This article departs somewhat from our usual construction and procurement law topics in the hopes of opening the issue of mental health for broader discussion whilst informing leaders and managers in order to improve awareness. Many of you reading this should have by now suffered some form of physical illness or injury in life. I personally have never broken a bone, but I’ve had more colds and flus, cuts and grazes to remember. We can therefore start this article by agreeing that we all have greater or lesser degrees of physical health and, because we all have brains (and if you don’t, thank you for at least halting your part in the impending zombie apocalypse to read this), we must therefore all have greater or lesser degrees of mental health. Therefore, if you think that mental health is something that affects other people, to put it bluntly, you’d be wrong (or you can go back to the apocalypse now).
This article isn’t intended to act as a user guide for those who are experiencing poor mental health. It is aimed however at those of you with little or no experience of the subject and hence I’ve focused on some areas that may be far more common than you might think. I like to think of these as the mental equivalent of the bumps, bruises, cuts and even breaks of our physical health and I really do think they are just as common in reality. It might only take one thing I’ve written here that helps you to help someone else, thereby making a huge difference both to them and the impact they can continue to have at work.
Anxiety – Some form of anxiety is a perfectly normal response to many of life’s routine situations and we’ve likely all felt its effects at one time or another. Don’t believe me? Google ‘Goldberg Anxiety Scale’ and answer the questions honestly, then have a rethink. If, based on your current circumstances, you genuinely scored 0, then lucky you. But can you honestly say that has been the case your whole life? Anxiety disorders come in various shapes and sizes however the debilitating effect they can have is what makes this element of mental health worth considering closely. Lack of concentration; an inability to make decisions, either rationally or indeed at all; irritability, impatience or even anger are but just some of the effects that could interfere with work or relationships and why we should take note. Someone suffering from Anxiety may be prone to higher rates of absenteeism. Whilst you can’t necessarily cure someone of a cold or (I’ll say it), Covid-19, you can have a positive impact on someone suffering from anxiety. Being able to identify someone as suffering from anxiety, communicating with them in a reassuring and measured way to help allay any fears or potential stressors is within the gift of any good manager.
Depression – Some days we wake up and just can’t be bothered. Some of us have more of those days than others. But for most, a shower, a cup of coffee, a quick walk with the dog or perhaps all of the above brings us back around. I suspect we can all recognise ‘those days’ and that the effects will be short-lived. But what if someone is having one of those days every day and nothing seems to shake it. Can you recognise that? A low mood that lasts for days or even weeks and affects how you think and act is not a healthy state of mind. It may be a persistent feeling of sadness or pessimism without really knowing why or a loss of confidence or interest in things that usually excited you. Feelings like that which last more than a fortnight could be signs of clinical depression. This isn’t just the ‘blues’ or even a series of ‘those days’, this is a serious medical condition which may very well require professional intervention. Sufferers may or may not recognise the signs themselves. There are a number of possible causes of depression, but you don’t need to ‘diagnose’ those, leave that to the professionals. Suffice to say though that loneliness, stressful events (or jobs!), a family history, over-reliance on alcohol or even drugs and serious illness can all play a part. Whilst many will be familiar with the concept of post-natal depression in new mothers, few will realise that fathers can suffer this too. These are just a few of the things you may be able to ‘see’ in people around you.
Suicide – Men in the UK and Ireland are three times more likely to die by suicide than women. And in the UK, men in construction are three time more likely still than the national average. A 2019 report by the CIOB suggested a quarter of those working in Construction had thought about taking their own lives. That was pre-pandemic, so there is every indication that figure could be higher still now. Over half the respondents stated they worked for a firm with no mental health policy in place and almost every one of them noted elevated levels of stress as a factor in their work within the previous year. If you’re a leader or manager in the construction industry, you should not dismiss the likelihood of suicide affecting you or your organisation at some point in time, if indeed it hasn’t done so already. If you haven’t done so already, you need to be thinking about what more you can be doing now to support those around you and be prepared to match words with deeds if, or when, the time comes. Someone so disaffected by life that they are considering bringing it to an end is when your response matters most. I say this from experience. On more than one occasion throughout my career, I have been in the very fortunate position to have someone tell me they were considering taking their own life. Yes, I said it – fortunate. Fortunate that they trusted me enough to tell me and I was able to get them the necessary help to prevent them from doing so. If you’re going to be the person who holds some dismissive attitude towards suicide, I’m willing to bet good money you won’t be as fortunate as I was, so the tone you set now could make all the difference in the future. There are some immediate do’s and don’ts here:
First Aid – Those of you who have undertaken physical first aid courses will doubtless have been taught a mnemonic of some form to triage a casualty. For me, it was the simple ‘ABCD’ process of checking their Airway, Breathing, Circulation and any Disabilities and then treating them in that order. The Mental Health First Aiders course is no different in that it teaches the ALGEE mnemonic:
This five-step approach will stand you in good stead for opening the door to a constructive discussion that can make a difference to someone in a very real way.
In summary, there remains much to do and talk about in relation to our mental health. The key to success though is to talk about it – in all its forms, whether good or bad. By normalising the subject in the way we do with physical health, we can make a huge societal change in the way we deal with difficult days.
If you’ve read this far, perhaps you are wondering what qualifies me to write this. Well, if I may be so bold as to call them ‘qualifications’, I’m a Mental Health First Aider and Chartered HR practitioner and Chartered Manager. I was also a qualified Trauma Risk Management (TRiM) Coordinator in the British Army, which involved ensuring the earliest possible intervention for those who had experienced a traumatic event with the aim of minimising any adverse effects. I’m also someone who has experienced anxiety and depression in the past and who understands, first hand, the debilitating effects of it. More importantly though, I’m someone lucky enough to have people around me, both at home and at work, who recognise when things are getting a bit much and I’m ‘not myself’. That recognition, perhaps through the simple question “are you OK?” can make an immediately positive difference.
So, here’s the challenge to you. Are you normalising the conversation in your organisation around mental health or are you avoiding it? Are you someone that others would approach in their darkest hour and ask for help? And if you are not, why aren’t you? If you are that fortunate type, do you know what to say or do in response? Can you recognise the signs and symptoms of poor mental health and do you have the inherent leadership and management abilities to reach out? When was the last time you even asked people if they were OK? Not a flippant “How’s it going?” but an actual “Are you OK? I know the last few weeks have been difficult with the extra work and just wanted to make sure you’re OK. No need to answer me now if you don’t want to but let me know if you want to talk”. Perhaps they don’t need to talk, but you’ve taken a very simple step in the right direction and helped cultivate an environment where they can talk if they want to, whether it be now or in the future. If you haven’t done that recently, make a point of going round your team and asking them. It might take a bit of time to get around them all, but do not underestimate the power of doing it. If you find that someone is struggling in some way, ask yourself what your role in that has been. It may be nothing, we all spend more of our day/week/month/year at home than we do at work and life hasn’t been the easiest over the last couple of years. But if something you are doing (or not) is the root cause of someone else’s mental ill health, YOU need to address your own actions immediately – you have that power, so wield it in a good way.
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