Tackling Mental Health Issues at Hinkley Point
22nd October 2019
Working in the building trade is challenging, and the stresses it places on you aren’t just physical. Across the UK, a shocking 1,400 construction workers took their own lives between 2011 and 2015 alone. In fact, suicide rates in the industry outnumber fatal workplace accidents 10 to 1. Hinkley Point is the largest project the UK building sector’s taken on in the last 75 years, and the strain is definitely showing. Costs are soaring, currently standing at around £2-3 billion over previous estimates, and a growing mental health crisis is putting lives and livelihoods at risk.
Statements from Unite the Union are shining a spotlight on the stresses the Hinkley Point project is placing on its workers. According to reports, at least 2 people associated with the work have committed suicide since the major work kicked off in 2016, with 10 more attempts made in just the first 4 months of 2019. Meanwhile, the number of days lost to mental health-related absences continues to rise. Workers are being hit by depression, anxiety and stress – all characteristic issues faced by so many in the construction industry. Long stretches away from family are placing strains on relationships, while the pressure of the work itself mounts. As Unite convenor Malcolm Davis puts it, “We were in utter shock when they told us the statistics around suicides and mental health. The scale of the mental health issues at Hinkley is something I have never seen before.”
With around 4,000 workers on-site, Hinkley Point is the first new nuclear power plant the UK’s seen for 2 decades. It’s a core component of the government’s energy planning, and while Électricité de France (EDF) disputes some of the report’s figures and findings, they do appear to be taking mental health seriously. They’ve set up a “mental health buddy” system with 200 participants, along with on-site GP support and dedicated “time to talk” spaces. These are all solid moves, but the problem of mental health in construction runs deep, and it’s in no way limited to Hinkley Point.
Despite a number of initiatives aimed at providing a much more open environment for people seeking mental health support, it’s still tough for most sufferers to come forward. Almost 9 in 10 front-line workers are men, and the stereotypes of “hard men in hard hats doing hard work” are tough to shift. 3 times as many construction workers take their own lives compared to the national average, and even talking about the problems you’re having can be difficult. Hinkley houses workers on campuses, with some arduous shift patterns placing a lot of strain on their personal relationships. On top of that, there’s still a poisonous atmosphere in the construction industry that prevents people from reaching out for fear of looking “weak”. The pressures sometimes show in people’s drinking or gambling habits, with some Hinkley workers reported to be dropping up to £3,000 a week in local betting shops.
EDF’s efforts to tackle the mental health crisis are encouraging, but recognising when people are struggling and giving them the courage to speak up remain key challenges throughout the whole industry. By the raw numbers, construction ranks as the most dangerous profession in the UK. The fact that so many of its hazards are hidden is what makes them so difficult to solve.
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