The Construction Toolkit That Could Save A Life

Health and well-being is a topical subject and current in the construction industry. My aim is to explain how National Grid tackled the issue of stress with its staff using a process I helped design.


Business and construction need to avoid assuming men know what to do about stress. They also risk assuming men don’t want help. This starts with talking about it. We don’t have to have all the answers but let’s begin and learn from it. If we don’t know what Construction workers want, let’s ask them and listen to what they say. It’s likely it won’t be much different to what the rest of us want or need. But if we ask them, they’ll know we care and that’s what matters.


Construction workers within National Grid learnt about site safety by Health & Safety Reps. The Reps had never received training in stress and mental health. So, National Grid felt the subject of stress wasn’t discussed. Managers also struggled to support staff if they took time off for stress. The subject felt like the ‘elephant in the room’ and they began a campaign to correct this. I helped design a toolkit that recognised stress early. It equipped managers with tools to make an approach to a vulnerable employee. It also covered how to support them. The benefit of this was greater confidence when discussing the subject. It improved how easy it felt to talk about personal issues. It also increased their understanding about what people needed and helped.


Some of us are lucky enough to learn the tools we need to help us cope well in life. Loneliness when working away from home or balancing work with home life can be tough. So too can handling marital breakdown or losing someone we love. If we haven’t managed to learn these or have them taught to us by parents, then we can feel ill-equipped. Communication can also be important and talking about our emotions helpful. Not talking can have significant effect on our health. Some of the time we ‘learn’ what is acceptable, or unacceptable in our behaviour from the habits we see around us. If it is ‘negative’ to express our emotions, then we will learn not to do this. Another issue is that men often find it more difficult to talk about emotion than women. There is a good reason for this.


Women experience emotions on both sides of their brains. They have many connections within the brain to the part of it responsible for language. It is much easier for women to express what they are feeling. Men still experience emotions but find it tougher to explain. For men, it can be much harder to find the right words. So, some men may choose not to speak about things, and for some it may feel more as if they can’t. Others may use different coping mechanisms such as withdrawing or avoiding things. Some may channel their distress by taking exercise or team sports and seem to avoid talking. Because men do this it doesn’t mean they want to, and it doesn’t mean someone may not be able to help. They may be well received were they to offer. The key to helping men is to offer help but in a way that appeals to them. To do that well keep the process simple.


This is much easier to do when you know someone well such as a good friend. The question ‘how are you?’ isn’t coming from management and doesn’t feel threatening. It’s also easier to ask for help from a friend rather than a professional. So, National Grid implemented a toolkit. Reps knew to look out for someone they knew well who may be struggling with stress. They didn’t try to fix the problem themselves. They acted as a friend would. The 4 symbols that represented what this toolkit looked like are below:

I developed better expertise with this process over time and revised it. I called it a Buddy toolkit or ‘looking out for your mates’. I extended it beyond Health and Safety Reps to the workers whenever I introduced this. It was important workers didn’t have to look out for everyone they knew but watched out for their best mate. It was also important not to feel they had to fix how someone was feeling or make them feel better. All you do is watch out for your mate and check in with them. When you’ve asked how they are, if they are unhappy and you think you can help offer your own thoughts. Talk about when you’ve experienced something similar. If you don’t think you can help, direct them towards someone you know who can. On site, within the business, or outside of it. Make it your business to know what services are available then you’ll know you tried and they’ll feel they matter. Keep in touch and check in again a few days later. No pressure, but you know you are there.


With the Buddy toolkit you also pair people up within your project team. If someone is new to the team, a more experienced site worker would be better paired with them for a few weeks. This is so they can show the new person the ropes but also look out for them. Often, we are at our most isolated when lonely and we don’t know anyone. This is a risk for mental health. Yet it’s also the time when men are most likely to find out what is and isn’t ok in that culture. If they are new in, need help but don’t ask, the buddy system gives them someone they can go to.


We all need people in life and this toolkit helps. What this achieves is simple; you show you care and they feel that. If they are going to reach out, then they’ll come to you. So, look, watch and ask how they are especially if you see they aren’t themselves at any time.

Article by Sue Firth, Business Psychologist for Express Medicals