In line with our Wellbeing focus, we had the opportunity to speak with Design Insider Live about the ways in which the company tackles stigma around mental health and how Victoria has been inspired to drive positive change in the industry:

What is your role within the company?

In addition to the marketing, I am a full time-pre-construction co-ordinator & more recently assist our Broadway project manager on site in London, which has been a great way to learn & I’m thankful I’ve had the opportunity to take on this additional role within the business. In addition to this, I try to be at the forefront of event organising, charity fundraising & generally brightening the workplace atmosphere, I have been even more aware of this since taking the 2 day MHFA course back in the summer last year.

How important is employee mental health and wellbeing to EE Smith Contracts?

Mental health is of paramount importance to us, with the rate of suicides being highest in 20-40 y/o men, especially within the construction industry, it’s no longer an optional topic to show interest in, but a vital duty of care to our people. We recognise that mental health is just as important as physical health & despite often being undetectable to the untrained eye, it can be far more dangerous than a physical injury. We know that happy staff work more efficiently & are valuable assets to the company, which is why we’re working to continually improve mental wellbeing & this is possible with our committee of trained MHFA’s.

When training to be a Mental Health First Aider, how did you find this process and what pushed you to do it?

EE Smith have invested in training dozens of managers as MHFA’s over the last few years. I was always keen to learn more about this somewhat taboo topic, so jumped at the chance when one of our employers, Multiplex, were offering the full course for free to sub-contractors on our Broadway site. Despite the course delving deeply into some hard hitting, emotionally challenging topics, I came away from both days overwhelmed with positivity & a new desire to help those around me. The course consists of a variety of learning styles which keeps the days interesting & interactive, but also encouraged me to form friendships with everyone in the room through our hours of sharing personal experiences. I can’t recommend the course highly enough.

How has this training given you inspiration to make a positive change, not only within your work but outside of that too?

For me, it was really surprising to learn the many different signs & symptoms of someone suffering with mental illness & also learning that it isn’t automatically ‘depression’ when someone is mentally unwell. Two key things I took away from the training was how to be a better listener, which is so vital when helping someone who may be struggling & also the vocabulary used when talking about/to someone with poor mental health, simply avoiding words such as ‘crazy’. Outside the workplace I’m now a lot more open minded to what strangers may be going through, in particular homeless people, who I previously would have made negative assumptions about. My training taught me to consider that they may be suffering with undiagnosed bi-polar for example, making them unable to maintain a stable income & too paranoid to accept charity help.

How do you think COVID has had an impact on the wellbeing of people in the industry? Do you think this has sparked a change in the approach companies now take?

It’s clear that Covid has had a devastating impact on people’s mental health. One example is the general on-site culture of the construction industry, which is often young males, working away from home, visiting the pub most days & grabbing an unhealthy takeaway. When lockdown began, this instantly halted the social element of these men’s lives, leaving them with nothing but a 9 hour shift, an unhealthy body from the lifestyle & lonely, rented digs. It’s easy to see how suicide rates soared & this is because it’s a topic we still seem to avoid talking about & properly addressing. It’s positive to see that this is a more recognised issue but it certainly can’t be dealt with overnight & requires long term commitment, investment & genuine understanding of what people need to recover from this challenging time.

Working in the construction sector, do you think there’s a stigma around mental health?

There definitely was, as recently as 3 years ago, but the evidence is so clear when it comes to mental illness within construction that we’ve simply had to face the facts & address this growing problem. There’s no doubt that a significant number of individuals & companies still pin a stigma to mental health, but I’m confident in blaming this on their lack of education about the topic. In my optimistic opinion, this closed minded approach of telling people to ‘man up’ will continually fade over the next decade, but sadly like any controversial topic, there is usually a minority that stall its social progression.

What steps has EE Smith Contracts taken to address Mental wellbeing?

We’ve been working extensively over the last couple of years to improve mental wellbeing at EE Smith & this starts with our ever growing team of qualified MHFA’s, who meet regularly to plan team building events & discus any concerns we may have, big or small. We run our ‘Kindness is contagious initiative’ which gives employees the opportunity to show appreciation to their peers, we set up a cycling scheme to encourage a healthier physical & mental lifestyle & have a jam packed internal social events calendar. This was inspired by this year’s Mental Health Foundation’s theme of ‘Loneliness’. We are tackling loneliness head on by organising 24 varied, out of work events for employees to get together & feel like they truly belong to a team, instead of alone like they may have previously felt.

What do you think the future is for wellbeing in the contract interiors sector?

I think times are definitely changing, the younger generations are much more aware of their mental wellbeing as they have been taught about the importance of it, unlike industry predecessors. This is/will slowly create a safer, less judgemental space for those struggling to simply talk openly & seek help. Additionally, the shift in ‘employee power’ during the pandemic doesn’t only relate to pay rates but also the extra benefits & working environment, as more & more people re-evaluate their work/life balance. As a bare minimum, I hope the future of mental wellbeing sees more people willing to learn the about mental health as we cannot expect to work in safe, positive mental environments if those around us and managing us do not understand what it means themselves.

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