Could impactful wellbeing training help with construction’s labour challenge?

Could impactful wellbeing training help with construction’s labour challenge?

NEBOSH’s Head of Corporate and Consumer Services, Ian Cooke, explores the link between how ‘outsiders’ see the construction industry, issues around safety and wellbeing and the current labour crisis…

Despite current output growth of around 2.8% reported by the Construction Products Association (CPA), the UK construction industry has two significant underlying challenges right now – employee retention and recruitment.

According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), construction businesses are paying out record bonuses, up by 82% in the year, in an effort to retain skilled staff. The same report from the ONS also reveals that on average, 49,000 construction jobs remained unfilled between February and April of this year.

Now much of this can be explained by the bigger picture, with record employment levels and greater choice in the labour market. However, it should also be noted that people now appear more willing to quit their jobs as part of what is being called ‘The Great Resignation’.

Following the pandemic, people’s priorities around work seem to have shifted to a point where they want to be treated with greater respect, consideration and care at work and enjoy better work/life balance, flexibility and so on.

How people feel

In terms of how people feel about working in construction, there is a clear difference between those who are already employed by the industry and those on the outside looking in.

A report earlier this year from the Construction Industry Training Board (CIBT) revealed that while ‘insiders’ see a lot of good in the construction industry, ‘outsiders’ are far less positive, particularly around perceptions of time away from the family, physical demands and issues relating to diversity, discrimination and a ‘macho culture’.

Surprisingly, what the CIBT report does not highlight is the construction industry’s record and reputation around the safety and wellbeing of employees. Construction is a high-risk industry, with 39 fatal injuries to workers recorded in 2020/21 and 61,000 non-fatal injuries in the UK alone. On average 74,000 workers suffer from work related ill health, according to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).

Dig a little deeper and further concerns are highlighted. For example, while in general men are three time more likely to take their own lives than women, men working in construction are three times more likely than other men to die from suicide, according to the ONS.

A survey published by Mates in Mind at the end of 2021 also showed that a third of self-employed construction workers were living with elevated levels of anxiety and that a stigma around mental health meant issues were almost never discussed with friends or family. According to the Chartered Institute of Building, stress and depression account for one fifth of all construction industry work-related illness.

It appears likely that safety and wellbeing are significant factors around workers not only choosing to leave construction, but also the industry’s struggle to attract fresh new talent.

So what can be done?

I spoke to Lucian D’Arco, a safety, health and wellbeing professional who has worked on a wide-range of projects with several large construction and civil engineering firms. He told me: “People experiencing mental health issues in construction workplaces can still be afraid to speak up and the reasons behind this need to be faced more, particularly around the insecurity people feel about their positions.

“Workers need to feel assured that the support they’re offered is genuine. Measuring the performance of mental health campaigns and interventions is key to this, so that their impact is understood, and they don’t just form part of some tick-box exercise. When people believe their employers really do care for their wellbeing they talk more positively about the people they work for and industry they work in, and of course this leads to a better image.”

He added: “We need to invest in people, not just in good salaries, but in training and support, including better working conditions, improved working hours, long-term job-security and transforming what can sometimes be a toxic working environment. We also need to shout more when positive initiatives really do make a difference.” 

A key aspect of tackling safety, health and wellbeing in any industry is effective training. At its most basic level, training ensures that the right processes and procedures are followed.

However, the positive outcomes of training and learning can be much broader than this. According to LinkedIn for example, more than 90% of employees say they would stay with a company if it was willing to invest in their learning. LinkedIn also shows that one of the key attractive learning and development topics in organisations is employee wellbeing.

Missed opportunity?

During my time working in construction, I have seen a shift in the attitude of workers to take more care of their physical health. When I first worked on construction sites, I rarely saw a clean sink or soap dispenser, now you tend to see hand washing stations, pre work barrier creams and post work moisturisers. I have also seen a positive shift in attitudes of the younger generations wanting to look after their health.

I think we still have a way to go with mental health but as with the above example, construction companies will need to provide the facilities and help educate their workers particularly those who may not be as familiar with current approaches. I see these positive safety, mental health, and wellbeing programmes as a key strength of the construction industry moving forward. I’m sure that already, for many within the sector, they are having a positive impact on ‘insider’ perception.

To help employers reinforce safety, mental health, and wellbeing messaging and learning at work NEBOSH now endorses in-company learning. The key to our NEBOSH Endorsed service is to deliver and measure learning impact, that improves organisational performance and behaviour.

Perhaps if the positive impact of these programmes was more widely appreciated, then those on the outside of the industry would also feel that construction may not be such a bad place to work after all?

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