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The talking cure

Depression, anxiety or stress, can be difficult barriers to overcome. The British Safety Council, together with the Health in Construction Leadership Group, is launching Mates in Mind to help build mentally healthy workplaces.

Barriers come big and small, from Donald Trump’s Mexican wall, to the slightly more modest BA i360 terrorist prevention barrier featured in last month’s Safety Management.

However, the barriers we erect in our minds that are associated with depression, anxiety or stress, can be the hardest to overcome. Not because of the physical effort required to surmount them, but because they can dissolve the will to even try. The old adage of ‘where there is a will there is a way’ might be true, but if the will itself is discouraged, then the way can lead to a very dark and lonely place.

On top of these mental barriers, the social stigma attached to mental health problems can further reduce our ability to reach out for help. And at work we see the consequences of this conspiracy of silence between the suffering individual and a society that would rather not admit we are emotional and feeling beings: stress is responsible for 43 per cent of all working days lost due to ill health, stress increases the likelihood of accidents, and in extreme cases workers take their lives. No wonder the buzz words of wellbeing, mindfulness and stress management are circulating with increasing frequency and mental health is high up on the list of workplace issues.

Yet, even within the pretty narrow ambit of the Health and Safety at Work Act, one aspect that recognises the value of individual experience at least, is the place of dialogue for producing safe and healthy workplaces. Creating a formal space for dialogue between worker and employer, manager or supervisor, has been one of act’s major contributions to keep people well.

I’m delighted that our Annual Conference on 5 October – Health and Work in a Changing World – is going to share the latest thinking on tackling health – and mental health.

Clearly, more needs to be done. In the most extreme cases some workers do commit suicide. Obviously, this is a very complex issue and the causes are often hard to appreciate and remedies hard to implement. However, we know that more men kill themselves, so gender is a factor. Insecure employment, money worries or working at a distance from the family can play a contributory role. We also know that poor lifestyle choices can contribute to a deterioration of mental health, and so behaviour is a factor. We see many of these factors come together in the construction sector where 2.5m people are employed. It is estimated that around 10 times more people commit suicide than die from fatal injuries in the workplace.

So I’m really pleased that the British Safety Council, together with the Health in Construction Leadership Group, is launching Mates in Mind. With a significant number of our members operating in construction, we felt it was right that together we support this sector-wide programme to help employers address health issues and, specifically, to help build mentally healthy workplaces. Education and training will be vital inputs, but ultimately better workplace dialogue will come from the people at work.

One thinks of the expression ‘speaking truth to power’ and, if workers are genuinely experiencing a mental crisis that is connected to how they work, some of these conversations are going to be uncomfortable. That is the reason the Health and Safety at Work Act set out a need for HSE’s board to hear views from the worker, employer, scientific and others.

Reducing risks requires the truth, not fluff. That is why we will always need HSE’s board to have a range of views and experiences if we are to break down barriers and give people a path to wellbeing.

Michael Robinson
Chief Executive | British Safety Council