MAKE A DIFFERENCE | workplace culture / mental health / wellbeing

How Skanska Supports the Mental Wellbeing of Older Construction Workers

Ageing is inevitable. Twentieth century advances in public health, nutrition and medical science have given us the gift of longevity.

We are living longer than ever before, and the age profile of our society is changing rapidly. The number of people > 65 years of age will increase by 40% within the next 20 years which will have profound implications for the government, business and society.

Waddell and Burton (2006) found that work is good for us, good for the business, good for the industry and good for the economy.

But first work must have purpose for us as individuals – it could be  linked to our personal or career aspirations, or being able to provide for our family or for other good reasons but we know that having purpose (work being a major driver) in life is fundamental to good mental wellbeing . But workability depends on many factors. Intrinsic factors such as health, ability and/or competence, skills and experience as well as the extrinsic factors such as pay, commute, work relationships, home, family support and our community where we live or work in.

Age is just another dimension… and as the work force ‘comes of age’, work provides a sense of purpose and community which makes people feel connected and improves their overall mental wellbeing.

However, in the construction industry we have a set of specific issues that contribute to this sector being one of the most vulnerable for experiencing mental health conditions and increased prevalence of suicide.

Some key facts about construction industry workers

  • 87.6% are male
  • 47% are aged 45 years or older
  • 20% will leave before state pension age (66 years old) because of chronic health issues, mental health issues are one of the top 4 reasons
  • Men over the age of 40 are more at risk of suicide in the construction industry, in fact one worker takes their own life each day. That’s 3 times the rate for men across the whole of the UK.
  • In the construction sector, the over 60-year-old age group have increased more than any other age group in the past decade
  • 45-64 years old feel that job security has decreased by up to 15% in the past decade

Mental health and cognition 

  • Half of adults aged 55 years and older have experienced a mental health issue (Age UK, 2017) but in the construction industry this increases to 57%.
  • Our thinking becomes crystallized vs. fluid as we age, which means we work best with familiar tasks and processes. New requirements, processes and ways of working may take longer to embed and to do this with speed and accuracy. But there is often an age bias or at least an intolerance in the workplace to support older workers, they often get written off and are moved out of the workplace. This has a detrimental effect on their mental wellbeing and feelings of self-worth.
  • 20% more men than women between the ages of 45-64, live alone, and this is a common part of everyday life for construction workers. Poor social support has been linked to depression and loneliness has been shown to increase the risk of depression, suicide, alcohol use and cardiovascular disease.
  • There is new evidence to suggest that long term sleep debt (over many years) is a precursor to dementia and cognitive impairment, a consideration for those workers who have always done nights or shift work who work on road networks. This can have serious safety implications if not identified early.

External factors affecting construction workers mental wellbeing

There are number of external factors that are affecting construction workers mental health.

  1. In the UK, the political agenda, namely Brexit indecision, (or until recently) has meant that the industry has relied on the existing older workforce to shore up the migrant exit. The expectation of course is to get the work done more hours need to be worked.
    1. There is a significant emphasis of increasing the number of people coming into the industry and Industrial Strategy has focussed on investment into the younger workforce with the introduction of T-levels.
    2. We are not investing in retaining the older worker, even though they often have the skills we need, which means they feel devalued and worthless affecting their mental wellbeing – and the feeling of ‘does anyone care’.
  2. Employment and societal changes
    1. Recent changes to the CSCS cards (permit to work on sites) means that trade workers who have been doing the job for decades now need to undertake NVQ training to retain their right to work on sites. This has begun to create real anxiety in a generation of workers that worry that this just another hurdle to remain in work. So may leave the industry earlier than expected. We know that being in work protects our mental wellbeing and being out of work doubles the likelihood of experiencing a mental health problem.
    2. The world of construction work is changing with off-site manufacturing, a ‘lego’ approach to building means there is an element of deskilling the skilled workforce driving a need to learn new technologies and skills. This can lead to stress and anxiety because of the pressure to ‘learn’ and adapt and fear of losing their role, job and income.
    3. From an economic perspective, there are two considerations that affect workers mental health.
      1. The construction sector and allied professionals are often paid ‘per job’ there is no pension, sick pay or holiday pay arrangements. This means that if their mental health is affected, they cannot afford time off work so will remain in the workplace experiencing presenteeism at best, a liability to the organisation and others, at worse. The financial worry drives unsafe decisions, exacerbates the mental health issue and/or removes them from the workplace.
      2. Construction growth down generally and delays (Brexit effect) in pressing the ‘go button’ means there is less work on offer leading to feelings of job insecurity, ‘where is the next month’s rent going to come from…’ compounding the financial concerns and mental wellbeing of workers.

So, what can be done and how does this fit with Stevenson/Farmer recommendations?

One of the core standards in the UK’s Stevenson/Farmer report is around making sure the workplace environment and infrastructure is in place to enable the worker to make healthy choices and decisions.

With this backdrop, we need to consider how we can effect changes or introduce interventions that fundamentally address the issues facing construction workers’  mental wellbeing later in life.

Organisational policies

  • Flexible working policies can do much to encourage people to stay in work longer and more productivity whilst meeting their social connectedness, financial and career goals
    • Consider step back roles or part time hours to retain the skills and knowledge within the industry. Our ability to work full time hours declines as we age so flexibility will help maintain productivity and sense of contributing and self-worth.
  • Build the mental health literacy in the workforce particularly managers capability to support employees with mental health issues and how to adjust the work activities to match the employee capabilities.
  • Ensure tools, resources and support for workers with mental health issues are available and that they know where and how to access them. Construction workers are often distributed across several projects, are a mix of employed and contractors and generally multi-national – so materials in different languages and delivered by peer groups work best. Technology works best for millennials, baby boomers and beyond tend to prefer materials in paper format.
  • As the industry moves to new technology and ways of work we need to consider how we widen work based roles for workers late in life who don’t want a career change but can continue to support others in an environment they are familiar.

Welfare

  • Provision of (subsidised) lodgings that offer a safe and clean place to reside for the duration of the work to improve sense of wellbeing. Opportunities to socialise with others to reduce the feelings of loneliness and increase the likelihood of others spotting someones declining mental health.
  • With the peripateic nature of construction workforce facilitating easy access to a GP such as technology enabled services means that workers are looking after their health.

Financial education

  • More work and research are needed to understand what needs to be put in place for construction workers to plan their pension and post working life, including education of workers. Trade bodies can play a key role in this programme.
  • Whatever age we are we all need to feel valued for our contribution but so often in the workplace we are defined by what we can (or can’t) do, your intrinsic value to the community/workplace and the investment required to keep us going.
  • Work is good for people, industry and the UK economy – but unless we actively rethink our approach to our (ageing) workforce we run the risk of easing out valuable people from business and society as a whole.

Clearly one intervention is not going to be the solution, it does require a collaborative and joined up approach that lies beyond the ‘four walls’ of an organisation.

We need to think about ‘…the sum of the whole…’ not just the parts – and it needs an approach that is cognisant that the workforce we rely upon, is shrinking and is getting less productive, naturally.

And what about the impact of COVID-19 on this demographic?

It is clear from the global research that COVID-19 has posed a particular concern for older people, typically those older than 50 years, from a health, economic and social perspective. Although all our sites are COVID safe – following both Government and Construction Leadership Council (CLC) guidance, some people will still have concerns, including older workers and those with underlying health concerns.

As we age, we typically ‘acquire’ health issues, and these seem to make this group more vulnerable to COVID-19 complications. So, from an operational point of view there are several interventions support this group.

From the perspective of the physical impact of COVID, like many organisations  we  introduced a specific health risk assessment. This helps managers have a discussion with workers who have underlying health conditions to put in place the right controls to minimise risk to their health; such as working from home or change of work activities to reduce face to face contact.

However, the triple effect of the virus itself (on work, economy, family, health), lockdown and furlough has affected how people have been able to function and interact with family and work colleagues. We know that this is likely to have had an effect on  people’s mental health and increase the sense of isolation in both this demographic.

Ensuring that people still have the connection with work has been a key strategy. This has been achieved with regular updates via Teams with our CEO, a 7-week focus on the emotional change curve from the triple effect. We’ve also run webinars on aspects of mental health and how to build coping strategies with a clinical psychologist and managers connecting with employees not in the physical workplace, via Teams to catch up.

This is clearly not the same as face to face but these communication threads have been an important part of showing how we continue to care for our people, its one of our values.

About the Author

Tricia O’Neill RGN MSC MBA(Dist.) has been UK Head of Occupational Health, Wellbeing and H&S Education and Competence with Skanska UK for the past 4 years. She is responsible for not only ensuring the business is legally compliant, but for creating a workplace where people’s health and wellbeing is part of our day-to-day culture. Her 40 years’ experience and knowledge as a health professional across different sectors makes her approach to the development and deployment of the Occupational Health and Wellbeing strategy relevant, practical and business focussed. The synergies between occupational health and safety have been material to the step-change she is now introducing to the Skanska H&S Education and Competence function. Tricia has created a service that is innovative and technology enabled to ensure the customer experience is simple and adds value but also generates the data and insights to inform the occupational health strategy and tactical plans. Her particular interest around fatigue, mental health and the ageing work force have a common thread which resonates through the construction and infrastructure sectors. She was awarded the CEO Outstanding Achievement award in May 2019 for effecting change of attitude and approach to occupational health and to mental health in Skanska. Tricia has previously held senior occupational health roles in Procter & Gamble, Centrica and Sainsbury’s