Mental Health, or more specifically the stigma attached to it, remains a massive concern for construction and its associated industries. Despite an increase in awareness and the roll-out of marketing campaigns, it appears the vast majority of men still haven’t embraced the idea that ‘it’s good to talk’. Sadly, as a male- dominated industry construction is the rule, not the exception. The statistics don’t make for pretty reading. Almost 50% of long term absences from work are due to mental health issues. The prevalence of mental illness in Northern Ireland is 25% higher than in England, and when compared with 17 other random countries we have the second highest rate of mental illness. Despite the scale of the problem, only a tiny percentage feel comfortable enough to take the first step and ask for help. For most men suffering in silence is still preferable to facing the stigma.
It’s a perception that has to change and one of the main reasons why CTS formalised their relationship with Action Mental Health (Northern Ireland) to corporate partner. “I think the stigma comes down to stereotype,” explained CTS Managing Director, Connaire McGreevy. “Men are meant to be these macho, strong individuals, although I do believe that the stigma is gradually being broken as more people open up and more people raise awareness. Around three years ago we reached out to Action Mental Health. We were aware of them and had supported some past initiatives, but felt it was the right time to formalise it at that stage. A number of our senior management team have family members or friends that have or currently suffer from mental health issues. There have also been a few people within the organisation who have been impacted. It felt right to partner AMH to highlight the issues.”
Established in Downpatrick way back in 1963 as the Industrial Therapy Organisation, Action Mental Health has emerged as a standard bearer for the promotion of mental well-being. Action Mental Health’s Fundraising and Communications Manager, Jonathan Smyth, is keen to stress the importance of external allies: “It is hugely encouraging and vitally important for Action Mental Health to have the support of companies like CTS and organisations like the CEF. The issue of mental health in the workplace has come a long way in recent times. However, we know that stigmas still do persist. We are working hard to break down those barriers and to encourage employees to be proactive about looking after their mental health. This work is greatly helped by having partners like CTS and CEF supporting us and helping to highlight the issues.”
The partnership between CTS and AMH is mutually beneficial. For the charity it means a boost to the coffers and increased awareness of mental health issues thanks to CTS organised coffee mornings, dragon boat races, bake-offs, Great Big Purple Picnic, wear purple days, and events to coincide with World Mental Health Day, Men’s Mental Health Day and Mental Health Awareness Week.
For CTS, it’s the ability to fine tune their own workplace mental health provision thanks to input from AMH. “Action Mental Health offers a range of programmes and services to companies across Northern Ireland and indeed further afield,” added Jonathan Smyth, AMH Fundraising and Communications Manager. “We do this through our mental health training and consultancy service AMH Works. We teach the skills needed to support and maintain healthy resilient workplaces for all employees. The programmes have been proved to have a positive impact on health and wellness, together with reducing absence. At CTS, Connaire has been instrumental in leading the project, even taking on the challenge of running marathons.”
For CTS’ MD, as with many in the company, it’s personal. Connaire’s sister Ciara, a sufferer from bi-polar disorder and depression, tragically passed away just over two years ago. “Many events throughout my life have pointed me in AMH’s direction. Knowing family members and friends who have suffered from mental health issues inspired me to want to help. The double marathon challenge I completed last year was as much about mental and physical strength, so seemed to be a natural fit. I was overwhelmed by the support I received and how much money was raised.”
It’s not the only time the 37-year-old Rostrevor man has used the sporting arena to raise awareness. As Chairman of Irish League Premiership club Warrenpoint Town FC, Connaire saw a gilt-edged opportunity to spread the word. “I felt our Under-16 age category was a good place to bring Action Mental Health on board and to highlight their organisation”, added Connaire. “So, I decided that rather than promote my own business, we would be better promoting Action Mental Health.”
It was a gesture that was much appreciated by AMH. “CTS had been sponsoring one of the youth teams at Warrenpoint, but rather than placing the company logo on the shirts, they generously gave the space to Action Mental Health. Again, this was a great opportunity to raise the issue of mental health in the context of the sporting world, and helped us to spread the message to another group of impressionable young people we would not otherwise have reached.”
Predictions are that the Coronavirus crisis will have a long-term negative impact on mental health. “I think it has had an impact already,” said Managing Director of CTS, Connaire McGreevy. “I also think there will be more mental health problems as we go forward. Covid-19 and the lockdown are not natural for people. The only positive to emerge is an increased focus on mental health, but there needs to be a very good strategy to cope in the coming years. With people losing jobs, financial worries and the lockdown itself, it has been mentally taxing. I hope that the government pays attention to mental health in the years ahead and provides financial support to charities like Action Mental Health.”
Although it is too early to say what that long-term impact will be, AMH does expect mental health issues to be further exacerbated by lockdown, particularly for people managing pre-existing mental health problems. “With this in mind, our AMH Works team has developed a series of toolkits that are available from our website, www.amh.org.uk,” Jonathan added. “They offer tips on looking after your mental health and managing stress, managing staff remotely, approaching conversations with staff on the subject of mental health, as well as other sources of support. By using some of the techniques from the toolkits, it is possible to surf the wave and believe it or not, cope and work better together.”
Good communication has been at the core of the CTS approach. “We have an internal policy and communicate out the helpline numbers. Personally, I have an open door policy and staff know they can confide in me. A few have done so over the years. We are always looking at new ways to help, including a new health care plan.” So what does the future hold and can we ever make those mental health stigmas a thing of the past?
Action Mental Health’s Jonathan Smyth is encouraged, but stresses the need to keep the foot to the floor. “We have come a long way in terms of addressing mental health in the workplace and initiatives being run by the likes of CTS and the CEF. This will undoubtedly help to get the message across to employees working in the wider construction industry that ‘it is okay to not be okay’. Going forward we need to give people the training and skills to look after their own mental health and that of their staff. We need to help the workforce to cope with life’s challenges.”
As we look to change attitudes, particularly amongst men, Connaire believes women have a vital role to play. “In the construction industry, I think it’s important to show men that it’s okay to have and show emotions. As more women enter the sector, I think it will be a good thing long term and hopefully encourage a more open and diverse work environment that is positive for mental health. I also hope that more employers back mental health initiatives and help raise awareness.”