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Suicide on the Job Site

Inside the construction industry’s attempt to finally confront its mental health crisis

Some of my earliest memories of my dad are of tottering to the front step to join my mother to wave goodbye with all of my might as he drove away to yet another job in yet another faraway place. He was a carpenter, following employment from job site to job site when — and where — it was available. In the 1990s, recession had seized England, so in 1993 he left us to work in Germany. I was a year old at the time.

Even when he didn’t have to leave the U.K., he still frequently worked away from home. We saw him every month or so while he was working in Scotland, and every other weekend when he was based in Leicester. If he could make it home every night, he would — even if it meant a four-hour commute. Often, though, he couldn’t. I didn’t resent him for being away, but I felt his absence. And so, I wasn’t sad on Sundays because I had school the next day but because dad would be gone in the morning.

This sacrifice is familiar to construction workers and their families across the U.K. If anything, the sacrifice extends far beyond mere distance. The hours are long, the work physically hard and the environment harsh. Days of 11 or 12 hours of working outside are normal, and an impending deadline can make them even longer. Not to mention, around 42 percent of British construction workers are self-employed, which in any industry creates an insecurity about where your next paycheck is coming from.

It shouldn’t be a surprise then that mental health problems are rife in the industry. In 2017, the Office of National Statistics reported that low-skilled male construction workers are 3.7 times more likely to take their own lives than the national average. An industry-wide survey conducted in the same year by the trade title Construction News further revealed that one in four of its respondents had considered suicide. In addition, 82 percent of respondents expressed that they felt there is a “taboo” surrounding mental health in the construction industry. Their comments paint a stark picture of a business with an overarching ethos that “if you aren’t stressed, you aren’t busy enough,” where stress and mental health issues related to work are brushed aside and where workers feel unable to talk about their struggles for fear of damaging their reputations.

As devastating as this is, it isn’t new. The Australian charity Mates in Construction was launched in 2008 to address suicide in their business, and it continues apace more than a decade later. In fact, according to them, construction workers are six times more likely to die from suicide than a fall.

I always knew my dad was in a dangerous profession. When I was six years old, he was rushed to the hospital to have his right forefinger reattached to his hand after scaffolding fell and hit him. His finger is permanently stiff and bent now, but if the incident had been even slightly different, he could have lost his life. Still, to me, he always seemed invincible. As a toddler he towered over me at 6-foot-1 with a shaved head and a bristly chin that tickled me whenever he kissed me. Even now, I find it hard to imagine that he’s scared of anything.

I should have known better, though. My dad was separated from his wife and children for days, if not weeks, at a time. He rented rooms from complete strangers in small unfamiliar towns, and most recently, he and a handful of his colleagues lived in caravans in the barn of a local farmer. He was always up at dawn and didn’t return home until late into the evening, and he regularly worked weekends on top of the usual Monday to Friday grind. When he finally got time at home, he had to be a father and a husband. Somewhere in there, he’d find time to enjoy his passions — namely, watching Arsenal play soccer and listening to just about every genre of music imaginable. He never made it seem like a chore, but I don’t know how he did it.

He shrugs it off when I ask him. “People outside of construction always say that it’s hard work,” he tells me. “It is, but when you’re doing it, I guess you don’t know your own strength — physically or mentally.” Plus, he adds, “It’s the only thing I’ve ever found that I could do that I was good at.”

That said, there’s a difference between being used to something and being untouched by it. He cites “the support of a strong woman” (i.e., my mother) in making sure that the nature of his work hasn’t been detrimental to their relationship. “One of the biggest sources of guilt for people in the industry is that you end up being away from the wife and kids, and the effect that can have. I’m lucky that our marriage survived, and I’ve been able to be home enough that I don’t feel I’ve missed out on my kids growing up — but that’s not always the case.”

For my dad, working away from home has invariably meant earning better money. That’s why he’s always done it, and he attributes that choice to the progress he’s made in his career. Despite having left school at 15 with few qualifications (other than a stint in the merchant navy), he’s now a construction foreman with 100 workers underneath him, earning good money and with future jobs lined up for at least the next five years. Maybe most importantly, he also loves what he does. “What I loved about the navy — the teamwork, the working together — was the case in construction, too. I’ve always loved it, and I still love it.”

It’s important to stress that my dad’s own mental health issues didn’t originate in the construction industry; he’s had depression since he was a teenager. But over the last few years, the nature of the work has taken its toll. “The stress of me being in one place and my wife being in another was one thing. Loneliness is a real problem, and being away from home drinking beer all the time seems like fun, but it’s actually depressing in itself. Then my boss on the site I was working on left, and suddenly, I was in charge of the whole job. It all got on top of me.”

For others, it doesn’t take nearly as long to be mentally worn down by the job. Thirty-year-old Ryan, for example, is a librarian for a construction college now, but he worked as a laborer after graduating from university, responsible for manual tasks like lifting heavy stone and wood or shoveling dirt on job sites predominantly in and around London, including the Heathrow Airport expansion. He tells me that he already suffered from depression and anxiety before entering the industry, but feels these conditions were “definitely amplified” by the work and ultimately led to him having suicidal thoughts.

“I was picked on ruthlessly,” he says, describing a culture of “banter” on sites, fueled by the ideas of masculinity that are embodied by the men working on them. “I wasn’t interested in joining in because I thought it was sexist, racist, homophobic or just plain bullying. Their idea of masculinity — banter, football, sex — brings them together. If you don’t fit in, you’re prey to them.”

Ryan’s experience — he was mocked for everything from being a vegetarian to not being able to lift as much as the other men — may also help explain why there’s a stigma around having mental health problems and talking about them. According to the U.K. mental health charity for men, Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM), there’s a “cultural barrier preventing men from seeking help.” Gender stereotypes mean that men are supposed to be “tougher” than women, and showing a strong emotional response to anything is considered a weakness.

“I was mocked for years just for asking for a break when lifting bricks for four hours,” Ryan says. “The idea of telling those same guys that I contemplated drowning myself in the bath the night before is ludicrous.” His pre-existing anxiety and depression also meant that he felt unable to stick up for himself, which in turn made him feel worse. “I just kept to myself and had no one to talk to. The site foreman and managers accepted banter as an everyday part of site life, and joined in ribbing me.” He accepts that there may have been an HR department he could have spoken to about how he felt, but “the humiliation and the fallout of everyone finding out I’d ‘grassed’ on them always stopped me.”

Another former construction worker, Jason, 34, who was a site supervisor for a building maintenance company until 2018, tells me he was in the process of undergoing a complete career change — to become a hypnotherapist. “I decided that I was going to make the switch in trades about two or three years ago,” he says. “I was working in an environment where I was under immense pressure every day, and my overall health and wellbeing suffered. Toward the end of that job, I’d often have a tightness in my head and chest while I was there because of the stress.”

Jason found that telling the management team that he was struggling was pointless. “There wasn’t very much in the way of support or understanding. They’d seemingly ‘help,’ but it was mainly for their own interests,” adding that any response was about “covering bases from a HR perspective to possibly assist managing you out” rather than any sort of compassion.

Thankfully, my dad’s experiences haven’t been as negative. The site he currently works on, the A14 Integrated Delivery Team — the U.K.’s biggest road construction project — even runs a peer-based support network of mental health ambassadors who actually work on the job site. These are staff members in all positions who are trained in mental health first aid. This training, delivered by Mental Health First Aid England, aims to give those who undertake it a deeper understanding of mental health, helping them to understand the signs and triggers of mental health issues so that they can direct them to the right services.

My dad is extremely proud to be one. “I jumped at the chance to get involved,” he explains. “First, because I felt my experience of bad mental health could benefit someone else. Second, because I thought it would help me learn more about myself and my depression.” Which it has. At a forum held this year about eliminating accidents in the workplace, he gave a talk to hundreds of people about how his own mental health struggles influenced his decision to become a mental health ambassador.

While he agrees with Ryan’s theory that tough-guy attitudes are the biggest barrier to mental health support, he’s hopeful that these beliefs are challenged more often now. “Nearly every day someone comes to me to talk about something related to mental health,” he says. “Once the lads know someone is there, there is no stigma — they come flooding to me!” He adds, “We’re talking about it all the time now. I don’t stop talking about it!”

Why, though, has it taken so long to get here? Mark Newton-Livens, one of a team of occupational health advisors on the A14 Integrated Delivery Team, suggests it’s because companies are only just realizing “the true cost of not addressing mental health” — e.g., absenteeism and a loss of productivity as well as reputational or legal consequences. “Plus, construction is often undertaken by self-employed people and smaller companies who haven’t had access to the HR, occupational health and legal professionals that larger companies have,” he says.

One possible solution is making the kinds of policies and initiatives in place on some sites a universal requirement. Michelle Finnerty, the marketing and communications manager at The Lighthouse Club — the “only charity that provides financial and emotional support to the construction community and their families” — has indicated that there may even be legislation in the future to govern the number of mental health ambassadors in proportion to a job’s workforce. Perhaps to prepare for such  future, in May 2018, the Construction Industry Training Board committed £500,000 to train 156 construction workers as mental health ambassador instructors. The ultimate goal is for these workers to have trained 2,500 mental health ambassadors by 2020.

I personally can attest to how beneficial it can be when done right, because I see my dad come alive every time he talks about being a mental health ambassador. He’s even been thinking about doing a degree in a related subject, with the intention of leaving the physical aspect of construction and making mental health in the industry his focus. In fact, the last time we spoke, he couldn’t wait to tell me that the learning and development team at the company he works for have shown interest in funding him to do just that. “It would be a new challenge — construction is my bread-and-butter, and it always has been. To really push myself would be to do something like a degree. I’ve got no schooling, and I’m 56!”

Maybe that explains why he isn’t daunted by the current statistics regarding the rate of suicide and mental health problems in his industry. He would have never imagined he would be in the position that he is today, so the idea of things changing in the construction business writ large seem just as possible too.