- Lifestyle

No more ‘man up’: the push for better mental health at Hinkley C

Angie Young, the health and wellbeing manger at the Hinkley Point C (HPC) site, does not hesitate when asked what the main cause of mental health issues there is. “It’s loneliness. You’re living away from home, living without your family. Loneliness is the big thing.”

But a major complicating factor is that tough men who build stuff are not always great at talking about feelings. “Our guys are construction guys – they are macho. The average age is 45-55. They haven’t got someone nagging them to go and see someone. We’re trying to address that.”

Young is a veteran of major construction projects in the UK including the Channel tunnel, the Olympic Park and Terminal 5. “Mental health has always been the thing that has been brushed under the carpet,” she said.

“In the old days workers wouldn’t cry. They would be told to man up,” she said. “We want to generate an environment of openness. It’s OK not to be OK. If we can get people to talk about mental health then we will have achieved something.”

The construction industry has long had a challenge helping its workers through mental health issues. At a site such as HPC the challenge is particularly acute. More than 4,000 people – the majority of whom are men – are working on the site. Half live away from home.

The site is remote and conditions can be tough. Weather extremes can be sapping. Shifts can be long and the vastness of the project hard to take in.

HPC and Duradiamond Healthcare, which runs the in-house health service, commissioned a business psychologist to undertake a site-wide mental health risk assessment.

The assessment highlighted that death from suicide among construction workers is 10 times more frequent than from accidents, and 25% of construction workers have considered taking their own lives. It also showed that 60% of workers did not tell their employers if time off was related to mental health, while 42% of workers were living with or trying to cope with mental health issues.

Duradiamond accepts that the nature of HPC – the fact that so many are away from home – makes workers particularly vulnerable. In a press release issued after it won an industry award for its work on mental health, it said: “Specifically, people felt lonely, disconnected and not part of the community and this is particularly prevalent at HPC.”

A tour of the site gives glimpses into the work that is taking place to combat the problem. On the fence next to the main pedestrian entrance is a sign that reads: “We have 200 mental health buddies” on site.

The mental health buddies – also known as mental health first aiders – undergo a two-day course recognised by the charity Mind. “They’re not there to treat,” said Young. “They are there to be a listening ear. Part of the training is to recognise signs that are red flags and to signpost people into help.” There are male and female “buddies” from a range of occupations, ages and levels of seniority.

One mental health buddy, who asked not to be named, said people talked about issues ranging from work-related stress to family issues. “I speak to people every week,” he said. “It can be a brief chat over a cup of tea in the canteen or I can spend an hour or couple of hours with them and give them time to open up.”

He said it might appear that more people were suffering because they were now prepared to come forward. “Now that people know they can speak up, the cases of people calling in pretending to have a bad back when they are just feeling low is going down. The culture has changed from people feeling they can’t ring in with mental health problems.”

Mental health awareness training is provided for managers and supervisors to try to create a supportive environment and help identify potential signs to allow early intervention. HPC is also in the process of recruiting a chaplain for the site – another person for people in crisis to talk to.

Dotted inside the site are “time to talk” rooms – private spaces for conversations and to find contact details for help. A “time to talk” day was held on site to encourage more openness.

Speakers are brought in to try to help. About 800 workers listened to the former heavyweight boxing champion Frank Bruno talk about his own battle with mental health.

When workers sit down to meals in the canteens, notices about mental health flash up and a mental health awareness page has been created on the TeamHinkleyC website and app.

Help and advice for apprentices is provided at on-site drop-in sessions in the apprentice and skills hub, which works with a local mental health charity, In Charley’s Memory. A programme of support for apprentices, including advice on gambling, money management, healthy eating and life skills has been set up.

The HPC construction director, Rob Jordan, said much had been achieved but accepted there was more to do. “We have a thirst to do more; we’re on a journey,” he said. Jordan, an Australian, works away from his family. “I know what it’s like. People make sacrifices to be here. We want to take it to the next level. We owe it to the individuals who work here and their families.”