David White: Bringing mental health into health and safety

David White

Construction has traditionally been a male-dominated industry with a macho culture. Many construction jobs are physically demanding, and can therefore lead to a ‘can-do’ culture where people carry on without complaint. Added to that is an environment where operatives are working closely together, and where ‘banter’ is an important part of workday routine.

However, much has changed to alter that image over the 25 years I have been working in the sector. For example, our workforces are more diverse on all fronts, which has opened our workspaces up to different ideas.

In the UK, our attitude to health and safety is world-leading, with policies and procedures in place to protect people as best as we possibly can against what can be a dangerous profession.

Responsible employers, such as Galliford Try, are one step beyond that approach. It is no longer enough to ensure that employees work safely, but that they work smartly, taking into account all the physical factors that enable them to be productive and maintain a good balance with their home life.

Yet, in society at large, it is also acknowledged that the pressures of everyday life are greater than ever before, and recognising and acting on mental health issues is vital to maintaining wellbeing.

So, when we renewed our commitment to wellbeing and launched our Be Well programme in 2017, we were clear that giving our people the tools to maintain their physical health was not enough; we needed to create a mental health programme that provided the same benefits.

Working in partnership with Mates in Mind, we have created a new culture, helping staff to recognise the warning signs of mental health issues, training more than 100 mental health facilitators and first-aiders at all levels of the business, and providing further support to those in need through our employee assistance programme, which includes free, face-to-face counselling.

More than 500 conversations have been delivered across our business since last November, against a target of 1,000. But the headline statistics are just a small part of the story; it is the individuals who feel empowered to talk about mental health issues, and the change in our culture to one of openness in discussing problems, that have had a profound impact.

Personally, it has been heartening to see long-standing employees discuss their own problems and provide support to others through our internal social networks, which has come as a very positive surprise. For example, one of our site managers, who approached his manager when he was suffering from stress, got the support he needed and is now helping by allowing us to showcase his example to others.

Be Well was created as a light-touch toolkit, which lends itself to tailoring around individual needs, ideal for mental health issues. It has been well-received internally and externally, and we have already won three significant awards in recognition of our efforts.

Ultimately, we, as a business, are focusing on improving outcomes that affect us all, namely long-term absences, which have shown a marked decline since we began. But it remains important for me, as the health, safety and sustainability director, that we do not lose focus on the individuals and the stories behind them.

Every person we help, and every discussion that is started within our business around mental health, is a victory on its own.

David White is health, safety and sustainability director at Galliford Try