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Stress: know the signs and act


We are in the midst of a “stress epidemic”, according to the Stress Management Society (SMS).

In the last year, three-quarters of UK adults reported levels of stress that left them feeling overwhelmed or unable to cope. Stress costs the UK economy more than £5 billion a year.

People working in construction are particularly at risk. Research shows that it’s one of the most stressful sectors, with more than 4 in 5 construction workers saying they feel stressed at least some of the time during a typical week.

Stress, depression or anxiety accounts for a fifth of all work-related illness and the construction industry loses around 400,000 working days each year because of them.

What exactly is stress?

Given that stress is so prevalent, it’s strange that many of us only have a vague idea of what stress is and how it affects us.

Stress comes about when we feel we don’t have the personal or social resources to deal with the demands placed upon us.

“Stress comes about when we feel we don’t have the personal or social resources to deal with the demands placed upon us.”

We shouldn’t forget that stress can be useful, giving us a surge of adrenaline or energy that helps us handle dangerous or unexpected situations – sometimes called the “fight or flight” response.

But in ordinary life, our stress responses are often triggered at inappropriate times and for prolonged periods, making us feel tense, anxious and apprehensive when we don’t need to be.

Stress can damage your mental and physical health

Stress is considered one of today’s most serious public health challenges. It’s linked to mental illness, heart disease, stroke, immune system problems, insomnia, muscle pain, digestive issues and cancer.

That’s why it’s so important to spot the warning signs, not only because prolonged stress can make you ill. A build-up could lead to a sudden and critical emotional or physical collapse, such as:

  • mental breakdown
  • suicide
  • serious physical illnesses, such as stroke, cancer and heart disease

It’s a shocking statistic that every single working day, two construction workers take their own lives.

MHAW Stats graphic

“It’s a shocking statistic that every single working day, two construction workers take their own lives.”

Why is stress a problem in construction?

The structure of the construction industry does little to reduce stress.

Kevin Fear, Health and Safety Strategy Lead and CITB, says, “Systemic problems, such as long supply chains, the withholding of payments, slim profit margins and job insecurity all go towards increasing stress and anxiety.”

“More than half the construction workforce is self-employed,” says Michelle Finnerty, Marketing Manager of the Lighthouse Club, a charity providing emotional and financial assistance to the construction community.

“Getting regular, reliable work can be difficult, and the lack of job security can contribute significantly to poor mental health,”

“Work can be away from home in an unfamiliar area, away from the normal support network of family and friends.

“Long hours, tight deadlines, and the pressure of keeping family, bosses, contractors and clients all happy can be too much.”

CITB is doing what it can to help. We recognise that mental health and wellbeing is one of the biggest issues the industry faces.

That’s why we’re promoting positive mental health in construction, and have awarded £500,000 to Building Mental Health, an industry-led initiative to increase awareness of mental health issues in construction, with a further £500,000 shortly to be awarded.

“We’ve been very fortunate to have a number of excellent apprentices who have rapidly become key members of our team, and real prospects of being potential business leaders of the future.”

How to identify stress

The way we experience stress depends on the kind of people we are and the situations we’re in. This means it’s not particularly straightforward to identify.

Stress could express itself in our emotions, behaviour or physical health. If you’re prone to headaches or back pain, for example, you’re more likely to have a flare up when stressed.

Others find that stress makes them more sensitive to their allergies, or causes them to lose their usual patience with friends and colleagues, making them more likely to lash out. They may have trouble concentrating or making decisions, lose their sense of humour, overeat or eat too little, or drink or smoke more, because they are feeling stressed.

Despite the many different ways stress can appear, it often comes with negative change, often affecting the normal ability to work. The SMS says that if such a negative change persists for 5 days in a row, it could well be stress.

stress symptoms

Warning signs to look for

Everyone’s different, but common warning signs to look out for include:

  • unusual or negative moods
  • forgetfulness or clumsiness
  • indecisiveness, restlessness and poor judgement
  • withdrawal from friends and colleagues
  • irritability, angry or emotional outbursts and loss of humour
  • headaches, nausea, aches and pains
  • sleeplessness, fatigue and low energy
  • drink or drugs problem
  • more accidents at work
  • overworking and a drop in performance
  • more sick leave or coming to work when ill.

Dealing with stress

When you can recognise the signs of stress in yourself, you’ll be in a better position to look out for others too. You can use a range of methods to reduce your stress levels, including:

  • chatting to a friend or family
  • getting a good night’s sleep and practising relaxation techniques
  • taking regular breaks at work
  • resting if you are ill
  • saying no to more work if you need to
  • exercising and eating well
  • prioritising your workload and organising your time
  • taking up a hobby
  • steering clear of stimulants like nicotine, caffeine and sugar
  • avoiding alcohol

Work out what causes for stress and think of how to avoid or solve them. This might involve seeing a professional who can help you understand your thought patterns and positive actions – for example, through cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

surviving or thriving

Employers can help too

Employers have a duty to assess the risk of work-related stress and put steps in place to tackle those risks. They should think about:

  • being flexible about working patterns and breaks
  • holding meetings about workloads, deadlines and change
  • planning collaboratively
  • providing training to help workers learn how to prioritise
  • paying no to more work if your team is already at capacity
  • consulting with your workforce about how work is done and decisions are made
  • talking about effective use of skills and possibilities for personal development
  • having a stress policy (PDF file) and considering use of buddying schemes
  • making clear what support is available.

Tools and resources

The Lighthouse Club has launched a free Construction Industry Helpline App, offering information and advice on how to stay mentally healthy, or if necessary, to find professional help before problems become critical.

It also runs the free and confidential Construction Industry Helpline giving 24-hour advice on health and mental wellbeing, as well as many other areas.

The Health and Safety Executive has detailed information about stress at work and how to prevent and manage it (PDF file download). Its Management Standards will help you comply with your legal obligations, and reduce stress in the workplace.

The mental health charity, Mind, has an excellent booklet How to manage stress (PDF file download), full of useful tips and advice.

Useful phone numbers and resources


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