Listen to this article
Dave Lee reached a crunch point in 2006. He had built his way up and made a good career in construction, reaching the level of contracts manager, despite an unpromising start in which he spent his teenage years in and out of jail.
But even as the Brighton-based builder apparently made a success of his work life, he was deeply unhappy and dependent on alcohol. “I was married with two kids, and that’s when I realised I had to choose between drink and the family.”
Approaching this problem with his enterprising spirit, Lee read a series of books, attended workshops, met therapists and eventually became the author of The Hairy Arsed Builder’s Guide to Stress Management.
“There’s a lot of anger within the construction industry and behind the anger is frustration and depression.
“There’s the targets, the deadlines, the worries about being late delivering and having enough money. It’s a male environment. No one talks about their feelings.”
In starting what he calls a “self-development journey” back in 2006, he became part of an emerging trend. Brian Rye, national officer at the construction workers’ union Ucatt, says: “In recent years there’s been a much more serious approach to dealing with mental health in the workplace. It’s been a serious topic of conversation in construction.”
The industry in the world’s wealthier countries has an improving record on physical safety: in the UK the rate of fatal accidents has almost halved from nearly 300 per 100,000 workers in 1996-97 to under 150 in 2015-16. The figures in the US and Australia have also been on a downward trend.
While hard hats and safety managers are now ubiquitous, in recent years it has dawned on industry leaders that workers will not be truly safe unless their mental health is protected as well.
According to the Australian organisation Mates in Construction, workers in the industry are six times more likely to die from suicide than from a workplace accident.
Builders have a “significantly elevated risk” of suicide, along with farmers and police, although not as high as general labourers and cleaners, according to a review of studies on suicide published in the British Journal of Psychiatry in 2013.
Rye says workplace stresses specific to the industry may contribute to mental health conditions. “In construction, your work finishes when the current job finishes, so there’s financial stress with regards to continuing work. Then there’s the bad weather.
“Sometimes people don’t get paid at Christmas because there’s no holiday pay, then the job freezes up for two or three weeks in January — these are sets of circumstances that don’t apply in other work environments.”
The prevalence of men in construction may itself skew the numbers: according to the Samaritans, men in their 30s to 50s from “disadvantaged backgrounds” are the group with the greatest suicide risk.
Progress is being made. Dan Labbad, chief executive of international operations at Lendlease — an Australian-based construction and property company that employs 13,000 people — said his company has introduced a series of mental health initiatives over the past two years.
It has trained more than 400 people as “mental health first aiders”, who are taught to spot early signs of problems, guide people towards the right support and reduce stigma around mental illness. Lendlease allows workers to take one extra day off per quarter as “wellbeing leave”, which senior executives are encouraged to take as an example to juniors.
Labbad says it is too early to see, in data terms, if the company’s initiatives are having an effect, although he expects that any success in improving mental health will improve productivity as well.
Lee, the Brighton builder, now runs a company, Building Site to Boardroom (BS2B), which offers training to construction and other companies in how to promote wellbeing among workers — so far entirely funded by himself and his colleagues. This focuses on the values of personal responsibility, integrity, authenticity and equal dignity.
“We don’t talk about mental health, we talk about inner wellbeing,” he says. “You don’t label a builder ‘mental’.”
Language is important: “We talk about taking personal responsibility. It’s not ‘you’re making me angry’ but ‘I’m feeling angry’. There’s a difference.”
He met BS2B’s managing director, Andy Dean, at a wellbeing workshop: “It’s unusual to meet a builder in that environment. It’s all middle England, older people with time and money on their hands for personal development.”
Dean says the response within the construction industry has been positive but “it’s more of a struggle at the senior level where people are a bit more guarded.
“Because it’s their company they think it’s something they are doing for the workers but mental health is about everyone. Anger is anger. It doesn’t matter if you’re a managing director or a ground worker.”
Dean, a qualified therapist who also runs building sites, says he uses simple measures with employees such as “taking time for talking in the morning, having a cup of tea and sharing our day before. I found if I gave people 20 minutes or half an hour in the morning to unload, they weren’t carrying that throughout their day and they were more switched on, more pleasant.”
The property industry, closely linked to construction, is looking to follow where builders are leading. Gordon Edington, a former president of the British Property Federation, helped organise the industry’s first symposium on mental health after a former colleague, the senior surveyor and executive John O’Halloran, took his own life.
“He left behind a lot of pain and absolute disbelief. It made me start to think about the subject as I realised that, like one in six of the population, he had mental health problems — although I had no inkling,” Edington says.
“The construction industry is doing a great deal, but the property industry is fairly behind the times on issues like this.”
Edington would like to start a trend for mental health-related training among senior executives, which he believes is essential for a change of workplace culture.
Lee and colleague Dean, are soon to move to working on their mental health project full-time after attracting the attention of senior figures in construction.
“We’ve been talking to policymakers and to the top federation within the industry,” he says. “They’re saying: ‘We think you’re part of the solution.’”
Ten years ago Brian Heyworth suffered from a severe psychiatric breakdown after struggling with depression since his teens. He spent time recovering in hospital and at home. Then six months after his breakdown Heyworth was hired by HSBC, where he is now head of financial institutions.
Driven by his own experience, Heyworth is part of a growing movement that aims to improve how banks identify and deal with people who have mental health problems, as part of an increased focus by society on health and wellbeing in their widest sense. He says: “Physical, mental, psychological and emotional health are all intertwined. It’s not just a medical issue for companies, it’s about culture, productivity and efficiency.”
The intense working culture in banking is well-documented: long hours, short deadlines and relentless travel schedules. In such a pressurised environment, high alcohol consumption and recreational drug use are common ways of winding down, both of which can take their physical and mental toll.
Many people in banking were left traumatised by the market crash and financial crisis of 2007-08. Since then, the inherent industry pressures have been compounded by the added strains of mass redundancies, dramatic bank restructuring and more onerous regulation. There has been a spate of suicides among financial services workers, and work overload may have contributed to the death of a summer intern at Bank of America in 2013.
The statistics are stark. Mental ill health costs UK employers an estimated £26bn a year, according to London’s City Mental Health Alliance. Jobs in financial services are 44 per cent more likely to lead to stress-related illnesses than the average UK job, according to 2014 research.
An increase in stress and anxiety disorders in the City was the reason why the Priory Group, the UK’s largest independent provider of mental health services, opened its first psychotherapy centre in London’s financial district, in November 2014. The number of new patients increased by over 100 per cent between January 2015 and January 2016, and it is signing up, on average, more than 70 new patients a month.
Against this backdrop, banks are waking up to the fact that they need to do a better job of looking after employee wellbeing.
“From a mental health perspective, we’ve stepped up our efforts over the past five years,” says Sally Boyle, international head of human capital management at Goldman Sachs. “It’s now seen as just as important to look after people’s mental wellbeing as their physical wellbeing, and we’re keen to de-stigmatise mental illness.”
Goldman Sachs is among the banks that are educating their managers on the potential signs of early mental illness — as often people are reluctant to raise the matter before it becomes too late.
Banks need to address the phenomenon of presenteeism, agrees Judith Mohring, lead consultant psychiatrist at Priory Fenchurch Wellbeing Centre. This is when people do not stop working even when they are ill and can carry on up until the point where they have to be hospitalised. Mohring says: “In a competitive environment, people don’t want to go off sick. There’s a huge investment in keeping face.” She estimates that presenteeism costs corporate productivity twice as much as absenteeism.
Mental health is just one part of the picture of wider health and wellbeing. As part of a greater focus on this, banks including Goldman Sachs, Citi, Morgan Stanley, BNP Paribas and Standard Chartered are offering employees the services of psychologists, counselling and GPs; as well as screening sessions for breast cancer, melanoma and high blood pressure. They are organising educational sessions on themes such as resilience, sleep and parenting. They are bringing in experts to teach their employees techniques like cognitive behavioural therapy, mindfulness, as well as acceptance and commitment therapy, a form of CBT.
Citi recently launched a free service called Babylon for all of its UK employees, which allows day and night access to a GP. Morgan Stanley’s global health and wellbeing programme ran one education event a week last year for its employees. BNP Paribas recently launched a trial with Biobeats, a digital health business, and insurers Axa, that uses wearable technology to study stress.
Many of the techniques banks are using to measure health indicators and help improve executive performance have parallels with the world of sports coaching. The fact that high achievers within the world of sport — such as British tennis player Andy Murray, who won his second Wimbledon title in July, and Britain’s Olympic gold medal-winning cycling team — have used sports psychologists, has helped make these practices more acceptable, according to medical professionals who work with bankers.
Standard Chartered has used heart-rate monitors on hundreds of its managers as part of a leadership training programme, to look at how variables such as diet, exercise and jet-lag effect decision-making. Samantha King, global head of executive development at Standard Chartered, says: “For banks, the data-based approach is far more likely to lead to a shift in behaviour than just a conversation around wellbeing. It’s a big reality check when you see your own data in front of you.”
While technology can be a useful tool for managing health — with wearable devices, meditation apps and fitness trackers all growing in usage — it can also be a source of stress in itself. The ubiquity of smartphones means that the line between work and leisure is increasingly blurred, and people are rarely completely switched off.
Phil Hopley, a consultant psychiatrist at Cognacity, which specialises in mental wellbeing, says: “We look at how to get people to successfully engage with digital technology and make it work for them, rather than the tail wagging the dog. Often instant contact and availability becomes a stress rather than a refinement for the way we work. We help challenge those mind traps where people believe that unless they respond immediately to an email or a message there will be a negative consequence.”
A push to improve working practices in financial services, particularly investment banks, is also being driven by the millennial generation. Where once banks feared losing people to hedge funds or private equity, now the lure of the tech world presents an additional threat. This has put them under pressure to improve working practices for juniors and introduce initiatives like “protected weekends” — one designated work-free weekend a month.
Goldman’s Boyle said: “We’re competing against organisations such as tech firms that provide different working patterns. The millennial generation is less accepting of the long hours that for previous generations were seen as a rite of passage.”
Banks’ working practices have also been brought into sharp relief because, post-crisis, progression is slower and pay is lower. Tara Swart, a neuroscientist and leadership coach, says: “Banks are still way behind Google, Netflix and Facebook but they’re definitely realising that you can’t work people to death just because you pay them lots.”
Experts believe that a happier and healthier workforce at banks will boost their bottom line. Hopley says: “The thing that a lot of leaders haven’t quite grasped is that if you get this right — and it’s not just about making your employees feel good, although it is that as well — the benefits you get in productivity and creativity are huge.”
Will Meyerhofer, a lawyer turned therapist based in New York, sees a steady stream of clients from his former profession and believes there is something about law firms that harms employees’ mental health.
First, there are the hours, which he describes as “ungodly”. Working late nights and weekends, regularly, is normal. Then there is the “insane” competition. He views US law schools as creating a form of “indentured servitude” because of the high tuition.
Even more than that is the burden of expectation that law school creates. “A lot of kids head off to law school, thinking ‘well, law, as an academic subject, is sort of interesting’. Then they get into a firm and do work that is entirely different and often repetitious and tedious.
“It sinks in that they don’t really enjoy this work and are questioning whether this is even the right profession for them.” But by then they are working around the clock in an intensely competitive atmosphere.
Nigel Jones, senior partner in Linklaters, who has been a wellbeing champion for the past six years as well as helping to set up the City Mental Health Alliance, disagrees with this characterisation. He concedes that the workplace can be high-pressure and populated by people who demand high standards of themselves, which can make it hard to admit they are not coping. He does not think it is unique, however, in having a long-hours culture.
One aspect of the work that lawyers share with bankers and professional services firms is that they are vulnerable to their clients’ whims. In other words, it does not matter how many policies you put in place to stop employees feeling pressured to reply to emails late at night, for example. Such a rule can simply be derailed if a client demands an answer. That is why, Jones says, it is important to have a forum like the CMHA — where law firms can talk to their clients, often other businesses in London’s financial centre — about mental health matters and aim to ensure they can have some form of agreement on best practice.
David Shields, head of diversity and inclusion at law firm Herbert Smith Freehills, argues that it is important for team leaders and partners to understand the implications for stress of how work is allocated — for example by sending late-night emails or having to take a BlackBerry on holiday.
Also very important is “allocating work and monitoring it in order to balance out peaks and troughs,” he says. It can be just as stressful working on a deal for a very long time as it is being engaged on a series of high-adrenaline shorter contracts.
Herbert Smith Freehills has mental health mentors for all levels of its business. Shields says that by taking the problem into practice groups, “we can localise it more”.
Get alerts on Work-life balance when a new story is published