Why Covid-19 is an opportunity to rethink wellbeing within construction

The construction sector faced major workplace health, safety and wellbeing challenges even before the logistical and financial problems generated by Covid-19. But, as Ian Caminsky argues, the pandemic has also created an opportunity for construction firms to regroup, examine internal data and prioritise the wellbeing of workers.

Coronavirus has caused industry leaders to rethink their approach to work. While for many sectors this has meant a review of where and when we work, for the construction sector the changes that can be made in the workplace are more subtle in nature.

About the author

Ian Caminsky is chief executive of absence management company FirstCare

The construction sector has the fourth highest number of working days lost to unplanned leave of any UK industry. Employees across the sector each reported an average of 8.4 days of absence in 2019.

Unplanned leave occurs not only for medical reasons but unexpected non-medical circumstances too – something that has been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, where many workers have been forced to quarantine without having symptoms, or to take care of a dependant.

By knowing which employees are away, why they are away, and when they are going to return, employers can take quicker and better-informed decisions to plan their workforces more effectively, but also identify the trends that are driving absence.

Reacting to this data with appropriate strategies to support employees is crucial to creating a healthier and more productive workforce.

Closure of ‘Constructing Better Health’

The necessity for this type of action has never been more acute. The damage to businesses sparked by coronavirus, coupled with the recently announced closure of the industry’s occupational health scheme, Constructing Better Health, has left a desperate need for firms to address employee sickness and wellbeing.

As the leading construction trade association Build UK has said, there is an urgent need to develop a successful and commercially viable occupational health system that can do exactly what the construction industry needs it to.

The first step is to understand the unique blend of absence contributors that exists within the sector. For example, the prevalence of manual labour compared to most industries means that, naturally, construction workers are more susceptible to musculoskeletal issues.

This reason alone has accounted for one in five of all working days lost to absence during the last five years.

A 2019 report from the Arthritis and Musculoskeletal Alliance (ARMA), Musculoskeletal Conditions in the Construction Industry, calculated that musculoskeletal conditions cost the sector £646m every year.

Once the absence problem is identified, the underlying causes can be addressed, and supportive measures put in place for employees.

ARMA’s report also highlights construction firm VolkerWessels UK’s efforts to tackle musculoskeletal absence through the implementation of on-site stretching exercises and educational programmes on topics such as diet, lifestyle and fitness.

By monitoring the absence data that follows such schemes, employers can gauge their effectiveness. At FirstCare, we work with Bouygues Energies & Services, which reduced the average duration of its musculoskeletal absences by 21% over two years by introducing such measures. Across 2,600 staff, this contributed to savings of more than £500,000.

Targeted wellbeing interventions

Targeted measures boost wellbeing, and this is true for both physical and mental health. FirstCare data shows that mental health-related absence accounted for 14% of all absences in the construction sector during the past five years.

The Chartered Institute of Building’s (CIOB) 2020 report Understanding Mental Health in the Built Environment goes further, revealing – shockingly – that fully a quarter of construction employees in the UK have considered taking their own lives.

Spotting the signs of poor mental health early and responding quickly are crucial in ensuring that workers do not reach crisis point. For example, we work with a utilities provider which, via our service, introduced the simple measure of automatically sending an SMS message with details of its employee assistance programme to staff who reported a mental health-related absence.

Similarly, alerts have been set up to notify line managers and occupational health staff of employees struggling with mental health; empowering them to make contact and start an open conversation on the support that is available.

The CIOB report highlights the example of Seddon, a firm that, following the suicide of an employee called Jordan Bibby, set up the “Jordan’s Conversation” initiative to encourage colleagues to discuss how they are feeling with one another.

Mental health absence in the construction sector has increased by 53% during the last five years and I am confident this, in part, is because of mental health awareness initiatives like these that are helping to reduce stigma, and workers feeling more comfortable discussing the challenges they are facing.

Alongside existing issues, construction firms must now also address the wellbeing and safety challenges posed by Covid-19.

The second quarter of 2020 saw a significant 36.5% increase in absence, year-on-year, within the sector.

With absence surging, firms must remain cognisant that the core principles to tackling absence remain the same during a pandemic.

Having good data available, which specifies the various Covid-related reasons for absence, will inform who is absent, why, and considerations for a safe return.

Employers can then take innovative steps to minimise potential disruption to productivity, put in place measures to support wellbeing and reassure employees while the virus remains an ongoing risk.

We work with one manufacturing business, for example, that has implemented immediate alerts after any employee reports a suspected coronavirus-related absence.

This notification goes straight to senior managers and health and safety staff, who are then able to organise a deep clean of any areas of the building that the employee had worked in. This helps not just the employer, but all the employees too.

To conclude, CIOB’s report recommends that the construction industry must adopt “a holistic approach in addressing mental health and wellbeing in the workplace”. In my experience, this is best achieved if business leaders have an accurate, in-depth understanding of the reasons people miss work.

The emergence of Covid-19 only makes this more vital. Constructions firms must embrace the data they have, take stock of new challenges, and put the building blocks in place to prioritise employee wellbeing.

“Constructing Better Health OH scheme to close, as Covid-19 takes its toll”, Occupational Health & Wellbeing, June 2020, https://www.personneltoday.com/?p=253920
Musculoskeletal Conditions in the Construction Industry, the Arthritis and Musculoskeletal Alliance 2019, http://arma.uk.net/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/Construction-Roundtable_2019.pdf
Understanding Mental Health in the Built Environment, Chartered Institute of Building, 2020, https://policy.ciob.org/research/understanding-mental-health-in-the-built-environment/
Jordan’s Conversation, Seddon, https://seddon.co.uk/csr/jordans-conversation

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