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Maintaining mental wellbeing within the workforce is a matter of major concern for many employers, as the stresses of the last 18 months continue to take their toll.

The number of working days lost to work-related stress, depression, or anxiety in the UK has grown steadily since 2017, topping 54% in the Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) latest Labour Force study.

The emergence of Coronavirus has only intensified this trend, with the Stress Management Society identifying workplace disconnect, isolation, and lack of control during lockdown as the main factors for the boom in stress at work.

So with a budding mental-health crisis now on the horizon, what can the construction industry do to better protect their interests and those of their employees? Where do line managers stand legally when it comes to combatting the issue? And what can employees do if they don’t feel that their wellbeing is being considered?

What are the common causes of work-related stress?

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) defines work-related stress as “the adverse reaction that workers have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them”.

Statistics show that ‘workplace politics’ (37%) is the most common cause of stress, followed by ‘lack of communication’ (34%), and ‘the performance of others’ (33%).

But whilst poor communication and a bad working environment may well create additional stress on construction sites, there are many other potential triggers:

  • Pressure to perform tasks above their skillset;
  • When workers lack autonomy or have no control over the way that they carry out their work;
  • An increase or decrease in workload;
  • Lack of support from senior management or colleagues;
  • Slimmed-down workforce, or inability to recruit skilled workmen;
  • A reduction in resources or a spike in costs;
  • Financial concerns;
  • Bullying and harassment;
  • Unforeseen site or project issues causing delays;
  • Pressure from unhappy or dissatisfied clients.

What does the law say about work-related stress?

Legally speaking, employers hold the responsibility for the health and safety of their staff, both physically and mentally. This means compliance with a number of specific laws including The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999.

These laws dictate that employers have to carry out workplace risk assessments to identify any potential risks and to undertake, as far as is practical, any measures which may control or minimise such risks.

Dependent on the specific circumstances, the Equality Act 2010 may also be relevant, specifically if a person’s stress can be linked to, or is caused or intensified by, an underlying condition or disability.

Employers have certain obligations which are set out within the Equality Act 2010. Failure to adhere to these obligations could well result in them being liable for discrimination.

What can employers do to tackle work-related stress?

There is no simple answer to tackling the problem of stress on a construction site as each person will be unique in their ability to cope with pressure, and of course, that ability may fluctuate over time dependent upon personal circumstances. Nonetheless, it is still worthwhile that managers look to implement a robust, coherent stress-management process that will enable them to better spot any red flags.

Actions that may be helpful include:

  • Consider flexible working patterns;
  • Work in additional time into construction schedules to manage any supply or manpower shortages;
  • Manage expectations of clients with regards to soaring materials costs, schedules of work, and timescales for completion at the earliest possible opportunity.
  • Schedule regular site meetings with line management to establish any ongoing concerns;
  • Maintain an “open-door policy” so that employees know they can speak to someone at any time;
  • Make counselling services available for staff who need additional support;
  • Begin holding frequent team-building or wellbeing events for staff to unwind or build social interaction;
  • Provide stress management or resilience training;
  • Place a maximum cap on working hours;
  • Ensure that workers take breaks during their working hours;
  • Establish strict site conduct rules to combat any bullying or harassment.

What can you do if your employer fails to acknowledge your work-related stress?

One 2020 survey suggested that an astonishing 79% of British adults commonly experience work-related stress to some degree. Those who suffer the greatest may look to take action against their employers if they do not feel that the appropriate steps were taken to mitigate the impact that stress has had on their lives. Often stress can manifest itself in a variety of ways, such as insomnia, temper outbursts, hair loss, or a reduction in appetite – the mental and physical impact of which could be extremely dangerous on a construction site. If any of these conditions become apparent, then the advice of a medical professional should be sought immediately.

As stated above, if an employee’s stress or other mental health condition amounts to a disability under the Equality Act 2010, and they consider that their employer has discriminated against them based on their disability, the employee may seek to take legal action against their employer.

In all cases, it is advisable to keep a detailed record of any attempts to raise or resolve the matter with site management. Whilst many stress complaints can be rectified easily by having truthful conversations in-house, the importance of maintaining mental health at work should not be underestimated.

The best course of action is always to try and develop an open relationship with co-workers and to be honest about any health concerns. Furthermore, employers should be mindful about offering ongoing support wherever practical, as this will ensure that personnel can still do their jobs, safe in the knowledge that their wellbeing is being protected.  

Article supplied by: Sophie Wahba, solicitor in the Employment Law Team at Wright Hassall, advising both individuals and businesses on a range of contentious and non-contentious employment law issues.

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