A mental health crisis is unfolding on the site of the UK's largest post-war construction project, refuelling discussion about a tragic issue felt across the industry on a global scale.
Construction of the Hinkley Point nuclear power station commenced in 2016, creating over 4000 jobs on what is expected to be a decade-long project. Such a tremendous undertaking poses significant risks, but instead of physical injuries, it's mental health issues that are taking the greatest toll on construction workers.
According to an investigation by The Guardian, 10 suicide attempts were reported to union officials in the first four months of 2019. At least two workers have taken their lives since the project began. Furthermore, a record number of workers have taken time off citing stress, anxiety, depression and other mental distress.
The scale of the crisis is unprecedented, but the situation at Hinkley Point is not an abnormal one.
A global issue
In Australia, the rate of suicide in construction workers has seen a notable decline over the last two decades, but they remain 1.7 times more likely to take their lives than other male workers, according to studies by MATES in Construction. Construction apprentices are most at risk, with rates 2.5 times the national average. That makes workers six times more likely to die from suicide than a workplace accident.
There's much work to be done if there's any hope that this trend will be halted. Factors such as job insecurity, excessive demands, and harassment are strongly associated with mental health issues, and should be default considerations for leaders looking to improve the well-being of workers. Yet there are a range of factors often overlooked for the simple reason that they are related to off-site activities. They include:
- Relationships - especially relevant to workers operating in regions far from home, relationship changes play a large role in mental health. At Hinkley Point, isolation, homesickness, and relationship breakdown have been deemed the main cause of mental distress.
- Stigma - one of the primary challenges present in any male-dominated industry is the stigma surrounding help-seeking. This generally comes down to a lack of knowledge about the signs and symptoms of mental heath issues, and the importance of having them attended to.
- Alcohol and drug use - The MATES in Construction study found six percent of workers admitted to being under the influence of alcohol at work. Nearly five percent had worked under the influence of other drugs. Any excessive use of alcohol or drugs may suggest other life stressors that can trigger mental health issues.
- Sleep and physical activity - Getting the recommended amount of sleep each night is critical for construction workers, with fatigue closely associating with the unhealthy flow of chemicals in the brain.
All of these factors have the potential to intersect and exacerbate mental distress, but in cases where only one might be identifiable by professionals, it can be difficult for them to know when to intervene.
That makes the need for construction workers and site leaders to look out for each other even more important. Where physical health maintenance was the greatest threat on a construction site 50 years ago, today mental health maintenance has taken its place. By working to form a healthy, supportive workplace, promoting positive mental health and looking out for each other, we take important steps to finding a solution to crises such as that unfolding at Hinkley Point.
To read more about The Guardian's investigation into Hinkley Point, click here.
Readers seeking support and information about suicide prevention can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.
Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467.
Beyondblue 1300 22 4636.
Image: Hinkley Point Site Under Construction © Nick Chipchase