Fears that mental health initiatives may not be reaching those who need them

Professor Billy Hare

RESEARCHERS from Glasgow Caledonian University have warned that initiatives aimed at protecting the mental health of construction workers may not be getting to those who need them, leading to an increased risk of suicide.

The findings come after academics at the university’s Research Centre for Built Environment Asset Management (BEAM) helped develop a ‘dashboard’ of wellbeing for the industry, commissioned by construction charity, the Lighthouse Club.

The dashboard will be a database featuring measurable data on construction safety, health and wellbeing. It will be updated yearly, allowing industry organisations, policy makers and researchers to view trends, track the progress of industry initiatives, and inform decision making.

The work involved bringing data together on suicides – seen as the ‘acid test’ as to whether mental health initiatives are working – for the period immediately before and subsequently after the UK Government Independent Review on mental health ‘Thriving at work’ in 2017.

Analysis of suicides by occupation, conducted by Professor Billy Hare, who is leading the study, revealed the number per 100,000 for construction workers rose from 26 to 29 in the four years to 2019, despite various initiatives and awareness training sessions put in place since publication of the government report in 2017.

The data also shows no change in historical ratios, with those in the construction industry three times more likely to take their own life than those working outside it.

There also appears to be some variation between certain occupational groups within the industry. Those working in non-manual occupations, such as managers and professionals, have lower rates, which have also seen an overall drop in rate from just under 7 in 2015, to just under 5 per 100,000 in 2019. However, unskilled workers, such as labourers, have seen their rate rise from 48 to just over 73 suicides per 100,000.

Professor Hare said, “This occupational group is usually higher than average for suicides, but the sharp rise and widening gap over the period analysed, in contrast to their non-manual colleagues, is concerning and may indicate recent initiatives are not reaching these more vulnerable sectors of the industry.

“Unskilled workers tend to fall into the lowest socio-economic classes, which are associated with lower life expectancy in general, and tend to display the classic characteristics linked to poor mental health, such as alcohol and substance abuse, financial and relationship problems and suffer multiple stressful life events.”

Professor Hare cautioned that these are just preliminary findings and more ‘robust’ data is required so that factors such as age can be controlled for. Usable data was only available for England and Wales, and the team is hoping to also add those for Scotland and Northern Ireland in due course.

Researchers led by Professor Hare are also undertaking a review of construction-specific factors around suicide, funded by the Samaritans. This will help inform the charity’s development of intervention strategies.