CEO of Sir Robert McAlpine, Paul Hamer has set out to ensure the company becomes the “best place to work” in the UK. In this Q&A he shares his thoughts on why he wants to make the construction industry an attractive career option for everyone - and improve the shocking statistics that show its workers are three times more likely to commit suicide.
The HR World (HRW): What is the scale and shape of the problem of mental health in construction?
Paul Hamer (PH): The rate of male suicides in construction is still very troubling. Reports suggest it is three times the national average and a recent study by Glasgow Caledonian University, commissioned by the Lighthouse Construction Industry Charity, found rates had climbed from 26 per 100,000 in 2015 to 29 per 100,000 in 2019. Considering that suicide is the primary cause of death in males under 45 in the country, it gives you an idea of how serious an issue this is for our industry.
Construction is still, by and large, a male-dominated environment especially on site. It can be very labour intensive and some construction sites still portray a macho-type environment which acts as a barrier for men to open up talk to their colleagues about mental health issues – it is seen as a form of weakness. We, as an industry, need to take effective action to change this.
HRW: What have the main issues been at Sir Robert McAlpine?
PH: The main issues tend to affect individuals and are dealt with on a person-to-person basis. That’s why it is important to build a culture where everyone is welcome and create a safe space for people to seek help.
We are very aware that mental health issues can affect anyone at any time, so we actively promote a clear message that “it’s ok not to be ok” to encourage people to speak up. We have Mental Health First Aiders on our sites and in our offices to give our people the reassurance they can always chat in confidence with an SRM team member who is trained to help with their specific needs. We also run an independent helpline such that people can speak to an individual outside of the business if that makes them feel more at ease.
People believe that senior leaders of a business are somehow immune to the stresses and strains of work and everyday life, which is why I personally talk to our people and let them know that this is not the case. At our Board and Executive Leadership meetings, we take time to check-in so we can hear and understand how every individual is feeling and if they need any help or support from the team and we are encouraging all of our teams to take time out to check in on each other.
HRW: What practical steps are you taking for your staff?
PH: We are a family business that’s been around for over 150 years. Looking after each other is in our DNA. We obviously want our people, and the people who work for us, to be happy and thriving in their professional lives as well as their personal lives. Our projects are driven by our people and their wellbeing is therefore clearly fundamental to delivering a high class, quality service to all of our clients.
To me, the most difficult thing to eradicate is the macho culture that still pervades the industry. It is a stigma that takes time and effort to overcome and raising mental health awareness can only go so far to reach someone. It means that we all have to be vigilant in trying to spot the signs that someone is having difficulty and be confident enough to reach out to them, at the risk of finding out when it is already too late.
Amongst the many initiatives we have undertaken to keep mental health at the forefront of the workforce, we have organised workshops with professional actors playing situations portraying construction site workers facing personal crises. These were very powerful and successful in engaging the workforce and starting meaningful conversations on this difficult topic.
The path to overcoming these obstacles is through a culture shift that allows for a more inclusive environment where everyone feels welcome and open. There is another serious issue facing construction and that is the skills shortage. As an industry, if we don’t find ways to change the macho, male-dominated image of the sector for a more inclusive environment, we won’t be able to attract the wider diversity of talent necessary to deliver the major infrastructure projects needed in the country.
HRW: What is the future of mental health in the construction industry?
PH: Our focus on promoting better mental health and a truly inclusive culture has coalesced into our commitment to pursuing flexible working solutions for everyone, whether in offices or on sites.
We believe that finding ways for the workforce to balance their professional duties with the demands of their personal lives, whatever they may involve, will alleviate many of the strains from which mental health crises stem and will greatly contribute to improving mental wellbeing. As far as I am concerned, if flexible working can help to reduce the number of male suicides linked to construction, then I am wholeheartedly committed to make this work across our entire business and onwards into our supply-chain partners.
HRW: How are you taking this forward?
PH: We are committed to making flexible working accessible to everyone, and not just in our industry. As I have mentioned, there is an imperative need for the sector to address its mental health issue and to be more attractive to a larger swathe of the workforce to address the skills gap, as well as improve the current gender and ethnicity imbalance. We believe that developing sustainable, flexible and agile working solutions is an ideal route towards achieving this.
Since 2019, we have been supporting Anna Whitehouse’s, aka Mother Pukka, Flex Appeal campaign to make flexible working available to everyone. Working in collaboration with Anna and change communications agency, Claremont, we commissioned the research for the Forever Flex report, which was conducted during the pandemic across organisations of all sizes and in all sectors.
It offers real life, practical examples and guidance to explore flexible working solutions. In March this year, we led a flexible working roundtable with Members of Parliament and leaders of industry, which was also attended by Employment Minister, Mims Davies, with a view of working with government to support and advance the cause for flexible working
Recently, we have initiated trials with Timewise to explore how we can make flexible arrangements work on our construction sites. We are piloting solutions that are informed and driven by our people, with a view of rolling them out company wide. We already have flexible and agile working policies in place at Sir Robert McAlpine but we want to make sure they are applicable to every role.