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Nuclear Reactions

Hinkley Point C points to a wider male mental health crisis

Mental Health

The reports about the rise in mental health problems amongst construction workers at the nuclear power plant highlights an urgent need for change.

The reports that have hit the news about the mental distress of the construction workers working on Hinkley Point C, have shockingly revealed the problem of mental health issues in the construction industry, as well as pointing to a wider need for change with regards to men dealing with such issues.

Union officials at the nuclear power station site have said there’s been 10 suicide attempts amongst workers in the first four months of 2019, as well as a rise in the numbers off sick with stress, anxiety and depression. At least two people have died by suicide since construction began in 2016.

One of the workers at the site told the Guardian, “We are in a phase now with mental health where we were with safety 50 years ago…the same number of people are going off, only now they are not going off with injuries. They are going off with stress.”

The mental health risks for construction workers has been talked about with increasing seriousness in the last few years, and as 85% of these workers are men, it’s very much tied up in discussions around the way men are expected to deal with their problems. In 2017 the Office for National Statistics reported suicide as the biggest killer of men under 50 in the UK, and that low skilled male construction workers had the greatest risk, at 3.7 times the national average.

So while the particularities of working at Hinkley Point C appear a lesson in how to put people under stress – where it’s not just low paid and stressful shift work, but where workers are separated from friends and family during the week by having to live on special campuses in nearby Bridgewater; reports of loneliness fuelling drinking, gambling and prostitution are the obvious results  – there are also broader issues at work.

Firstly, the way that the construction industry looks after its people. The tough guy manual labourer stereotype is one that still perpetuates and gives employers a natural get-out clause around mental health, whereby you’re either hard enough for it, or you break. There’s a strong image to live up to which is not just about physicality, but an impenetrable façade which denies any mental wobbles. When you aren’t earning a lot, are having to do demanding physical work, but can’t speak out about the stress, then you understand why the statistics are as they are.

Things are beginning to change in the industry. Building Mental Health is an initiative working with the Construction Industry Training Board which has now trained 1600 construction workers in mental health first aid, and are training up 144 instructors to further spread the training to thousands more staff. The magazine Construction News have been campaigning about mental health and pressing businesses to make changes since 2017, and recently said 72.5% of workers they interviewed believed mental health awareness had improved in the last 12 months. However 90% of respondents still believed that not enough support was being provided for those struggling.

What Hinkley Point C is valuably highlighting are the ways in which businesses can address this kind of situation. To be fair to EDF who are in charge of building the first new nuclear power plant for 20 years, they have introduced measures to address the crisis, including 200 mental health ‘buddies’, private ‘time to talk’ rooms, and a GP on-site. This is the kind of visible support which is being introduced in many industries now, and you hope this story marks a tipping point for the construction trader in particular – the problem is real, and all businesses need to act.

Beyond the trade, the factors which prevent men from dealing with their inner issues until they’re at a point of crisis, can’t be ignored. It goes to the very heart of what we understand about being a man. If we are taught as boys that the highly emotional turmoil we go through has to be hidden away, or channelled into sport or playground violence, because expressing hurt or pain or worry is ‘girly’, then we are thoughtlessly condemning generations of men to a repressed, limited life. Which may well be dangerous for themselves and others.

What is required is a huge rethink in masculinity. And, to be clear, by masculinity we mean the attitudes and behaviours associated with being a man. Attitudes and behaviours which can vary widely depending on location, circumstance, culture, and which can therefore be shaped or refined. Men are dying and living in distress, and while there are top level issues around how this society looks after its people, particularly the working class, there also needs to be a reflective cultural push to challenge what it means to be a man, and create a framework for men to be able to admit vulnerability and find greater expression.

As Martin Coyd, from Mace, commented to Construction News, “I always start by asking workers to raise their hands if they ever learned about mental health at school, and no one ever does. Then I ask if people have ever had problems with their mental health, and everyone raises their hands. We need people to feel safe and that they won’t be laughed at for talking about their issues; it’s not a sign of being weak – it takes bravery and a very strong person.”

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