19/09/2017 14:21 BST | Updated 21/09/2017 14:00 BST

Suicide Rate Three Times Higher Among Construction Workers, Union Warns

'The way the industry operates directly affects their mental health'.

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Construction workers are three times more likely to take their own life than the rest of the population, disturbing figures show.

Data from the Office for National Statistics revealed 1,419 people working in skilled building trades died as a result of suicide between 2011 and 2015 - significantly higher than those working as corporate managers or directors and more than 10 times those working in health and social care.

Experts have warned the nature of the construction trade - long hours, isolation and job insecurity - have a direct negative impact on the mental health of workers, the vast majority of whom are male.

Gail Cartmail, assistant general secretary of Unite the union,  said: “Mental health problems concerning construction workers are incredibly high. If untreated or unacknowledged this can have tragic consequences. 

“The way in which the construction industry operates directly affects the mental health of workers. Factors that affect the mental health of workers include low and inconsistent pay, lack of job security, working away from home, mental health stigma, isolation and poor working conditions.

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“The problem in construction is exacerbated as there remains a taboo about talking about mental health issues.”

Unite, which recently merged with construction workers’ union UCATT, says it is committed to improving systems to identify people suffering from mental health problems and transforming the system so the factors which cause illness in the first place are alleviated.

Cartmail added: “We have some examples of good practice where Unite workplace representatives have a strong presence as mental health first aiders. This is simple, low cost and effective so the challenge is to scale up such interventions.”

Many companies are being encouraged to train staff members to become a “listening ear” for their colleagues, who may find it easier to have an informal chat with a workmate if they are struggling to seek help.

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Shadow mental health minister Barbara Keeley says the government must take action.

According to a survey by trade publication Construction News, one in four construction workers have considered taking their own life, which rose to one in three among junior members of staff and graduates.  

Latest statistics show “external factors” - including suicide - are the biggest killer of men aged between 15 and 44.

HR services provider Randstad also revealed that a quarter of construction workers said they were considering leaving the industry within the next year.

Coupled with effects of Brexit on industries which rely heavily on skilled migrant workers, many building trade bosses are braced for crippling staff shortages in the near future.

Barbara Keeley, Labour’s shadow minister for mental health, said it was time for the government to take action.

“More work should now be done with employers in the construction industry and I call on government ministers to look at these findings and to plan action with the industry to improve mental health support for people working in it,” she added.

In his speech to party conference, Norman Lamb, the Lib Dems’ health spokesman, called for tax breaks for companies that take concrete steps to improve well-being in the workplace.

“We need to make a fundamental shift of focus to prevention,” he said.

“Let’s set a ten year plan to get employers really focused on the health and wellbeing of their workforce.

“As part of my work chairing a commission on mental health in the West Midlands, I’ve proposed a ‘Wellbeing Premium’ - a temporary discount on your business rates if you take tangible steps to improve wellbeing at work. The evidence is there of what works. So let’s do it.”