Out-Law News 3 min. read

Importance of construction workforce wellbeing highlighted

The need to put workers’ mental wellbeing at the forefront of construction industry health and safety initiatives has been highlighted by leading industry representatives.

Writing in the Financial Times, Mace Group chief executive Mark Reynolds said “a radical approach” is needed to address the mental health challenge in the construction sector, where workers are three times more likely to take their own life than in other sectors.

Reynolds said there are moral and financial imperatives to act, and said it is the “duty” of larger organisations to take the lead on the issue and support smaller companies that do not have the same resources to “tackle what is a spiralling pandemic across all industries”.

“Industries must not wait until things reach a crisis point and simply signpost towards support services,” Reynolds said. “Yes, we need to provide support for those who need it, but we must continue to invest in preventive measures, such as the design of work spaces, ways of working, behaviours, leadership training. We need to invest in the tools that enable people to stay well in work and prevent our workers from reaching crisis point.”

Reynolds’ comments echo views expressed by the Construction Productivity Taskforce in its recently published private sector construction playbook (84-page / 4.8MB PDF) – a best practice guide for employers, contractors and consultants in the construction industry. Mace is a member of the Taskforce, along with organisations such as BAE Systems, British Land, Bryden Wood, Alinea,  Cast, Gardiner & Theobald,  GPE, Landsec, Lendlease, Morrisroe, Sir Robert McAlpine, Skanska, SOM, Turner & Townsend, and Be the Business.  Pinsent Masons experts contributed to the contents of the playbook.  

The Taskforce said ensuring worker health, safety and wellbeing is core to addressing the industry skills shortage.

“A project culture that places great store in the physical environment and nurtures the safety and wellbeing of its workforce has a far better chance of success and will help attract talented people into the industry,” it said, recommending in particular that processes are put in place “to monitor and engage with worker wellbeing”.

The Taskforce said: “We need to provide a high-quality workplace synonymous with professional behaviours and culture, which will feed through into the quality of work. By setting clear expectations for site behaviours and culture and promoting an inclusive and diverse workforce, we can better safeguard wellbeing and mental health.”

Both Mace’s Reynolds and the Construction Productivity Taskforce suggested investment in the construction workplace and in workforce health and safety will help construction companies demonstrate their commitment to social good, which is an increasingly important factor weighing into decisions by investors and procurement teams.

Reynolds said: “The advent of ESG (environmental, social, and governance) investment strategies is providing a justification for putting wellbeing at the centre of any business plan and decision, and for social purpose-led goals to be woven into a company’s culture.”

The Taskforce said: “While achieving legal compliance sets a baseline, it misses the role that a high-grade workplace plays in attracting and retaining the workforce and improving site culture and performance.”

“Excellent changing and washing facilities, ample secure storage for clothes and personal effects, a comfortable canteen serving healthy, well priced food, and well lit, clean offices and meeting rooms all make for a more inviting place to work and enable workers to use their time more effectively,” it said.

“There are other features that will make for a professional and sustainable workplace, which in turn boost the reputation of the client/main contractor as a good employer. These features also support wider project goals relating to ESG, sustainability and inclusion, so for example, waste segregation, energy saving features, recycling facilities and multi-faith rooms,” it said.

Jonathan Cowlan of Pinsent Masons said: “As well as being a good thing to do from a moral and business perspective, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has stated in its 10-year strategic plan that a key objective is to have a specific focus on mental health and stress. This means that, in addition to the traditional enforcement in the construction industry, more questions will be asked on wellbeing-related topics.”

Fiona Cameron, also of Pinsent Masons, said: “The approach taken by Mace and the Construction Productivity Taskforce is to be commended. The most recent statistics from the HSE concerning work-related stress, depression and anxiety show an 11.2% increase on the previous year, with previous estimates indicating that more than 17 million working days have been lost in the UK due to work-related mental health issues. The HSE has also previously called for a culture change across Britain’s workplaces to ensure psychological risks are treated in the same way as physical risks in health and safety risk management.”

“It was no surprise, therefore, that the regulator’s recently published strategy document confirmed that it will concentrate its efforts ‘on areas of greatest health and safety challenge’, with mental health expected to be a key area of focus. By highlighting that mental health with be a key area of focus, the HSE is sending a clear message to employers – make sure you properly assess where you currently stand in terms of the risks and mitigations you have in place in relation to both mental and physical wellbeing and put in place appropriate action plans tailored to your particular business. It is only a matter of time before we see enforcement action taken by the HSE in this area,” she said.

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