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Workplace Leader Winner: Bill Hill

Mental Health

Bill Hill from Lighthouse, the construction industry charity, has been named as Workplace Leader of the year at our Men's Mental Health Awards. Here's an interview with Bill about his work and the mental health challenges his industry faces.

Bill has been named as the winner of Workplace Leader at our Men’s Mental Health Awards. Bill is the CEO of the Lighthouse Construction Industry charity and our judges were blown away by the incredible work he does with his team in supporting those in a particularly tough industry where the suicide rates are high and the stigma around accessing mental health still very much present. We interviewed Bill to find out more about the powerful work he does…

Can you tell us how you became involved with Lighthouse and their mental health work?

I spent my whole career in corporates and technology, but I’ve always been doing charity work in the background. I had an opportunity to bail out of the corporate world and the first charity that I ran was called Wooden Spoon, which is a children’s charity rugby, which I really enjoyed. I’ve done that for several years but I was looking around for something else to get my teeth into, and then I found the Lighthouse Construction Industry Charity. I was born and brought up in a lighthouse off the west coast of Scotland, my dad was a lighthouse keeper – and I genuinely thought this had something to do with lighthouses, so it was a bit of a shock when I found out it’s all to do with construction! The charity was started in 1956 when a bunch of really good guys in the in the construction industry happened to be an expo in the Northeast of England, and they were seeing about how dreadful it was at that time, they were losing 200 people a year on construction sites. And what was happening was families were going into poverty and nobody was looking after them. So this group of goodly folks said, ‘Let’s do something for these families.’ And they basically worked it all out in pub by a lighthouse and they called it the Lighthouse Club, with the idea that it would be a beacon of hope for the industry.

When I joined the Lighthouse I found construction was very close to rugby: the people in it very much feel as if they’re indestructible, and unfortunately they’re not. One of the biggest problems we’ve got in the industry is there’s some 30 to 40 fatalities every year on site now – so it’s come down a lot from 200. It’s been quite awesome the way they’ve improved the safety. But if you go through it, we still have very high incidences of injuries. There’s over 2000 injuries every year that it incapacitates an individuals to such an extent that they can’t go back to work and do what they used to do. Occupational cancer cases are extremely high in the industry through things like asbestos, and others nurturing away, like silicon dust. But the thing that shocked the industry really was the mental ill health when the research was done in 2016/2017.

A report showed that about 20% of recorded time off work was due to either stress, anxiety or depression. Also the thing that knocked industry for six was that every working day we lose two construction workers to suicide. So that really galvanised the industry into saying we have got to do something about it. Construction is the number one industry for suicides. And basically, we said we as a charity for this industry have got to absolutely pull out all the stops to try and turn the dials back on this because that’s a shocking, shocking statistic. And there’s many people’s lives that get involved in this: the ripple effect of a suicide is massive as well on the family and the friendship groups, surrounding it.

That’s what has motivated us, and our mission as a charity is that no construction worker, or their family should be alone in a crisis. Everything we do is all about building services around the industry, that people can easily access, and get help really quickly when they’re in trouble. We’re trying very hard to get that message across to everybody because it’s very difficult.

What are some of the key services that you have for people?

Okay, there’s three very core services that that we deliver. First is the 24/7 helpline which we introduced about four years ago now. It’s grown considerably, we’re now getting somewhere between 200 and 300 cases every month coming through the helpline, construction workers asking for help. We’ll give them help across the three major pillars of support, which is emotional support, physical support, or financial support.

Two and a half years ago, we introduced an app to support the helpline. So if people didn’t want to talk, they could actually use their mobile phone to get access to information and coping strategies, and learning about what condition they might have. Again, the app is built around those three pillars of support.

Then about one and a half years ago, we started a major portfolio of masterclasses around well-being, things like stress management, work-life balance, mindfulness, and meditation for construction. A whole bunch of things about well being and also things like ‘Bang on Budget’, which we created because a lot of people present themselves on the Helpline with financial issues. You realise that nobody is giving them the wherewithal to understand good debt and bad debt, and how to manage that debt and how to run it down and not get into more debt. That causes an awful lot of ill health within the industry.

On top of that, we’ve built a nationwide network of Lighthouse Beacons, which are drop in centres. I think there’s about 160-180 drop-in centres now around the country where predominantly men can drop in and talk to other people with lived experience, with no judgement. In there they can just chat about their problem, and it all stays in that room. We haven’t invented that, that’s something that’s always there, we but what we have done is qualified the people that are on our network: so there’s things like Andy’s Man Club, the Man Gang, Man Shed, all those places that were ready, and we just give them a platform. So in the app, you can find out where your nearest one is on any given night.

The one that we launched very recently is Text ‘HARDHAT’ which is as text counselling service. So if you text ‘HARDHAT’, then you’ll get access to a text conversation where you’ll get counselling services to help you get to a better place. That counselling service will help you and encourage you to get to the helpline where we can really get your case on board and manage you holistically. One of the biggest things we introduced to the helpline was very highly qualified caseworkers, so that we can look at their emotional, physical and financial strength and try to manage everything around them to move them from where they are to a more sustainable place.

We’ve put a lot of Mental Health First Aiders into the industry as well. The programmes that we have worked with have introduced over 10,000 Mental Health First Aiders into the industry, which is probably the highest number of a vertical industry ever.

Very recently, we’ve put three guys in a van to do ‘Lighthouse on Tour’. We’ve been able to go into some building sites directly with these three tradesmen who are very highly skilled and have a lot of lived experience talking to other tradesmen. We’ve found that the guys with the boots on the ground don’t know we’re there. They didn’t know we existed. That is my biggest problem at the moment. The supply chains in construction are so tiered that we can get messages down so far the tight supply chain, but we’re not getting all the way down to the boots on the ground, which is, which is crucial, because probably, those are the people who don’t know where to go in a crisis, and they need us most.

Culturally as well, I would imagine it’s quite difficult to kind of get through to the men on the ground, tough guys who don’t want to be seen as needing help?

That’s the other big problem: stigma. The two problems are getting the message across and the second is getting the stigma released so that they can actually use the services. 87% of the workforce in construction is male. Its massively gender biased to men, which is something the industry is trying to work on, trying to get more gender diversity into the industry, but it’s culturally very difficult. Because of what you just mentioned. Men have got some very inbuilt and very unhelpful stoic beliefs about themselves about how they’ve got to tough it out. And it’s going to take some time for the industry to see that cultural change coming through. We’re seeing it with some of the younger people coming into the industry, and we’re actively promoting Mental Health First Aid courses and mental health awareness courses at apprenticeship level, so that people who are going to be the future leaders will have it right from the start of their career. But that’s gonna take maybe 10-15 years to see its way through. Quite a large population in construction is 45 years old and above, who can be deep seated in the stoic beliefs.

We work on this with ‘Toolbox Talks’. We try to get around the toolbox and get them talking about things other than their Radio Five Live, the stresses of your work, all that stuff. When you give people permission to talk, it’s sometimes difficult to get them to shut up. Which is great, because they go away from that meeting having learned from each other. It’s a great thing that you’ve been working with a buddy because the other thing about our industry is 53% of the 3 million people that work in construction are either self employed agency workers or in zero contracts. So there’s a lot of individuals dropping in on site, on an intermittent basis, so they don’t get into any team hierarchy and into any sort of support networks. They go in there, do a job, and move on. Their diet is not wonderful, the digs are not wonderful, they’re away from the family networks for a period of time, which is not wonderful. The difficulty in getting wages on a weekly basis, or your next job, is quite scary as well, to not know where you’re gonna be working next week. So all of these factors play on the well being of the individuals within the workforce, and we’re trying so much to try and change those things. But there’s no quick fix, no silver bullet.

Do you think things are kind of getting better?

I think there’s certainly an identification that this is a problem. I think there’s still a long way to go. I would love to say the tide is turning in the right direction but we did a study last year with Caledonian University, looking at suicide rates within the standard occupational classification codes within the industry. And what we found is that, unfortunately, suicide rates have gone up in our industry, right? They had gone down in all the professional elements of our industry, like the surveyors, the architects, the civil engineers, electrical engineers. But it had actually gone up for the trades and the ground workers. The so called ‘no collar workers’. It re-emphasised that we needed to double our efforts to get out to the boots on the ground, because they’re clearly not getting the messages that there is support there for them. So I think I think things are changing for the better, but we haven’t seen the big change in the direction that I’d like to see. That’s going to take a little longer.

What do you think would make a really big difference to help that?

I think the biggest differences need to happen with men themselves. To change that outlook about asking for help, and overcoming that stigma. And then also it’s to make sure they get the right pathways for the right kind of support so when they do ask for help it’s not a bad experience.

Everybody you talk to knows somebody who has taken their own life. And we’ve got to get the same support networks that women have. There’s 6200 suicides in total every year in the UK, and 5000 of those are men. Why? Why is it so skewed towards men? One of the reasons is we don’t support each other, we don’t have the same humanity towards our fellow man. We don’t have that caring attitude that we need. Men have got the capability of seeing somebody struggling. We know it.

I always have three golden nuggets: The first thing we need to do is don’t ask once, ask twice. The next time you may get a different answer. The second golden nugget is not to just give them a solution, and to listen non judgmentally. That’s a tough thing to do, to not think the problem is not a problem because you’re seeing it through a different lens. Sometimes it solves a problem immediately if somebody just listens to what they have to say. And the third thing is: be kind. There’s absolutely no reason to be unkind to another human being. And in construction there’s an awful lot of objectification of human beings. Like you’ll hear, “I need two bods up there now.” There’s not any John and Jimmy added to two bodies. And that’s the kind of roughness that’s the labour force at that ground level. And once you objectify human beings, you do not have the same empathy and feeling towards them. These are people trying to eke out a living, feed their families, look after themselves, you know they’ve got the same feelings as everybody else. It’s just trying to get that humanity into the core of things, I think that would help a lot.

I think those are the main the main themes about how to how to move this forward. I think the answer lies within

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