Rules are the only option to stop the suicides

Marc Preston is chief executive of Vertice Development Management and New Foundation Counselling, and director of Construction Disputes Experts 

The impact of poor mental health within the construction industry is now an undisputed fact, with suicide statistics escalating every year. In 2021 there were 507 deaths and, without proper address, this could increase by 20 per cent within the next five years. To stop this alarming trend, what must be enforced by the industry’s leaders?

“Mental health must be put on a par with physical health and safety”

Third-sector organisations, established to address mental health issues, improve awareness and help destigmatise the problem, have successfully encouraged people to address their issues, but people will only enforce what is legislative or compulsory, regardless of intelligent opinion and analysis.

Historically, the wearing of seat belts and crash helmets was not common practice. Nor were there any barriers to smoking inside. Until legislated, people did not keep themselves safe. Another example is the Grenfell calamity, as a result of which 73 people died, and change was legislated through the Building Safety Act to change behaviours.

The annual construction death-by-suicide statistic is currently seven times higher than the losses in the Grenfell tragedy but there are no regulations to prevent the rise in statistics and the cost of poor mental health.

It is human nature, that by and large, there is a reluctance to do anything until rules force change – so behaviours will change only when written into law.

Structure of the industry

The expertise and the will to address mental health appears to reside mainly among tier one contractors and the larger construction employers.

Tier one contractors employ a smaller number of people despite their disproportionate size, with most work undertaken by SMEs as subcontractors. Office for National Statistics 2022 data reveals that 93 per cent of construction firms employ fewer than 35 people and the firms that employ more than 300 people only directly employ less than 20 per cent of the total workforce.

A 2022 report from the Institution of Engineering and Technology states: “The subcontracting model is the primary in the industry, it drives prices to the bottom and is the cause of adversarial relations and friction.”

And the Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB) reported in 2020 that the mental ill-health crisis in construction is prevalent from the boardroom through to the site. A quarter of construction employees in 2011-2015 considered taking their own lives, blaming the working environment, business, and job security. The CIOB called for larger businesses to support the smaller with the help of professional bodies and government.

In partial response, the Department for Business and Trade (DBT) has tabled revised legislation. The Reporting on Payment Practices and Performance (Amendment) Regulations 2024 impose a requirement on large companies to publish certain information biannually about their practices, policies and performance in relation to paying suppliers, but not until 2025.

This timescale is far too long and does not capture the payment performance of second- and third-tier contractors with their own supply chains. Nor do these proposals address the time, cost pressures or the provision of adequate welfare, which are contributing factors to suicide as a desperate means of escape.

The solution

The focus must be on prevention and creating a compulsory framework for action on site: mental health welfare, payment, terms, risk-allocation and employee care.

In my opinion, mental health must be put on a par with physical health and safety.

Now is an ideal time for essential terms within the soon-to-be-published JCT 2024 to expressly oblige the parties to:

  • Increase employee knowledge, and supply information and awareness of mental health, wellbeing issues and behaviours.
  • Promote policies and practices that actively uphold wellbeing.
  • Promote non-discriminatory policies for mental wellbeing for employees.
  • Deal with issues around mental health and stress effectively.
  • Not discriminate against any employee suffering from mental illness.
  • Train mental health first aiders appropriate to the number of workers engaged on a project.
  • Provide procedures for dealing with mental health crises, including access to an employee assistance programme to supply confidential professional therapeutic counselling.

There has been discussion about an industry Practice Note but it is not sufficient and compromises the essential impact that regulation or contracting can facilitate. Institutions can positively influence behaviour, which is not possible with voluntary action.

The annual cost of poor mental health to UK employers is £53-£56bn per year. However, the average return for employers is £5.30 for every £1 invested. Plus there is a reduction in presenteeism and absenteeism, with improved quality of work and reduced accidents.

The industry has carried out significant research to identify the causes of poor mental health within its ranks and structure, but to successfully address the problems, the government, representative bodies and tier one contractors must change current practice.

JCT is the predominant contracting framework. Inclusion for the provision of mental health in the 2024 iteration creating an equal footing with physical health is beyond discussion and debate.

It simply must happen.

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