Building better mental health with Unite

Unite's mental health awareness training empower reps in the workplace

Reading time: 6 min

This week is Mental Health Awareness Week. It is a chance to recognise the impact work can have on people’s mental health, but also look at the way Unite is supporting members through training.

It’s a sobering fact – but construction workers are four times more likely to take their own life than workers in other sectors, and despite many projects and initiatives aimed at supporting mental health at work these figures have been rising over recent years.

Large scale construction projects, like Hinkley Point C in Somerset, can take a heavy toll on workers’ mental health – but Unite is helping members recognise the signs and offer support through training for reps across the sector.

Long hours in difficult working conditions, often away from home and family for extended periods of time all contribute to these concerning statistics.

Unite recognises issues as stress and mental health should not be ignored and aims to support reps by providing them tools that will help them reduce and prevent stress and promote good mental health in colleagues at work, as well as educating and increasing awareness about mental health issues.

As part of this support, Unite Education runs extremely popular “Mental Health Awareness” courses for workplace reps and shop stewards across the country. It has also produced a practical resource “Mental Health Guide for reps and negotiators” which highlights how trade union negotiation can help reduce stress.

Unite’s Mental Health Awareness (MHA) training has recently been held for reps in the South West – the region covering the Hinkley Point C (HPC) site. Courses have been both online, and in the classroom, at Tony Benn House in Bristol.

Many workplace and health & safety reps from HPC grabbed the opportunity to take part, including Luke Panesar – a senior Unite shop steward and safety rep working for TG Tunnelling.

Luke explained why he signed up to the training.

“I attended the Unite MHA courses to learn more about mental health, to help reduce stigma, and meet workplace requirements.

“In construction, stress and mental health, challenges arise due to demanding work, job insecurity, safety concerns, stigma, isolation, and substance abuse. Addressing these challenges involves raising awareness, fostering a supportive culture, and providing mental health support. The Unite MHA courses help with this.”

Luke and his fellow reps have been using the information and resources from the course to develop ways to support members at the construction site and help them maintain good mental health.

Just some of the ideas they have been developing include running campaigns to raise awareness about mental health to reduce stigma. They also aim to signpost members to mental health support services and offer programs to teach stress management and coping skills.

Luke said they have also been using their negotiation skills as reps to push for flexible work options to balance work and personal life and offer support for members facing financial stress.

Luke said, “These ideas would make members feel supported, knowing that the union cares about their mental health and overall well-being.”

Suz Muna is one of the team of Unite Education tutors who have been delivering the MHA training to reps, and is a Lecturer at City of Bristol College mainly teaching on the Unite programme. Suz is an elected rep at the College and one of the South West representatives on the Unite Executive Council.

Suz says that the course recruits a lot of reps from the building industry.

“There are always reps from the construction sector on the MHA courses we run and they face a combination of challenges. Many work away from home and are away from their support networks of family and friends, and from the comforts of home.”

As construction workers all know, the work is physical and often outdoors in extreme weather with long hours, but long term projects such as HPC have additional stresses, as Suz explained.

“Reps tell us that loneliness and isolation can be a big factor in declining mental health. Some seek solace in addictive behaviours such as gambling, drinking or drugs, which in turn has a negative impact on their self-esteem, physical, and mental health.”

“The consequences can be extreme, for example there have been suicides on construction sites.”

Working with the Unite reps on courses is a good way to share good practice and ideas – and not just from the construction sector. Reps in the sessions have talked of a big focus on mental wellbeing.

Suz highlights some of the workplaces initiatives that have been discussed, such as reps: “…getting their companies to train up and publicise Mental Health First Aiders, creating gardens and quiet spaces to de-pressure, negotiating with management to support those who are being treated for mental health conditions rather than penalise them, training union mental health buddies, and helping members speak openly and without shame about mental health problems.”

The Unite MHA course helps reps develop skills to support colleagues by sharing ideas and understanding the symptoms of mental ill health. The course also highlights practical tools like mental health audits, mental health risk assessment, negotiating and campaigning skills.

Suz added, “The mental health awareness courses are good add-ons for workplace, health and safety, and equalities reps as they overlap with all three roles and I’d strongly recommend coming along to the training.”

Luke agrees, noting, “The mental health awareness course was enjoyable as it helps people learn and connect with colleagues. The skills learnt help create a more supportive and caring workplace.”

He added, “A big thank you to the lecturers for their hard work in teaching us how to support each other in mental health matters. Your efforts make our workplaces better.”

Unite runs Mental Health Awareness training in all its regions and to find out more go to the Unite Education website.

This story first appeared in the Building Worker. You can download the latest edition here.

By Keith Hatch