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At What Cost?

As a QS (Quantity Surveyor), this is a question I get asked a lot. I am used to thinking about it, but I believe it’s a question that all of us working in the construction industry need to ask ourselves.

Our industry is typically an adversarial one. Working in the disputes world as I do, tensions are easy to spot, although by the time I see them after escalation to a more formal or legal approach, they are usually somewhat sanitised. Whilst a more formal approach brings its own set of stresses and tensions, it is still a few steps removed from the events on site.

A Hectic Workplace

Construction sites are hectic. There is always something happening, there are always problems that need resolving, pressurised deadlines to meet, and issues that affect people. There are disagreements between suppliers, subcontractors, contractors, clients, stakeholders and workmates. When things go wrong, or even not as planned, there are often arguments. What happened? Why has it happened? How much will it cost? How much delay will it cause? Who let this happen? Who is to blame? Who is going to pay for it? Who is going to fix it, and when?

Many of us working in the construction industry are a step removed from the argy-bargy on site. Conditions in our relatively comfortable offices – with low-risk work environments, corporate strategies for employee well-being and clear protocols – present a stark juxtaposition compared with conditions on site. It’s easy to forget that other people in our industry, particularly those working on site, have a very different experience.

Sites have always been dangerous places to work. Since the dawn of the health and safety age, the physical danger has been gradually decreasing with the advent of risk assessments, increased awareness and prevention strategies. However, construction work is still dangerous, accidents do still happen and when they do, can have profound effects on everyone on site, not just for the people involved in the accident. Over time, the physical risk may have reduced, but the dangers for mental health seem to be greater than ever – or perhaps we are beginning to be more aware of it now.

Support for Everyone

Working on site can be stressful enough with the inherent tensions and hurdles that projects bring. But what about the people actually doing the work and being in this environment day in, day out? What support is there for them if they need it? Perhaps the electrician wiring the lighting runs is having a hard time at home and has no one to talk to and the pressure and stress of this led to an accident. Perhaps the roofer is worried when he will get paid next after this job is finished. Perhaps the brickie building that wall hasn’t slept for ten days and just doesn’t know how to go on anymore.

The construction industry is a risky place to work, but it’s also exciting. It creates and innovates, provides rewarding careers, puts roofs over our heads and it pays our bills – but – at what cost?

Two construction workers take their own lives every working day in the UK.

That is more than 400 people every year. The risk for this sector is also heightened by the fact men, who make up the majority of the construction workforce, are more likely to commit suicide.

This statistic floors me. This is my industry, this is where I work, how can this be possible? The cost is simply too high and as an industry, we cannot and we must not continue to pay it.

I count myself lucky that I have not lost any of my loved ones to suicide. Unfortunately, my loved ones cannot say the same. It is an issue that touches us all.

I remember being profoundly shocked when I discovered one of the foremen on a large project I worked on had battled with depression and had attempted suicide during the time I had been working with him, and I had no idea. I found out a few years later when he was brave enough to tell a room full of people about his experience to raise awareness of suicide. His honesty, strength and bravery continue to inspire me.

The industry globally is facing this issue; it is not just the 2.1 million construction workers in the UK and Ireland. And it is not just the construction industry. Suicide has become so prevalent in our society that the UK government has recently appointed a minister for suicide prevention.

So, what can we do?

Well, anything and everything. It can be very difficult to tell when someone needs help and if we can tell, we may not know what to do. Often, the person needing help doesn’t feel they have anyone to talk to, or that anyone would care if they did. Taking the first step of talking to someone isn’t always easy. But we can be more aware, and we can help people to get the kind of support they need.

For several years now, I have been involved with the Lighthouse Club, both in Australia and in the UK. The Lighthouse Club is a construction industry charity that was founded in the UK in 1956, to help people in need connected with the industry. It is a global charity and operates in more than 12 countries. Amazingly, it is still relatively unknown in the UK, even by the industry itself.

The Lighthouse Club aims to give everyone working in the construction industry the support needed whether financial, legal or emotional, through a number of initiatives. A key one is the Construction Industry Helpline, which is an employee assistance programme providing a first point of contact for anyone seeking support in the construction industry. One of the ways the Lighthouse Club funds these initiatives is through the fundraising of the regional clubs. Each region has a club staffed by volunteers who organise events and rely on construction organisations for support.

These events provide a great forum for everyone from all trades and disciplines to come together for the good of the industry, to help our workforce and to have great fun whilst doing so. I believe that uniting as part of a Lighthouse Club family is the perfect counterpoint to the often adversarial nature of relationships that we all encounter in the industry.

The Midlands Lighthouse Club committee has just re-formed and is working on the 2019 programme of events. We hope you will support us and get involved in any way you can.

I love our industry. It creates wonderful things; architectural wonders, feats of engineering, essential infrastructure, power supplies and distribution, schools, care facilities, leisure facilities, state of the art hospitals or housing, there is no corner of society that it does not touch. It provides work for millions of people, boosts our economy and it is always changing and innovating.

But if the cost of this is a negative impact on mental health and potentially suicide, then something needs to change, and we need to change it. The people working in our industry need support and deserve a healthy place to work in. Our industry is sick. Let’s make it better.

1 Lighthouse Club Impact Report 2017.
2 Suicides in the UK: 2017 registrations; Office for National Statistics.
3 Impact Report 2017.

Working on site can be stressful enough with the inherent tensions and hurdles that projects bring. But what about the people actually doing the work and being in this environment day in, day out? What support is there for them if they need it?”
Rhiann Storey, Associate Director, HKA
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