From hard hats to breathing easy: Why National Grid enlisted WMG to help it improve construction workers’ wellbeing
Warwick researchers are evaluating the impact of efforts to boost the mental health prospects of a group at increased risk of suicide.
It’s safe to say everyone’s physical and mental wellbeing was affected by the pandemic.
Construction workers are no different. Those in this demanding, high-pressure profession have been faced with all kinds of stresses and challenges since Covid took hold.
In fact, a study published this summer by Construction News found that one in three felt compelled to work at some point during the last two years despite suffering with their mental health.
But while 36% of construction workers avoiding taking time off while stressed sounds like a terrifying new development, the sad truth is it’s a group that’s been vulnerable to mental health issues since long before lockdown.
In research conducted by the Chartered Institute of Building in 2019, as many as 91% of UK construction workers reported feeling overwhelmed – while a chilling 26% said they had experienced suicidal thoughts.
That’s why National Grid has teamed up WMG, the academic department at the University of Warwick that partners with the private and public sectors to drive forward science, technology and engineering.
Together, they are exploring the experiences of those in the industry more widely to better understand what kind of services could prove beneficial.
Calling for support – and providing it
When National Grid became aware of the extent of the problem, it determined that something had to be done.
“I think there’s a personal responsibility to do something about it,” Nicola Medalova, Managing Director for Interconnectors at the utility company said. “We pride ourselves on world-class safety performance.”
That something became an ambitious initiative with a two-fold approach.
First, National Grid published a call for more businesses to join its Health in Construction Consortium, established in partnership with the Considerate Constructors Scheme to get the sector collaborating on the development of an industry-wide approach that will improve the wellbeing of workers.
And secondly, the organisation opened a new Health Hub – its Interconnexion France-Angleterre interconnector site in Kent – a facility specially designed to give construction workers a place to enjoy, unwind and access support.
That’s where expertise from Warwick comes in.
Dr Carla Toro, Associate Professor in Digital Healthcare Sciences at WMG, is leading a project to work with National Grid to research the experiences of staff using the new Health Hub and assess the benefits of these additional services on employee mental wellbeing.
The hope is that the hub, which features a canteen providing healthy meals, a garden, a quiet room and even an on-site gym, will make a significant difference by giving workers an alternative recreation option to the pub.
“10 times more people in construction die every year from taking their own lives than they do from occupational and industrial safety incidents,” Nicola said, referencing figures cited by the British Safety Council.
“You can come here, spend a bit of time in the gym, have a bit of a chat with the personal trainer and go home to your family being fitter and happier, but also with more money in your pocket.”
While Nicola believes the potential impact of the Health Hub could be huge, the research skills of Dr Toro and her team will be vital to help National Grid refine its offerings for the best possible outcomes.
WMG researchers visit the facility and conduct surveys about mental health, asking staff what they feel is and isn’t working.
The findings will help the business make recommendations to the sector on the challenges faced by construction workers and the kinds of wellbeing initiatives that could have a positive impact on quality of life and mental health.
An ongoing mission
National Grid’s partnership with Warwick reflects its awareness that the topic of mental wellbeing extends far beyond its own workforce.
“We’re looking for representatives from across the sector, including small to medium-sized enterprise, large businesses, contractors and clients who are passionate about mental health, to be part of the solution,” Nicola said.
"Collaboration and co-ordination across key stakeholders in the industry will be critical to tackling the mental health crisis in construction.
“So whether you’re getting started, in development or leading the way on mental health issues within the sector, we call for your support and ask for you to join us in being an agent for change.”
For Dr Toro and her colleagues, the aim is to give National Grid and other companies involved in construction that most valuable of commodities – one that in case has the potential to save lives: well-researched and insightful data.