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Supporting positive mental wellbeing in the construction sector with Mates in Mind's Sarah Meek

NOCN Group speaks to Sarah Meek, Managing Director at Mates in Mind, about the importance of education and training in addressing the stigma around mental ill-health in the workplace.

3 out of 5 employees experience mental health issues because of work. 

Mates in Mind is a UK-based charity established in 2016 in response to the alarming rates of mental health issues and suicide within the construction sector. Its primary objective is to raise awareness and support mental health in the industry, aiming to change the culture surrounding mental health and create mentally healthier workplaces.

The construction industry is known for its demanding and high-pressure nature, which can negatively impact workers' mental health. Long working hours, tight deadlines, physical strain, and a macho culture often hinder open discussions about mental health issues.

Sarah believes that prevention is the route we all need to focus on. "We want to see what we can do to minimise the risk of someone becoming unwell and needing to access services."

"If someone reaches that point of accessing those services, they need access to extra support. We want to break down those barriers, reduce mental health stigma in the workplace, and make it easier for people to start the conversation."

To do this, they collaborate with employers, industry leaders, and various stakeholders to deliver training, guidance, and resources that help organisations develop strategies to address mental health effectively. Mates in Mind offers specialised training programs which equip individuals with the skills to recognise and support those experiencing mental health difficulties.

In 2022, Mates in Mind surveyed the mental health of self-employed construction workers and those working in small firms. The results highlighted that intense workloads, financial problems, and poor work-life balance had significantly increased stress and anxiety levels. Findings from over 300 respondents suggest that almost a third live with elevated anxiety levels daily. In addition, construction workers from a range of trades that are often too hard to reach, from bricklayers to groundworkers to plasterers, told researchers from Mates in Mind and the Institute for Employment Studies (IES) that the continuing stigma of mental illness prevents them from discussing it beyond close friends or family members.

The 2022 CN Mind Matters survey paints a similar picture. It received 1,200 responses from workers within the industry and found that 59% did not tell their employer that the reason they needed time off work was for mental health. The majority (59%) of workers taking part in the survey also said they did not receive the appropriate level of support from their managers when facing mental health issues. 

However, the survey indicated a shift in construction workers openness to discuss mental health with their peers. In total 53% of those surveyed said they felt comfortable discussing their mental health with colleagues, compared with 33% in 2019.

"One area we focus on is raising awareness and training to the workforce, with a strong focus on line managers. They're around their direct report daily, so with training, they can help to spot the signs of poor mental health and learn how to raise the subject sensitively. So it's important to know how to start the conversation."

People often progress through a company for their technical expertise, but they have not often been taught the skills around starting a conversation with somebody if they are worried about their mental health, and that's another area Mates in Mind can help with. 

Approaching someone who is struggling should be the responsibility of everyone in the workplace. The whole team must be able to spot the signs and provide peer-to-peer support. People might feel more comfortable talking to others at the same level as them rather than approaching their manager to discuss their mental health. The more an organisation focuses on culture change, the better it will be for all employees.

"We work with companies of all sizes to help them improve the mental health of their workforce. We know that individuals need to be made more aware of the support that is available to them and it’s exactly the same for a business. Managers and senior leaders know that employee wellbeing is their responsibility and often don't know how to help. This is a significant problem."

When senior leaders talk about their mental health struggles, it lets people across the organisation know that it's OK to talk about and that people can get through this. 

"One major challenge that our research has highlighted is that lone working can contribute to poor mental health, and that's why we have been looking at different ways we can support lone workers. Drivers rarely share their cab or van with someone, so they might need help to reach out. This is where our free to access 24/7 text service really helps."


What can be done?

Education and training are key to eliminating the stigma. Mates in Mind charity has empowered hundreds of organisations across the UK to tackle the silence surrounding mental ill-heath and embed a positive culture change within these workplaces. Working alongside their partners, sector leaders and a growing community of Supporters, they have delivered change across the UK by providing the skills, clarity and confidence to employers on how to raise awareness, improve understanding and address the stigma of mental ill-health.

When someone becomes a supporter, they get access to exclusive resources, training and support. "We also start with assessing the business, looking at the data, and analysing the information they already keep. This allows us to make a recommendation that is unique to them and based on their business gaps and strategic vision. We also include ‘Start the Conversation’ training and access to the text service, free for the employee as a holistic package."

By embracing the ethos of mental health, companies can have the greatest success with good mental health and wellbeing for their workforce. Imagine a workplace where people feel genuinely safe and comfortable, enabling them to open up and thrive. Together with their employers, they collaborate to make necessary adjustments and seek vital support. Managers become champions in guiding individuals towards the right services, preventing sick leave or performance management woes. But it doesn't end there. This powerful mindset goes beyond fundraising and outdoor team activities, forging authentic connections that unravel the depths of personal understanding. Embrace the potential. Embrace mental health. Witness the transformation.

You can learn more about how Mates in Mind can help you on their website