The Engineers Collective: The impact of COVID-19 on well-being in construction

April 09, 2021

Discussing the coronavirus pandemic’s impact on mental health, New Civil Engineer’s The Engineers Collective podcast welcomed RSK’s Health and Safety Manager for the contracting division, Lindsey Marie, and Principal Safety, Health, Environment and Quality Coordinator Phil Hinchey, to its recent edition.

As RSK mental health first aiders, Phil and Lindsey have been trained to recognise when their colleagues are suffering from mental health challenges and to react in an appropriate manner: by listening and referring people to relevant support services.

Lindsey Marie and Phil Hinchey

Before the coronavirus pandemic, the construction industry was at a crisis point in terms of workers’ mental health. In 2019, two construction workers a day took their own lives; the suicide rate was three times higher than average; and 26% of workers had considered taking their own lives. Lindsey suggests that a large part of this may be attributed to the male-dominated nature of the industry that can breed unhealthy stereotypes of masculinity in which talking about feelings and mental health issues are taboo.

Although things have been improving gradually over the last four to five years, says Lindsey, the pandemic has really helped the industry to turn a corner, as people are now talking more openly about mental health. Because the pandemic has put us all in a challenging position, it has become more acceptable to talk about the challenges that we are facing.

Although people are talking more, the negative side of this is that the reason is that more of us than ever are struggling with our mental health. The construction industry has become a particularly lonely place during the pandemic as opportunities to talk in group tea breaks, shared overnight accommodation and shared transport have been taken away. Although the industry has been lucky in that it has mostly been able to continue running as a necessary service, many employees are anxious about taking the virus back home to their families. On the flip side, families are anxious about their loved ones working away and the possibility of them contracting the virus while on site.

Employers must provide reassurance to their employees that precautions are in place to keep them as safe as possible, says Phil. RSK has always prioritised mental health and well-being and this has stepped up a gear since the start of the pandemic. “We often use the term RSK family, and it does feel like that,” says Phil. “There are some really big demonstrable signs of that. We have well-being champions in nearly all of our business units and sites, we have Time to Talk days … we’ve trained 60 mental health first aiders. We haven’t stopped that conversation, stopped that coaching, because of COVID, we’ve been doing it in a different way: remotely … there is a real demonstration of care. Our Chief Executive Officer Alan Ryder has sent updates throughout the pandemic. Zoe Brunswick, our HR Director, regularly emailed about her own well-being and encouraged people to do the same. Throughout, we have been very proactive, making sure there are good information flows and good risk assessments, so our people are fully aware of the dangers and the arrangements that need to be in place in order to maintain safe working.”

People are versatile and are able to cope with change if it is implemented well, says Phil. However, with the COVID pandemic now passing the year mark, there will be long-term implications, and this is something we have to look out for, keeping an eye on our colleagues and ensuring that they are coping. Some of the signs that someone isn’t managing include showing bad timekeeping skills, missing deadlines, presenting sloppy work or snapping at colleagues. Of course, everyone is different, so the most important thing to look for is a change in character. If you do notice something’s not quite right, ask the question: check in with your colleague to ask if they’re ok. Don’t be afraid to ask again if they provide an automatic “I’m fine” response. We all have a responsibility to dispel the mental health stigma by talking and by listening: “[People] are willing to talk about [mental health],” concludes Phil. “And there are also people willing to listen. And I think it’s got to be both sides of that equation.”

You can listen to the podcast in full via the New Civil Engineer website. A related article on “How COVID is shaping health, safety and well-being in construction”, quoting Phil and Lindsey, is also available on the website.

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