better understand these pressures, we can look at ways to reduce them and minimise any stress being caused.
We’ve also organised on-site mental health training and toolbox talks led by the Lighthouse Club, a UK charity that provides vital services to support the emotional, physical and financial wellbeing of construction workers and their families. The toolbox talks they delivered at Eyewitness Works in Sheffield were a real eye opener, and the predominantly male audience engaged with the Lighthouse team with enthusiasm. Even a few years ago, I honestly believe this reaction would be unthinkable and is testament to how far we’ve come.
Our relationship with the Lighthouse Club is a two-way street, and we’ve chosen to support them via fundraising events. We recently completed a fundraiser for them by walking the width of Britain along Hadrian’s Wall. This was a six-day walk covering 84 miles, taking in some beautiful scenery along the way. There was blood, sweat and a few falls, but it was an incredible activity to do together as a business, bringing us all closer, while raising much needed funds for the work Lighthouse do.
In terms of next steps, I strongly believe we shouldn’t try to overcomplicate things – we need to get the basics right first. This might sound trivial to many, but it can even come down to things like making sure you’re taking your breaks and lunchbreaks. It’s so important and gives that opportunity to recharge throughout the day. We cannot continue to operate relentlessly like machines, it will take real effort and examples being set by those in positions of power to break these counterproductive trends and begin to set more positive norms.
What does the future look like?
My concern is that if mental health and wellbeing in construction isn’t taken seriously then the concerning statistics we are seeing now won’t change or will get worse and that is unthinkable. We’ll continue to see more people suffering with stress and, no doubt, sadly more people taking their own lives.
Ultimately as a business, for me and my Co-founder, Louise, it‘s about making sure our team members are well, both physically and mentally. We want to create a safe space where our staff can talk, unload any stress and access support, which, in turn, will help them manage their wellbeing and perform at the highest level.
Recruitment and talent retention is very important to us as we grow. We value every person who works with us, and our ambition is to bring in the best people. Who would want to join a business full of stressed people, right? That’s why it’s important we set the example and create an environment for people to enjoy and thrive in.
During recent discussions with the team, I felt it important to share my own previous mental health battles to encourage people to share and to do my bit in reducing the stigma. I wanted to promote how important getting the right help is and let them know that if I can do it, anyone can.
I’m proud that everyone across the business has welcomed the positive changes we’ve introduced, and it’s my hope that others in the industry will take note and do their bit to help make construction a more educated and open place, where mental health and wellbeing isn’t something to be ignored or stigmatised but to be embraced and discussed.
If you or anyone you know might need support, you can find helpful resources here.