The industry’s high suicide rate is prompting calls for mental health to be written into construction deals
While working as a quantity surveyor, Marc Preston once witnessed a fire that caused millions of pounds of damage. Yet it was not the sight of the dramatic blaze that stuck with him decades later – it was watching a colleague turn to drink to cope with his guilt over the disaster.
“Because mental health was never talked about, there was a great stigma attached to it,” he said.
Preston, who now runs a counselling service for construction workers called New Foundation, is among a growing number of people calling for mental health to be given the same importance as health and safety in construction procurement. In his eyes, a formal mechanism for clients to hold contractors accountable for supporting their workers and those in the supply chain would be a game changer in the effort to end construction’s mental health crisis.
“Talking to a mate is great, but an untrained person isn’t really sufficient to help a person who’s struggling”
Referring to the building safety laws that followed the Grenfell Tower blaze of 2017 that killed 72 people, he said: “If you want something done, you have to create an obligation for people to do it.”
Preston has been lobbying for optional mental health clauses to be included in the next suite of Joint Contracts Tribunal (JCT) contracts due to be published this year. Making obligations for contractors and developers to improve employees’ mental health a default option on JCT 2024 would have an outsized influence on how firms procure: according to the Royal Institute of British Architects, 59 per cent of firms prefer to use JCT contracts.
A JCT spokesperson told Construction News that there are no plans to include specific mental health provisions in the next iteration of contracts. “However, wider issues such as social value and wellbeing (including mental health) could be discussed between the parties as part of the procurement process,” he added.
The latest update to the JCT suite came in 2016. Preston fears that if JCT does not put mental health on the agenda now, it could be nearly another decade before the opportunity comes around again.
While Preston tackles the issue in the private sector, the fight to get mental health on the public-sector procurement agenda has an unlikely protagonist in the form of Trevor Steven. The former England and Everton footballer is construction software company Causeway’s mental health ambassador. He spent 15 months talking to site workers about their mental health struggles, finding that many did not feel their workplace was doing enough to support their wellbeing.
In November, the company announced it would lobby local and national government to include mental health provision, health and safety, and social value procurement conditions in future construction contracts.
“The problem with the industry is that there’s no obligation to look after your workers,” said Steven. “Why can’t we develop an accreditation process where everyone is accountable?”
In 2022, an all-party parliamentary group on issues affecting men and boys singled out the construction industry when looking into male suicide. The introduction of mandatory mental health sections in procurement frameworks was one of the policies suggested in the group’s report.
“There’s no obligation to look after your workers. Why can’t we develop an accreditation process where everyone is accountable?”
Shortly after, Jackie Doyle-Price, then industry minister, told parliament that the government was “aware that procurement and contractual practices in the sector can have an impact on mental health” and that it had “set out its commitment to improving procurement processes”.
There has been little so far to show for it. The Crown Commercial Service, the UK’s largest public procurement organisation, indicated to CN that it is not looking to incorporate mental health clauses into its frameworks. A spokesperson said: “Our construction frameworks enable flexible ways for customers to be able to embed social value within their contracts in the way that best suits their organisational strategy.”
Looking to the future
Despite the slim prospect of sweeping regulatory change, there are signs that some firms are willing to step up and set an example for the rest of the industry. One company that has taken the plunge is Pagabo. The framework provider announced in November 2022 that it would include criteria in its procurement documentation committing suppliers to mental health provisions.
“The Health and Safety at Work Act  made a huge change to the industry, but it doesn’t tackle the biggest killer,” said chief procurement officer Jason Stapley. “We thought it was a little strange – so we decided to tackle it ourselves.”
He said that although the move has received little opposition from contractors, some smaller providers have raised concerns about the impact of the new requirements on already stretched budgets.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re doing a £350m project or a £50,000 renovation,” said Stapley of the new commitment, “although we expect larger organisations to do more.”
Pagabo did not provide CN with details on the wording of its mental health clauses. However, in general, requirements can relate to past or promised measures and can be non-prescriptive, allowing firms to innovate in ways suitable for their staff. Starting points suggested by Preston include developing employee knowledge of mental health, training mental health first-aiders and preventing discrimination.
He is especially keen that workers have access to professional help, whether through employee assistance programmes or robust signposting. “Talking to a mate is great,” he said, “but an untrained person isn’t really sufficient to help a person who’s struggling.”
In Steven’s chats with site workers, flexible working hours kept coming up again and again. Many told him they wished they were able to compress their mandated working hours into fewer days, and then to have an extra day off on the weekend to decompress.
“There’s no magic wand,” he said, “but if we get things going now, over a five- or 10-year period the industry should look completely different.”