Opinion

Mental health has to be monitored for it to be managed

Editor, IOSH Magazine

The UK-wide launch of the Mates in Mind campaign (September 2017) to cut the high suicide rate among construction operatives is the fruition of two years’ work.

There had been rumblings about mental health problems in the industry for several years and it was brought to the fore at the health summit of construction executives in January 2016. The company heads were told that stress and depression accounted for one in five of the 69,000 work-related annual cases of ill health. The suicide rate for low-skilled males in the sector is almost four times the all-occupation average.

These figures prompted the Health in Construction Leadership Group and its partners to create a model based on mental health awareness training and directing those who need help to professional services. The programme aims to make reticent male workers better able to recognise and talk about their feelings.

But elevated rates of poor mental health are not limited to construction. Researchers from Cardiff University compared surveys of more than 1,000 merchant seafarers in 2011 and 2016. They found that, though smoking, drinking and unhealthy eating had declined, the percentage that had experienced psychiatric episodes had increased from 28% to 37%.

Similarly, the UK’s Road Transport Industry Training Board (RTITB) recently noted that 30% of self-reported work-related illnesses in the transport and logistics sector stemmed from stress, depression or anxiety. (The stigma still associated with admitting to mental health problems makes it likely figures such as these are underestimates.)

If shipping and logistics companies decide to offer more support to distressed workers, Mates in Mind will provide a pathfinding model for them or their sector bodies to follow.

Help for those already suffering is commendable, but is not enough. We should be trying to identify and ameliorate the work-related causes of excessive stress and poor mental health.

The Cardiff researchers noted that recreational facilities, communal activities and internet access would help to reduce the sense of isolation that many merchant mariners report. The RTITB also highlighted isolation, along with long periods of intense concentration and strict delivery deadlines, as a mental health risk factor for drivers of large goods vehicles.

Mental health is a far from simple issue; problems are usually multifactorial and personal factors may contribute as much as work-related ones. Some work stressors are hard to design out of jobs – long-distance drivers and seafarers will inevitably spend extended periods away from home. But others can be compensated for.

Since what isn’t measured isn’t managed, the growing recognition of the problem in sectors with higher than average depression and suicide rates is the first step toward action.

Louis Wustemann is editor, IOSH Magazine. He was previously editor of Health and Safety at Work magazine and Environment in Business. He has written, edited and consulted on health and safety, environmental and employment matters for more than 25 years.

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