As Mental Health Awareness Week starts in the UK, Jonathan Walls, assistant building manager with Willmott Dixon, has his own reasons for wanting to get the message across.
Back in 2017, Willmott Dixon launched the All Safe Minds campaign to raise awareness of the frightening statistics surrounding mental health issues within the UK construction sector. As part of the initiative, hundreds of personnel across Willmott Dixon sites nationwide have been training as Mental Health First Aiders (MHFAs), to provide a confidential support network to their industry colleagues.
In 2018, Jonathan took part in the training programme, completing the intensive two-day course on a Wednesday and Thursday. Sadly on the following Sunday, Jonathan, who is also a member of his local rugby club, lost a close friend and fellow rugby player to suicide.
Jonathan recalls: “There were absolutely no signs and everything had seemed normal. No one could have predicted what happened and the loss of our friend has shaken the club to its absolute core.”
Around the same time, Jonathan was also writing a university dissertation, the original subject of which had been the skills shortage. But the impact of losing his friend was such that Jonathan was compelled to start his dissertation again; this time with the title, ‘Addressing the current perception of Mental Health in the Construction Industry’.
Jonathan’s research triggered some incredible feedback from his colleagues across the sector, and whilst he acknowledges that massive progress has been made through initiatives such as All Safe Minds, Jonathan is keen to stress that the industry needs to do more.
He explains, “The highest instances of suicide, depression and other mental health related illnesses, are found amongst the low-skilled trades; but that’s not to say there aren’t issues affecting the rest of the industry. A survey I conducted as part of my dissertation revealed that a significant number of colleagues in white-collar positions are also experiencing difficulties. It’s also a sad fact that reluctance to speak up is still an issue.
“Ideally, we need to see more MHFA training across the industry as a whole, and in a perfect world every line manager would be an MHFA. UK construction has made huge strides over the past few years and it’s great to hear that our MHFAs are seeing an increase in people coming forward for support, so we need to build on that progress and continue to forge forward. Talking about our mental fitness should be as natural to us as talking about our physical health. The two are not mutually exclusive.”
To encourage the conversation over Mental Health Awareness Week, Willmott Dixon’s assistant people manager, Matthew Kershaw, has arranged a number of events across the company’s local construction offices.
These range from simple ideas such as arranging for fresh fruit to be made available in every site cabin and office, and allowing time for regular short walks, to more ‘hands on’ experiences like massages, resilience training, meditation and yoga sessions, a ‘science of sleep’ class to stress the importance of healthy sleep, and senior managers having lunch with their teams to help continuously bring people closer together.
Matthew has also arranged for a health and wellbeing care pack to be sent to the home of every employee. This will include a full timetable of events happening during the week, information and statistics on mental health and a list of support resources available for anyone needing to talk.
“What makes our business special is our people. We recognise that we must always look after both ourselves, and one another – but not everyone is comfortable to talk about mental health. It’s for this reason that the pack is being sent to everyone’s home so they can reflect privately on the information, which will hopefully encourage them to engage with others during the week and beyond. We are using Mental Health Awareness Week to highlight the support we can offer our people, but the key take away is that we all have mental health, and to question, are you looking after yours?” says Matthew.
Jonathan Walls adds: “I am only too aware that undetected mental health issues can lead to tragic and unnecessary loss. We need to be passionate about changing the perception of mental health in our industry with a view to affecting positive change over coming months and years. This is a massive sector and together we can make massive change.”
Mental Health Awareness Week runs from 13th to 17th May and is the subject of this week’s #TradesTalk, taking place on Twitter from 8pm on Tuesday 14th May. Simply follow @TradesTalk to get involved.