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The Gig Economy Versus Mental Health

This week is Mental Health Awareness Week. As such, it’s the perfect time to reflect on what that means with respect to us as individuals and the many other roles we take on in life: as partners, friends, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers and sons.

As employees too, our mental health is no less important; especially since we spend so much of our lives working. The people we meet during the working day, and the conditions under which we work, can have a dramatic effect on our health and spill over into other areas of our lives.

This applies just as much to those working in the construction industry as it does to others in different sectors. And it is the conditions under which many people in the construction industry work that are of particular significance this week.

Self-employed or barely employed?

Sub-contractors, temporary workers and casual labourers have always been a feature of the construction industry. While large companies may have more confidence in predicting their future workflow, small firms and individual trades-people often have far less certainty about the amount of work – and thus potential earnings – they may enjoy.

Many builders for instance may be booked up for months in advance, but projects can fall through at the last minute, taking with them precious income and employment opportunities for sub-contractors, casual labourers or those on zero-hours contracts i.e. people who work in what is now called the “gig economy”. A sudden loss of employment or income can, naturally, be incredibly stressful for many people.

So much so that the recent Samaritans “Men and Suicide” report, highlighted the “trend towards irregular work patterns, insecure or temporary work and self-employment” as contributory factors to their suicide. Looking out for your mental health – and that of your colleagues’ - at work therefore seems not just something nice to do, but critical to do.

As Louise Ward, Policy and Communications Director at the British Safety Council points out: “A great many people are affected by stress, anxiety and depression at some point in their lives, and a significant number of working days are lost each year due to mental ill health. Employers have much to gain from recognising this issue and acting to raise awareness of mental wellbeing, as well as ensuring the physical safety of their workers through the provision of regular training, support, advice and information.”

It is also important to remember that stress affects everyone differently. Many people in the construction may not find the uncertainty and irregular flow of employment a problem; it may even suit their personality or lifestyle. According to a McKinsey & Co survey, around 30% of gig economy workers consider self-employment their ”preferred choice.” However, around 14% said it was “out of necessity”. Often it was to make ends meet or simply to cope with the seasonality of work and a lack of permanent employment.

The TUC also highlights these pressures in a new report, which reveals that self-employed and other gig economy workers tend to earn 30-40% less than average. It also calculates that 3.2m adults (1 in 10) are now in what it calls, ”precarious employment”. Many of whom lack basic employment safeguards, such as protection against unfair dismissal and the right to redundancy pay, while nearly half a million have no right to sick pay.

Such a lack of protection and safeguards may be indicative of what the Samaritans’ report highlighted: men working under less advantageous or privileged conditions may put them at greater risk of suicide.

Every death on a building site is a tragedy. As the HSE reports, the industry lost 43 colleagues to avoidable accidents in 2015/16. Yet, the number of construction workers who took their own life far exceeds that figure.

According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), suicide kills 10.9 people in every 100,000, which equates to more than 280 of the UK’s 2.6m construction workers. That’s six times the rate of accidental deaths – but it could be much higher. Because those most affected, at more than 20 per 100,000, are men aged 30-59: the typical profile of many front-line construction workers.

Is life in what many now call the “gig-economy” proving too much for too many – and what can we do about it?

Keep your employees in mind

Employers should sign up to Mates In Mind. Supported by MIND, Mental Health First Aid England, the British Safety Council and the Samaritans, it aims to develop and implement a comprehensive mental health and wellbeing programme for the UK construction industry.

There’s a natural benefit to employers taking a positive and progressive approach to their employees’ health, safety and wellbeing: happier and more productive workers.

What else can the construction industry do?

It needs to make it easier for workers, particularly men, to express their feelings and seek appropriate help before it’s too late.

In 2015, the psychological wellbeing consultancy Robinson Cooper produced the Good Day at Work Report. This found that 1 in 4 UK adults had experienced mental health problems in any one year. Stress had forced 1 in 5 people to call in sick but 90% had felt unable to tell their manager the real reason behind their absence.

That’s likely to be as true for construction as for any other industry. Particularly for casual workers who may not have as good a rapport with their supervisors as permanent staff. Fear of losing future work opportunities may also be a persistent, undermining stress for those without a formal employment contract, impacting their health and capabilities at work.

At the end of the working day Mental health is a complex issue. Drawing a direct causal link between life in the gig-economy and an individual’s state of mind can be very hard indeed. Many people find such work liberating and thrive on the lifestyle. However, there is a strong relationship between social status, working conditions (especially unemployment) and mental health.

With that in mind, employers should also make sure every employee and contractor is aware of the Construction Industry Helpline. It’s open 24/7 to provide support and advice on everything from occupational health and wellbeing to financial aid – something that matters particularly to gig-economy workers.

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