Today is World Suicide Prevention Day. The construction industry has a higher suicide rate than the national average, and studies have shown that this is, in part, due to employees feeling that there is a stigma around talking about mental health. At Kier, we take the mental and physical health of our employees seriously, and we are making support available to those who need it, in a way that works best for them.

One way we’re doing this is by training Mental Health First Aiders (MHFAs) across our business. We currently have more than 500 people who are trained to recognise the symptoms of mental health ill health, listen to those who need help, and point people in the direction of further resources if they need them. We spoke to Natalie Geraghty, head of customer and communications, Kier Highways, and Lea Perrozzi, SHEA administrator and PA, Kier Housing Maintenance, about their experiences as MHFAs.

“Our role is to be aware of any changes in the people we work with, and provide support and encouragement to anyone who might need it,” states Natalie. “Being an MHFA means I’m much more aware of my own behaviour in certain situations.”

Lea adds: “I am always ready to listen if someone needs me; it’s about making sure people know they are never alone, and there’s always someone there if they need them.”

Lea recently ran an open drop-in day, where people could come in for a cup of tea and chat about their day or play one of the games she had set up: “It was a really good session. It was very relaxed, so people didn’t feel intimidated talking to me about their day, and now they know who to come to if they want to talk.”

“It’s like being a really good friend,” agrees Natalie. “It’s not always about having set conversations with people at specific times; it’s about making time for them throughout the day.”

We ask if it’s challenging to juggle an MHFA role alongside an already busy day job.

“Being a MHFA can be tough,” says Natalie. “But it’s not about the time element. If you can see someone needs support but they’re not open to it, it’s hard. But you can’t force someone to accept your help.”

Lea agrees: “That is hard. I’ve also found it difficult when someone has come to me with a problem that’s too big to fix by us talking it through. I help them by suggesting where they can get further help and support, but their story stays with me.”

We ask how they think if the industry is doing enough to tackle employees’ mental health.

“I think we’re getting better at being open about mental health. Training our people as MHFAs is a great way to support our employees; sometimes talking to someone you know, even if it’s just someone you’ve seen around the office, is easier than talking to a stranger,” says Lea.

Natalie added: “And it’s about time too. Like anything, it’s a journey to changing people’s mindset, and there will always be those who don’t think mental health is a big deal. But we’re in the industry with the highest rate of suicide, and that’s something we can’t ignore. There’s still a way to go, but at least we’re having the conversation.

“Mental health isn’t just about long-term issues. Mental ill health can affect any of us, at any time, from the person who’s just retired and is feeling useless, to the overwhelmed parents, those with money troubles or work stress, and anything in between.

“It’s important to be kind, always. When I’ve had a conversation with someone who’s finding life a bit difficult, and I see them come out the other side, it’s incredibly rewarding. I know what it’s like living with depression and anxiety; your head can be a scary place. The more people I can help by lending an ear, the better.”

Lea concludes: “It’s good to know that, just by listening, you can help people in so many ways. Mental health is just as important as physical health, and I’m proud that my work as an MHFA is helping people feel more comfortable talking about their mental health in the workplace.”

You can read more about the importance of mental health first aid training in the construction industry here. Kier SHEA manager, Mark Starling, has worked in the construction industry for 25 years and talks how mental health awareness has increased in that time.

Earlier this year, Kier Highways released a series of Safety in Mind films, which follow the journey of a fictional Kier Highways worker as he struggles to cope with the aftermath of an incident at work. You can view them here.

Don’t suffer in silence. If you, or someone you know, is struggling, The Samaritans offers a safe space to talk, 24/7, to those who are struggling or suicidal. You can call them on 116 123.

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