The Construction Toolkit That Could Save Lives


Health and well-being is a topical subject and a current in the construction industry. Through this article I would like to explain how National Grid tackled the issue of stress, using a new process I helped design.

It is essential for business and construction to avoid assuming men know what to do about stress levels. Another risk may include thinking men don’t want help. It all starts by 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.

How National Grid took initiative

Construction workers within National Grid learned 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 anxiety hadn’t been discussed. Managers also struggled to support staff if they took time off for stress. The issue 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 approach 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 of 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 can be handling marital breakdown or losing someone we love. If we haven’t managed to deal with these or have them taught to us by parents, then we can feel ill-equipped. Communication is crucial and talking about our emotions can bring stability in our routine. Not talking can have significant effects on our health. Some of the time we ‘learn’ what is acceptable, or unacceptable in our behaviour from the habits we are surrounded by. If it is ‘negative’ to express our emotions, then we are likely to stay closed off. Another issue is that men often find it more challenging to talk about feelings than women. 

The difference of emotional state between the genders

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 provide help but in a way that appeals to them. To do that well keep the process simple.

Helping 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 may be struggling with stress. They didn’t try to resolve the problem; they offered a helping hand of a friend.

The 4 symbols that represent what this toolkit looks like

The Buddy Toolkit

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 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. Whether that someone is on-site or off-site does not play a role. Make it your business to know what services are available then you’ll know you tried and they’ll feel valued. Keep in touch and check in again a few days later.

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. That 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. That is a risk for mental health. 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 approach.

We all need support 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, if you see they aren’t themselves at any time.

Article by Sue Firth, Business Psychologist for Express Medicals