Steve Hails describes his experiences as a founder and chair of construction sector mental health charity, Mates in Mind.
Community impact is one of the 69 competencies listed in IOSH’s recently updated competency framework. Steve Hails, chair of the board of trustees of Mates in Mind, reveals what he has learned through the charity’s work supporting mental health in the construction sector, and how his position at Thames ‘super sewer’ infrastructure project Tideway has helped spread the message.
Finding the right focus
Mates in Mind came about from my work with the Health in Construction Leadership Group. There were five or six of us who came together to try to start addressing the disparity between health and safety. The two issues that immediately came to mind were respiratory ill health and mental ill health. We decided we had to be quite targeted. While much was being done to address respiratory health at the time, what we found was that there was nothing that was specifically focused on mental health in construction. The Office for National Statistics’ 2017 Suicide by occupation report showed that the construction industry’s suicide rate is 3.7 times higher than the national average, and construction workers are six times more likely to take their own life than to die in a fall. Obviously, those kinds of figures have a massive impact on the wider community.
Getting off the ground
With Mates in Mind the first things we asked was: how can we do this and how can we make an impact? The problem with many industry groups is that you get people around the table and everybody’s full of enthusiasm but then you go back to the day job and it somehow drifts off the radar and doesn’t gather the traction that it should. So we talked about creating an organisation and – after seeking feedback and legal advice about what was the best way forward – we decided to start the charity Mates in Mind. We’ve been extremely fortunate to have close links to the British Safety Council, which has supported the charity from the very beginning right up today, now in its third year.
IOSH competency framework
The IOSH competency framework has been designed to help OSH professionals build capacity and keep pace with rapid change in the workplace. It’s a useful reference tool for recruiting and developing individuals or a team. To find out more, visit iosh.com/competencyframework
One of the most important things is having your people engaged. Having the buy-in from the workforce is key to success in any area but I also think that, by having that level of engagement, you get better solutions. Then you must offer support to the ideas that come, whether they’re inside or outside of work. For example, some of the ideas that we’ve received at Tideway involve helping local communities. People get a real buzz from that, so we support volunteering programmes and charitable activities in local communities. But it’s important that you engage in the first instance, gather the information, and then support the drive of those ideas.
Partly because of my individual involvement but also because of the support of Tideway CEO Andy Mitchell, Tideway’s full executive team and board has seen the importance of good mental health in the workplace. I think – as is always the case with any small charity that is starting out – it was important that it had credibility. So when organisations such as Tideway and Balfour Beatty become involved, that provided a certain status.
Getting the word out
When it came to spreading the Mates in Mind message, some of it was by word of mouth and encouraging our own supply chains, and some of it was through campaigns that Mates in Mind rolled out. We felt that it wasn’t appropriate for Tideway to mandate membership or support of Mates in Mind because we found that organisations were generally at different stages on their journey. But we certainly encourage those organisations that are just embarking on their journey and realising that mental health and wellbeing is important. In the early days of Mates in Mind we set ourselves the target that in year one we wanted to reach 100,000 people, which we achieved. The more challenging longer-term goal is to reach 75% of the construction population by 2025.
There are some organisations that are purely focused on mental health first-aiders – we’ve got more than 140 of them at Tideway – but that in itself is reactive. Mates in Mind also looks at the underlying issues that construction has in abundance. Do we have such a high suicide rate in construction because we have such a transient workforce? Is it because we have so many people who are self-employed? Is it because we are predominantly male? Is it because we have so many people who are separated from their families because they travel to where the work is? Is it because in lower-skilled jobs financial issues are a concern? It’s about bringing the underlying issues to the fore and seeing what you can do differently to create an environment where people feel part of a team.
As part of its COVID-19 resources, Mates in Mind has developed two mental health support checklists.
- Support remote working
- Keep employees ‘in sight and in mind’
- Proactively manage communication challenges
- Signpost mental health support
- Encourage work/life balance
- Home-working mental health tips
- Establish a work day routine and area
- Create a productive working environment
- Find a balanced routine
- Try to avoid virus myths and look up reputable sources
- Be online and stay in touch
- Know how to access support services
Adapting to changing times
COVID-19 has had an impact across the entire construction sector. At Tideway, at the outbreak in March, we temporarily reduced our activities across the project, with only safety-critical operations and essential work continuing. We subsequently started a process of readiness reviews to bring our work back on line and one of the things that we have taken into consideration is the mental health of our workforce.
The charity has reacted very quickly to the pandemic and circulated advice and resources for employees and employers to support workforce mental health. There have been weekly webinars and videos, and interactive live online training, all of which – even in a remote capacity – was led by experienced mental health practitioners. There are close to 400 organisations who are supporters of Mates in Mind, and I know that the team is working with those organisations to understand what support they need for their return to work and how the charity can adapt to support them in whatever the new normal looks like.
Steve Hails is director of business services and HSW at Tideway and chair of the board of trustees for Mates in Mind