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The construction industry has a worryingly high suicide rate, attributed to long hours, time away from home and a ‘macho culture’. But one firm is taking direct action to address this.
Aggregate Industries won this year’s WM People Award for Best for Mental Health for its work to address stigma around mental illness.
Mental health issues are a recognised problem in the construction industry. According to the Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB), male construction workers are almost three times more likely to take their own lives than the average person.
Its 2020 report found 26% of construction industry professionals had thought about taking their own lives the previous year; 97% reported being under stress at least once a year and highlighted work factors that contributed to poor mental health.
Job insecurity, long hours, time away from family and time pressures were commonly reported, said the CIOB, and so was the perceived ‘macho culture’ within construction.
Aggregate Industries is leading the way in addressing these issues. Its work began several years ago on the back of its 2013 Healthy You programme, a wellbeing initiative. A taskforce of individuals from around the company teamed up with mental health specialists including Health Assured (providers of Aggregate Industries’ Employee Assistance Programme), Mental Health First Aid England and and Mind.
The aim was to proactively address the stigma associated with mental health concerns. Aggregate sought to provide health tools and resources to help employees recognise the signs of mental health issues.
Just before the pandemic, in January 2020, the business held a safety day. The agenda included ‘start the conversation’ training for all employees, to address the challenges people – and particularly men – have in discussing their worries with others.
Aggregate Industries also partnered with charity Mates in Mind to deliver bespoke line manager training on mental health during the pandemic. One of the key hurdles was that employees felt that they could not talk to their manager about their mental health.
Aggregate Industries also worked with Mates in Mind on a series of Mental Health Toolbox Talks to help get people back to work. The company launched a mental health first aid programme in 2020 and its first aiders have grown in numbers to over 150. The pandemic played a key role in making mental health more prominent, and many volunteers have personally experienced mental ill health in the past.
As the pandemic continued, Aggregate Industries also redeveloped its Mental Health and Wellbeing Policy and Early Intervention process. Its Business Resilience Team met daily online to manage the ever-changing government requirements and to cascade key information to employees.
New initiatives included peer support for mental health first aiders, regular check-ins and e-learning. The company also enhanced furlough pay and absence pay for everyone impacted.
In October 2020, Aggregate Industries ran an extensive wellbeing survey. The results showed that 26% of staff felt they needed mental health support, 30% had been sleeping worse than normal and 15% had been concerned and worried about money. The results of the survey determined six key pillars of focus for 2021, including mental health.
Stephanie Kendrick, Senior HR Business Partner, confirms that the research showed mental health issues to be the second biggest reason for absence after musculo-skeletal problems. She adds that the figures are likely to be higher in reality, due to the continuing stigma attached to mental health. She says she would be unsurprised if mental ill health were in fact the top reason for time off work.
The six pillars became the foundation for every communication and initiative that year with dedicated project working groups. A detailed plan was put together for each pillar, backed by expert advice. Stephanie says that mental health messages were drip-fed into other sessions, such as those focused on sleep problems and health and safety.
Aggregate Industries next ran a quarterly mental health survey in 2021 to track how people were feeling, what they were struggling with and, if they worked in an office role, how they felt about returning.
Each survey contained just one question for each pillar: ‘How do you feel on this topic, compared to the previous quarter?’ This approach allowed Aggregate Industries to accurately benchmark results against the previous survey.
Good communication has been vital in conveying messages about mental health. During the pandemic Aggregate Industries set up a ‘Bring Your Best’ newsletter, written for and distributed to different groups of employees: home workers, furloughed staff and site operatives.
While it is easy to get information to office or home working staff, it is much harder to reach people working on construction sites or in factories. Stephanie says one of the big challenges is that Aggregate Industries has many one-man plants and lone workers. Not being part of a visible team can exacerbate mental health challenges.
Ready Mix – the concrete supplier – is a part of Aggregate Industries where this is a concern. Ready Mix piloted one-to-one sessions for its employees with a mental health professional. Very few turned down the opportunity.
Stephanie believes that most of these individuals would not have sought help themselves through other routes, such as the company’s Employee Assistance Programme.
The company has tried various other creative ways of reaching out to its employees. For instance, it launched a podcast with an occupational health expert – so that those on site can listen to it while working. It is planning to write to all employees at their home address this year. Part of the thinking for this idea is that an employee’s partner or a family member might see the letter and encourage them to seek confidential help through the EAP or other signposted support.
Aggregate has also placed tri-boards on lamposts on operational sites featuring posters and QR codes with information about mental health support.
Stephanie confirms that its work on mental health is backed by senior leaders and that this topic is taken very seriously at the top of the organisation. The Chief Finance Officer sponsors the company’s mental health campaigning and is very passionate and active on the subject.
The business also hosts group listening circles in partnership with the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion team where people can share their stories. As Stephanie says: “Sharing stories is really powerful and helps to break down the barriers.”
As part of Mental Health Week in May Aggregate Industries put on morning and evening sessions with an external trainer, focusing on mental health in children and young people. This was developed in response to feedback that many parents are struggling with their children’s poor mental health. The company also launched a toolkit for line managers and teams on its intranet.
Aggregate Industries plans to continue its existing support and encourage more mental health first aiders within operations and offer refresher training. It also plans to extend line manager training to cover issues such as suicide awareness and assessing stress risks.
The work continues, but awareness is building and conversations about mental health are becoming notably less stigmatised.
Profiles of all the winners of this year’s WM People Top Employer Awards are published in our Best Practice Report.