Bill Hill: ONS suicide statistics highlight need for vital work

Lighthouse Construction Industry Charity CEO Bill Hill reacts to the recent suicide figures published by the Office for National Statistics.
Lighthouse Construction Industry Charity CEO Bill Hill.

As well as the word unprecedented, we are now hearing the words mental health every day. That’s good because it means people are talking about the issues. But I was truly saddened to see the recent data published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), which found that male suicides are now at their highest in two decades and suicides peaked in the 45 to 55 age category. 

As a male-dominated industry, we know that construction workers will account for a huge proportion of these figures. I hardly dare think about what that means for this year and I hate to use the word ‘figures’. These are people, and everyone that takes their own life leaves behind parents, children, brothers, sisters and friends. The ripple is far-reaching and devastating. 

We already know that construction workers are on the highly vulnerable list.  Over 85% of the workforce are male and over 50% of the sector is made up of self-employed, agency staff or on zero-hour contract workers. The lack of job security can contribute significantly to poor mental health. And when they do get work, it can be away from home in an unfamiliar area without their normal support network of family and friends. Working long hours, trying to keep everyone happy including family, their boss, the main contractor and the client, often to extremely tight deadlines can simply be too much.  

I have said before that I have sleepless nights trying to think of how we can get our services to individuals in crisis before they take their life. I am convinced that if given the opportunity we could manage to turn some away from suicide. 

But despite the pandemic, I am proud to say that our charity has been able to respond to the needs of the industry.  

Calls to our 24/7 helpline increased by 56% at the outbreak of the pandemic and our case load has almost doubled. 48% of the cases we manage are in the 40 to 60 age group and from lower income job categories in the sector. This is the most vulnerable group. Many have had a lifetime of physical labour and their bodies are failing but they need to keep working to support their families. Retirement for them is another lifetime away.

A crucial element of our charity strategy is to provide more pro-active interventions to support the industry’s mental wellbeing.  This includes our free and confidential 24/7 Construction Industry Helpline and supporting app. We have also ensured the widespread availability of free construction focussed training programmes. These range from hour long interactive wellbeing sessions through to the full two day MHFA England approved Mental Health First Aider course. This will ensure that companies have access to a robust wellbeing strategy to support every level of their organisation from the boots on the ground workforce through to senior management. 

One of the key findings of our recently published 2019 Impact Report was that 62% of emergency financial grants were to pay for daily living costs, paying bills and clearing rent arrears. Financial wellbeing is one of the key factors affecting mental health and the introduction of ‘bang on budget’ financial management sessions, aim to directly address these issues. 

The fallout of Covid-19 has also seen an increasing number of redundancies across the industry so we have now also added two sessions aimed at improving employability with ‘At the Interview’ and a ‘CV Workshop’.  

Our charity is hugely grateful for the generosity of the industry that allows all our charitable work to be free to the workforce but it would be great if we could reduce the cases by finding ways to better retain the productivity of these vulnerable skilled workers.

Both the pandemic and the impending “B” word has accelerated the use of technology in our industry. So perhaps focussing on retraining this age group on working with new machinery and technology might lower the calls to our helpline and give this workforce another 20 years working life and a retirement to look forward to.

Our mission is that no construction worker or their family should be alone in a crisis and being able to respond so quickly to the needs of our construction community means that we really can make a difference.

If you or anyone you know is struggling, you can reach out for free and confidential support through our 24/7 Construction Industry helplines.   

UK 0345 605 1956, ROI 1800 939 122