Why waking up to tackling mental health should not be considered ‘woke’

June 2022

It’s not unusual for the Mail Online to cause controversy; its remit is to state opinion that divides opinion. But a recent article has caused a backlash across the construction sector, healthcare professionals and mental health charities by referring to construction workers as ‘woke’ following a survey about contemporary attitudes in the sector.

The statistic that prompted the inappropriate adjective was that two thirds of the 2000 construction professionals polled regularly talk to friends and colleagues about their feelings. In an industry that still accounts for two suicides every day, talking openly about how we’re feeling and reaching out to friends and colleagues should be heralded as an achievement, not derided.

Here at Millcroft, we have worked hard to change perceptions about mental health, break the stigma and encourage our team to talk about their feelings – both at work and at home. It’s an important step in addressing both the causes and the symptoms of poor mental health, for a healthier, more inclusive construction industry.

Our mental health awareness journey began two years ago when our head of HSEQ, Mike Wright, proposed adding mental health training to our existing suite of health and safety training. Having experienced the impacts of poor mental health in his own family and at work, Mike was only too well aware that mental health issues can affect anyone at any time; whether due to life events or simply to the onset of symptoms that can escalate if they are not acknowledged and addressed. Previously, most of our health and safety training had focused on the safety aspects of our business, but it was clear that mental health issues were not only a wellbeing matter for each individual on the Millcroft team, but also a potential safety concern. Our colleagues depend on each other in a safety critical environment so we needed a training programme that would help them identify symptoms, in themselves and each other, while creating a supportive environment for them to talk openly.

The initial workshop session with 12 members of the team was an eye-opener for everyone, as we learned just how many people had been affected by poor mental health within their own circle of family and friends. We rolled the programme out to every member of the team, shared it with clients and followed it up with the appointment of a mental health champion, mental health first aiders and toolbox talks.

Mental health awareness is now part of our 360 degree approach to health, safety and wellbeing at Millcroft. The training programme we devised two years ago forms part of the induction process for every employee, and we maintain that awareness through toolbox talks.

Every member of the team has been issued with a copy of ‘A Guide to Mental Health at Work’, a book by Sir John Timpson that is designed to help staff and leaders understand the symptoms of poor mental health, support their colleagues, and learn self-help techniques. The profits from every copy sold are donated to the Heads Together mental health charity so, by distributing the publication at Millcroft, we are supporting both our own team and the wider effort to reduce the impact of mental health issues.

The books were sent to each of our employees at their home addresses, along with a personal letter from Mike, to mark the beginning of Mental Health Awareness Week (MHAW) in May. Mike’s letter to the team highlighted that work-related stress accounts for over half (57%) of all working days lost to ill health in the UK, with more than 600 000 workers reporting symptoms of stress, depression, or anxiety, caused or made worse by work during the past 12 months.

The book and the letter were part of a week-long programme to prompt renewed discussion around the topic of mental health, with other initiatives including a toolbox talk on loneliness - this year’s MHAW theme - a mental health quiz and a presentation on sources of support for those dealing with mental health issues of their own or of someone close to them. The book will also now be provided to every new member of the team, alongside mental health training, as part of their induction when they join the company.

Even amongst our team, who have been trained in mental health awareness, the quiz we held revealed that many still don’t know the scale of the mental health issue amongst the working population, or in the construction industry specifically. Mental health issues accounted for more sick leave than Covid in 2021, with absence and reduced productivity due to poor mental health costing the UK economy £118 billion and male labourers 3.7 times more likely to commit suicide than the general population.

Talking to trusted friends, family and colleagues about how we feel is one of the most useful ways to counter stress and depression, and an important step in accessing help. The fact that those conversations are now happening in the construction sector is testament to the success of mental health programmes like ours in encouraging people to open up.

Those programmes are happening across the delivery chain and to refer to that progress as ‘woke’ is insensitive and damaging. Let’s hope, however, that the backlash the Mail Online article has created will prompt even more positive conversations over the weeks and months ahead.

Why waking up to tackling mental health should not be considered ‘woke’

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