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Transition Back to Work and Mental Health

Russell Stilwell is Founder and Managing Director of RSE, here talks about how the construction industry needs to safeguard the mental health of its workers.

Pints are being pulled in pubs again. Restaurant kitchens are firing up. Non-essential shops are welcoming customers.

As much of the UK is given the go-ahead to reopen, many workers are returning from furlough or heading back into the office.

So, what does this mean for the construction industry?

An industry where many of us have been continuing to work throughout lock-down. A sector where many of us have been dealing with heightened anxiety, stresses and pressures over the last three months. Whether we’re working on site or the Director of a business, it’s been tough.

Some may forget that the construction industry has largely remained operational during the lockdown period. The upshot of this is that it’s even more important for businesses in the sector to put a wellbeing strategy in place that recognises this. We should be striving to safeguard the mental health of our all our workers… not just the ones who are returning after a period of absence.

Whether someone is just returning from furlough or has been working consistently throughout the lockdown period, there is a general feel of natural uncertainty and differing levels of anxiety.

The pandemic has caused more stress for people than ever before, from losing loved ones to the financial burden and change to daily lives. Quite simply, many people were struggling with their mental health prior to Coronavirus. They’re struggling even more now.

The construction industry finds it hard to social distance at the best of times. We tend to work in small spaces, carrying bulky objects, so of course there is a risk of bumping into one another. This can cause concern for workers that are still being cautious in their interactions.

What’s more, it is highly likely your team will be working on projects in a city centre, this brings the issue of whether employees feel comfortable travelling and wearing a mask on public transport, therefore pointing out the many different areas that need to be considered when transitioning back to work.

Employers need to be mindful of each workers individual situation. There should never be a one size fits all approach to mental health. This is even more pertinent now.

It is important to collaborate as a team to address key issues in a sensitive way so that solutions can be reached.

Of course, there are bound to be questions. Many will worry if their job is safe. They’ll wonder if their boss still needs them. If communication lines aren’t open and there is no reassurance employees may feel added pressure… add this to everything else going on in our individual worlds and it could create a recipe for burnout.

As a business owner within the construction industry, I know there is no crystal ball telling us it will all turn out fine. Our lives would be much easier if there was one!

However by supporting your team, perhaps by joining your workers on site to engage with them on a more personal level, leaders can lead and inspire from the front creating a more positive and communicative work dynamic.

But, it’s important to remember… it’s not a one way street.

For employees, there needs to be a level of personal responsibility throughout this. At all levels. Regardless of roles.

There needs to be recognition that businesses are struggling, and will continue to struggle. Things won’t go back to normal overnight.

There needs to be a heightened sense of corporation. Our teams need to be open to positive change – it’s not just the responsibility of our business leaders. It should not just sit on one group’s shoulders.

Important steps for business owners

Directors have a duty of care to protect their employees and their company. As a result this role throws up its own challenges. It’s not always an easy balance to achieve – particularly at a time like this. It’s hard on us as we consider financial profits and losses or what our business will look like in six months’ time.

But we don’t have to be robots.

Leaders need to understand that by willing to be vulnerable, and admit they are struggling, their team can be shown how opening up about their mental health can create positive change – something that is important within the construction industry as we struggle with the ‘macho’ stereotype.

Take that extra five minutes on the phone with one of your team members or organise company socials like virtual bingo. Find out how your team is doing because, like a domino effect, the way you choose to handle your business will have an effect on its employees no matter at what level.

Our people need take steps to support their own mental wellbeing

Mental wellbeing needs to be front and centre of everything we do as we start to return to normality. Especially for our teams on the ground.

Our people need to recognise where they are with their own mental wellbeing. How are they feeling about returning to work? Where are the anxious feelings coming from? Were those emotions there before?

Our people need to be willing to open up and talk about their thoughts. But at the same time, there needs to be a level of cooperation from the ground up. At the end of the day, safeguarding businesses, projects and jobs will be top of the agenda for the foreseeable future… we all have a role to play in how successful we are in achieving this.

Future learnings

As a nation we have to understand that we will never be able to return back to normal completely. At least not in the near future. Therefore it is the prime time for businesses to adapt and better their wellbeing policies in order to make positive change.

Within the construction industry, there is a risk that we could return back to the old ways, focusing more on the need to deliver rather than the mental state of our workers.

We can’t let this happen.

It’s important to get conversations flowing now. Leaders need to consider their companies business strategy considering where it wants to see itself in the next few years, what jobs it wants to be working on and how you expect your accounts to play out in the next couple of months.

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