The mind does matter

10 May 2019

Great strides have been taken in recent years to address physical health and safety concerns within our industry. But now, with worldwide experience demonstrating the link between good mental health, site safety and productivity in the workplace, the same effort is needed to address mental wellbeing. Suzanne Pritchard reports.

Mental health has now become a permanent part of the workplace, according to engineering recruitment company Morson. Statistics in the UK suggest that one in four of us will experience mental illness at some point and, as the average person spends 90,000 hours of their adult life at work, it’s not surprising to find that employee mental wellbeing can impact productivity.

In 2017, the UK government commissioned The Stevenson and Farmer Review of Mental Health and Employers. It found that 300,000 people with long term mental health problems lose their job each year (a much higher rate than those with physical health problems). It also highlighted the fact that 15% of workers have symptoms of an existing mental health condition.

In addition, our working environments have changed in numerous ways over recent years. New communications technologies, expanding access to the internet, increasing competition, increasing pressure for cost efficiencies and higher productivity, and moving between organisations and even industries is now commonplace. According to mental health charity MIND, four out of five employees with poor mental health say that their workplace was a contributory factor to their condition.

Dr Dévora Kestel is the Director of Mental Health and Substance Abuse at the World Health Organisation.

“Changing working environments undoubtedly bring opportunities for professional development, expanding networks and innovation,” she says. “However, the extent and pace of change can, when coupled with a working environment that doesn’t take account of people’s mental wellbeing, lead to physical and mental health problems, absenteeism and lost productivity. Indeed, the lost productivity resulting from depression and anxiety, two of the most common mental disorders, is estimated to cost the global economy US$1 trillion each year.”

Kestel goes on to talk about the many factors that can influence the mental health of employees. Organisational issues include poor communication and management practices, limited participation in decision-making, long or inflexible working hours and lack of team cohesion. Bullying and psychological harassment are also well-known causes of work-related stress and mental health problems. Working environments where rapid decisions need to be made also come with their own challenges.

The same can be said of jobs within the engineering construction industry. These can be demanding, high pressured and involve irregular working patterns - all of which can impact on an employee’s mental health.

Chris Claydon is the Chief Executive of the Engineering Construction Industry Training Board (ECITB) in the UK. “In recent years,” he says, “industry has worked tirelessly to eliminate hazards, reduce risks and address the health and safety implications of projects. With the known impact of mental health on an individual’s physical abilities and decision-making, it makes sense that we view mental health and safety with the same importance as physical health and safety.”

As Morson’s 2018 whitepaper called Tackling Mental Health in the Workplace states: “Putting mental health issues on a par with physical problems helps break down the barriers that prevent people from opening up about their emotional, psychological and social wellbeing. Removing the perceived stigma encourages people to talk openly and honestly about their personal issues, concerns and struggles, meaning employers can apply the right support mechanisms for them and their situation.”

However, many businesses are failing to view mental health as a priority, citing reasons such as operational demands and insufficient resources. But how much does it cost to tackle mental health in the workplace?

The answer is perhaps illustrated more clearly by figures relating to the cost of doing nothing. According to the Stevenson and Farmer review, the annual cost of mental health issues for employers is between £33-42B in the UK. Interestingly 50% of this comes from presenteeism – where employees are less productive due to poor mental health at work. While in Australia, according to the Safe Work Australia organisation, companies there lose A$6B per year in lost productivity. Dr Peta Miller, a special advisor for Safe Work Australia, says that psychological injuries are expensive and typically require three times more time off work than other injuries.

The inescapable conclusion, Stevenson and Farmer believe, is that “it is massively in the interest of both employers and the government to prioritise and invest far more in improving mental health”.

So will more investment enhance the mental wellbeing of employees in our industry?

The findings from Morson’s 2018 whitepaper were taken from a survey of more than 1400 international contractors working in various roles such as construction and engineering. The majority of respondents were male and aged 41 years or more. Operations Director at Morson International, Adrian Adair, says that the following results were shocking and unacceptable, showing a major disconnect between mental health awareness and openness at work:

  • Sixty two percent of respondents were seeking treatment for a mental health condition or have sought treatment in the past.
  • Forty six percent of those living with a mental health condition hide it from their colleagues and employees, while more than a third feared their employer’s reaction or the repercussions of speaking out about mental illness.
  • Fifteen percent have taken time off work due to mental health reasons, and 28% of these were off work from more than a month.
  • Nine percent of respondents had considered taking their life due to mental health struggles.
  • Fifty five percent of workplaces did not offer any mental health support.

In addition, Construction News’ Mind Matters survey of 2018 found that 57% of respondents in the UK construction industry had experienced mental health issues, with 25% having considered taking their own life. Consultant psychiatrist Dr Alys Cole-King believes that the construction industry lifestyle is of great relevance to such figures. People who work away from home, perhaps for weeks at a time, may be removed from their regular and close social network. Travelling miles to remote locations and often different countries can also put workers under huge strain.

James Harris, who is responsible for Mott MacDonald’s operations in the UK and Europe, believes that mental health is clearly an issue in the wider construction industry. “The fact that our industry is male-dominated compounds the issue; men find it especially difficult to open up about their mental health needs and are less likely to seek support,” he said.

Steve Fox, CEO of civil engineering company Bam Nuttall, agrees: “Men don’t talk about this stuff at all,” he said. “One of the big things we need to do is to make it safe for people to talk about mental health.”

Many believe that it is now time to change the conversation about mental health for good. With over 400 people in the UK engineering and construction sector taking their own lives each year, there is hope that the industry will lead the way to help improve approaches to mental wellbeing.


The basis for change, according to the Stevenson and Farmer review, is a set of mental health standards which all organisations in the UK are capable of implementing quickly. These are to:

  • Produce, implement and communicate a mental health at work plan.
  • Develop mental health awareness among employees.
  • Encourage open conversations about mental health and the support available when employees are struggling.
  • Provide employees with good working conditions and ensure they have a healthy work life balance and opportunities for development.
  • Promote effective people management through line managers and supervisors.
  • Routinely monitor employee mental health and wellbeing.

Speaking with the Institution of Civil Engineers, CEO of MIND Paul Farmer, says that the standards have been welcomed by the government but their implementation will differ greatly among employers and sectors.

“With growing recognition of the importance of getting this right,” he adds, “we need to start embedding best practice into organisations of all shapes and sizes, and we’ll continue to use our experience to help employers achieve this.”

Cultural revolution

One such employer working hard to improve the situation is Thames Water in the UK. Chief Health, Safety and Security Officer Karl Simons agrees that mental health should be viewed as being as important as physical health at work.

“The introduction of mental health first aiders has led to a cultural revolution across Thames Water,” he said. “Mental health first aiders are a catalyst for engagement, providing our employees with the confidence to come forward and seek support at their time of need.”

Thames Water’s Time to Talk strategy has resulted in a 75% reduction in work-related stress, anxiety and depression over the last five years. More than 350 people across the business are now trained mental health first aiders and the aim is to soon get to 400, with courses fully subscribed.

Simons says that there are lots of ways the company supports its ever-growing cohort of mental health first aiders, including quarterly engagement sessions and a closed discussion group on its digital forum. The company says it also understands the importance of achieving a healthy balance between work and home life, and always tries to accommodate flexible working requests wherever possible.

Lanes Utilities is also developing pioneering methods to support its employees in the workplace. In May 2018 the English company won a Water Industry Achievement Award for its wellbeing app which measures happiness at work, and is combined with a practical support programme led by a qualified mental health practitioner.

Since the wellbeing app was first introduced, the number of colleagues identifying themselves as very unhappy has fallen from 8% to 1%. Lanes says that most of the causes of unhappiness were not related to work but were associated with mental health problems such as depression and anxiety. However, the company says it realised that largely unhidden issues can affect performance at work.

Lanes Group Director Andy Brierley said: “A lot of our colleagues are in a much better personal place because of the help they’ve received, which is fantastic. It has also helped us measurably and significantly increase workforce happiness, contribute to a 57% reduction in staff turnover, saving £1M a year in training, and allowed us to identify smart new ways to train and support colleagues to amplify the positive effects of having a happy workforce still further.”

The Lanes Group’s wellbeing app has also been shortlisted for this year’s Construction News Specialist Health Safety and Wellbeing Award. Winners were due to be announced at the end of March 2019.

“This has mushroomed into an initiative that is transforming our whole organisation, both in performance and culturally. I’m proud our teams have been brave and open-minded enough to start this exciting journey,” Brierley said.


Over the past three years, Ontario Power Generation (OPG) says it has made strides to destigmatise mental health in the workplace, and ensure its 9300 employees have access to timely and effective treatment. With the Canadian Mental Health Association estimating that one in five Canadians will personally experience a mental health problem or illness in any given year, OPG has trained more than 2100 leaders in mental health first aid.

To raise awareness of the issue the Canadian utility says the course teaches how to spot the signs of mental illnesses like depression and anxiety and provide early help. An online health index tool was also developed as well as a web-based platform that gives employees and their families access to expert health and wellness advice.

In addition, OPG employees have spoken out publicly to destigmatise mental health in the workplace, and encourage others to speak up and seek help. Tony Hall, who works at the RH Saunders hydropower station, spoke about his struggles after his son took his own life six years ago. Hall says that talking helped his family to deal with their loss, and he now realises that talking could have saved his son.

“Many people think they’re coping well, but what we’ve found is that they’re just on the cusp of breaking down,” says Tanya Hickey, Senior Manager of Health and Safety Strategies at OPG. “As a company, we hope to make a difference in people’s lives by providing and encouraging access to get the help they need.”

OPG says the impact of its awareness campaign has been significant. More employees and their families have sought counselling and although mental health related medical absences have slightly increased, their duration has decreased by 29%. Hickey suggests that this shows employees are reaching out for help earlier and having greater success in recovery.

Mates in mind

Mates in Mind is a UK charity that was established by the Health in Construction Leadership Group in 2017. It not only informs employers about the available support and guidance relating to mental health, illness and wellbeing, but offers advice on how they can address this within their organisations.  By 2025, it aims to have reached 75% of the construction industry.

Last year, civil engineering and infrastructure specialist Barhale, won the Mates in Mind Impacts Award for improving and promoting positive mental health within the UK construction industry.

Praised highly for delivering its own in-house Engineering Better Mental Health Management programme, Barhale’s course is designed to equip all its line managers with the knowledge and understanding to confidently identify and support colleagues’ health concerns. About 200 employees took part in the programme last year.

According to Jo Southan, Barhale’s Health and Wellbeing Lead, statistics around mental health in construction are truly worrying, with male construction workers at the greatest risk of suicide.

“It is our duty, as a responsible employer, to maintain both the physical and mental welfare of all our colleagues. Many people find it difficult to talk about mental health and we’re trying to help break that silence,” she said. “Addressing mental health in the workplace ties in with our business strategy, as we recognise the link between good mental health, site safety and work productivity.”

The Engineering Construction Industry Training Board (ECITB) in the UK has also recognised the importance of mental health training across the workplace, and recently committed £350,000 to fund training over the next two years.

ECITB says that mental health is becoming a key area of focus for the sector, and there is an increased demand for training. Such support will not only improve wellbeing of the workforce and the safety of workplaces, but will have a positive impact on efficiency and productivity.

Global guidance

International examples of interventions and approaches to the mental health and wellbeing of employees differ. In Germany, Canada and Australia methods have favoured a common framework and engaging with stakeholders, while France, Belgium and Sweden have focused on legislation.

“However, what is missing,” says Dr Dévora Kestel from the World Health Organisation, “is global guidance to help organisations ensure that the programmes and interventions they introduce are based on the best-available evidence for the mental health of employees, and is guidance that can be used by organisations in countries of all income levels.”

Throughout 2019 the World Health Organisation, in collaboration with groups that have already accumulated vast experience in this area, is planning to develop mental health guidelines for the workplace to help prevent, manage and overcome such conditions.

As Paul Farmer, CEO of MIND, says: “For senior leaders within civil engineering and beyond it’s now time to use these standards as a basis for change that will allow a happier, healthier and more productive workplace. We’ve seen this sector take massive strides in improving safety…a similar level of attention can and should be paid to the mental health of the workforce.”

Adrian Adair from Morson International believes that it is now time to stamp out the stigma that surrounds mental health and keeps too many people silent. “We’re on a cusp of change with mental health,” he says. “Safety is considered paramount in many of the sectors that we operate in and whilst employers take greats strides protecting their people from physical harm, the same effort is now needed to address mental ill health.”



  • Tackling Mental Health in the Workplace. 2018.
  • Thriving at Work. The Stevenson/Farmer review of mental health and employers. October 2017.
  • Mental health in the workplace. Going global. 22 January 2019. Dr Devora Kestel.
  • Engineering Construction Industry Training Board
  • News
  • Uncovered: The truth behind construction’s mental health by Lucy Alderson. Construction News. 27 April 2017.
  • It’s time to tackle the stigma over mental health by James Harris. Mott Macdonald. 2017.
  • Tackling mental health in the workplace by Adam Kirkup. 2nd February 2018. News story from Institution of Civil Engineers.
  • Pioneering wellbeing programme wins water award. News story by Lanes group. 23/05/2018.
  • OPG making strides on mental health. News 30th January 2019.
  • Barhale takes plaudits for mental health work at International Safety Awards. News story 8th May 2018.
  • Monitor Deloitte. Mental health and employers: the case for investment. Supporting study for the independent review. October 2017.


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