If you care about profit, take wellbeing seriously

Richard Stockley is the managing director of health and safety consultancy RCC International

The Factories Act of 1833 kickstarted a culture of health and safety in the UK, and this year marks the 50th anniversary of the Health and Safety at Work Act. But construction workers aren’t just risking their physical health and safety when they step onto site.

Operating machinery, lifting heavy loads, working at height, stress: these are all examples of health and safety risks on construction sites up and down the country. 

“Creating a process to make worker wellbeing more robust and less woolly is key”

There was a time when hardhats and scaffolding were seen as excessive, and “health and safety gone mad” was a common punchline. But UK construction has developed an extremely good health and safety culture over time.

According to Health and Safety Executive data, the rate of non-fatal injuries per 100,000 has dropped every decade since the 80s, and fatal injuries follow a similar trend.

We have broadly got our collective heads around protecting our physical health and staying safe from harm, but we are far less familiar with our psychological needs. The next frontier for health and safety, therefore, is mental wellbeing. 

While awareness of it is growing in UK construction, I should imagine there is still stigma preventing people from talking about these issues openly, and I know there is little in the way of formal processes to protect workers’ mental wellbeing. 

You might be a construction business owner reading this, or the head of a big firm, asking yourself, are we being a bit silly here? Construction workers may well be at the highest risk of suicide of any profession in the country, 3.7 times higher than the national average, according to the Office for National Satistics, but is that the business owners’ responsibility? 

Regardless of your views on mental health and your responsibility to your employees, if you care about being profitable, you need a psychological health and safety provision. 

Take a long-term view

The fact is 13.7 million working days are lost every year to work-related stress, anxiety and depression, according to the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence. This equates to a loss of £28.3 billion every year. In 2022, 55 per cent of workers said they believed work was getting more intense over time, so there is the potential that this cost could grow.  

Getting psychological health and safety right could therefore mean a more present and productive workforce, and ultimately more profit. You will also see other benefits, like higher staff satisfaction and retention rates, and you’ll find it easier to attract younger people to start careers in construction, which we are all desperate to do. 

Creating a process to make worker wellbeing more robust and less woolly is the key to realising these benefits. Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet. It takes training, a long-term commitment and continuous improvement to manage it effectively. 

Start by acknowledging the seriousness of psychological wellbeing at work and formally recognise common triggers of stress in the workplace, such as an increasing workload, a lack of clarity on roles, our working relationships, the culture on site, isolation and exclusion, and external pressures like bereavement, a house move or getting divorced.  

With all of this acknowledged, we recommend setting a foundation with training with relevant health and safety courses. It’s then a matter of looking at your policy statement and assessing how much weight is placed on psychological wellbeing. Identify the specific risk factors at your organisation, prioritise quick wins, assign long-term actions and ideally appoint a steering group to ensure your continuous improvement. 

Much like physical health and safety, managing wellbeing is about changing the culture of your organisation, which is no easy task. But creating an environment that prioritises open conversation, where it’s OK to raise issues, will pay all sorts of dividends. 

Protecting the psychological wellbeing of your workforce will protect your organisation. It’s not simple, but it’s well worth the effort.

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