Given the societal challenges over the last 18 months as the nation at large has sought to cope with the ongoing ramifications of the CV-19 pandemic, mental health and wellbeing is now rightly rising up the political agenda. For the construction sector, this challenge has been, and continues to be, particularly acute. It is a widely reported, but no less devasting statistic, that the rate of suicidal ideation in the sector is three times higher than the national average. We need to take effective action to change this.

It is evident that these troubling figures weigh heavy on the shoulders of all leaders in the sector. Hence why, as a collective, we continue to explore ways to spark a constructive conversation around mental health that enables those struggling to speak up and seek help.

However, in addition to creating support frameworks to help tackle this pervasive issue such as providing counselling services to our workforce and upholding supportive compassionate leave policies for those worst affected, I strongly believe that we need a fundamental structural change to the way we work to tackle this issue at source. Flexible and agile working is one such solution.

Wider backdrop

Regardless of the sector in question, all employees have been subject to additional stresses during the pandemic. Unsurprisingly, this has in turn taken its toll on the UK’s mental health as a whole, with ONS data released in May this year revealing that depression rates in the UK have doubled since the onset of Covid-19.

In the particular case of construction, our industry is, by its genetic makeup, especially vulnerable. Whilst positive steps are being taken to redress the current gender imbalance, we remain a primarily male-dominated industry where harmful ‘stiff upper lip’ stereotypes unfortunately still abound. This, in turn, reinforces the barriers which prevent many workers experiencing mental health issues to seek help. The emotional strain is often coupled with the no less intense physical strain that comes with working on a construction site – a situation that can in some instances exacerbate mental health challenges.

Combining this industry dilemma with the wider mental health backdrop, it is clear that employers need to fully embrace initiatives which can positively help alleviate depression and anxiety. After all, the fact that suicide remains the biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK makes for sobering reading. It is an issue that requires concerted action from employers across all sectors.

The mental health case for flexible working

There is now widespread commentary on the myriad of benefits that flexible and agile working can create to alleviate stress whilst improving mental health and wellbeing. Accelerated by the pandemic, the mounting evidence is becoming difficult for even the most ardent opponent of flexible working to deny.

Naturally, there is no better proof than the lived experience of working flexibly. For many, this was possible for the first time during the pandemic. Though difficult to accurately quantify from a corporate perspective, in my view it’s the small things that make the biggest difference to overall wellbeing which encompass the most valuable of acts – a parent being able to help a child with their homework, enjoying a better work-life balance and having more time to dedicate to yourself, the family and loved ones.

The recent survey by Flexibility Works showing that 62 per cent of fathers who were already working flexibly pre-pandemic felt it had had a positive impact on their mental health and wellbeing. It could perhaps be said then that the stress endured by all of society due to the pandemic has allowed us to fully understand these benefits clearly for the first time.

Making it work for construction and beyond

With this in mind, I truly believe employers – in both the construction sector and beyond – have a moral obligation to investigate how their people can benefit from company-wide flex policies. Furthermore, if construction and other sectors wish to attract top future talent, then they will need to appeal to a much broader audience where flexible working, as part of a diverse and inclusive culture, will see them positioned as an employer of choice.

This is a view very much shared by Anna Whitehouse – aka Mother Pukka, founder of the Flex Appeal campaign – with whom we collaborated on the ‘Forever Flex’ report, based on research conducted during the pandemic. The report offers real life, practical examples and guidance for any organisation, encouraging them to explore flexible working solutions. Commenting on the need to tackle the high rates of suicide among men on construction sites, Anna said: “Flexible working (and, in turn, improving mental health) is a key to reducing that number. I can’t stress enough that flexible working is not just for mothers wanting to see more of their kids, it’s for people, all people.”

Of course, it can’t be denied that onsite demands make flexible working particularly challenging for our industry. Whilst the prospect of establishing flexible working options across the full spectrum of job roles can seem a daunting and complex issue, it is not a problem unique to us. Rather, it is the same one faced by healthcare, education and retail, to name just a few, and they have each in turn proved that it is possible to implement flexible and agile working patterns successfully.

The challenge now is to truly invest quality time and effort into making it work – doing so as part of a strategic, forward-thinking plan of actions that engages the workforce and is driven and owned by them. At Sir Robert McAlpine, we certainly don’t profess to have all the answers yet, but we are committed to exploring what the solutions will look like for us. We have partnered with Timewise to understand the flexible working needs of our people and pilot flexible working options on a selection of our sites, from which we can derive company-wide guidance and policies.

Mental health is by its very nature a complex and multi-faceted issue and so to truly be in a position to tackle it and safeguard the wellbeing of our employees, we, as employers, need to address it using a variety of methods and approaches. In this regard, flexible working will be one of many important tools in our arsenal that can help us create a working environment that welcomes openness, is supportive and flexes around the needs of the individual and the team. By doing so, we will dramatically improve mental health and wellbeing across industry.

Paul Hamer is Chief Executive Officer of Sir Robert McAlpine, a family-owned building and civil engineering company operating across the UK and established since 1869.