SWAG – A focus on mental health in the construction industry

Ella Brocklebank of Jenner discusses construction charity ‘SWAG’ and why tackling mental health is necessary for individuals to thrive.

As part of Payapps’ ‘From Surviving to Thriving’ initiative, Anthony Puma spoke to Ella Brocklebank about the mental health crisis in the sector and how she helped bring the construction-focused initiative Southern Wellness Action Group (SWAG) to Kent in order to save lives.

Within the video we explore:

  • What the Southern Wellness Action Group (SWAG) is
  • The reason for joining this group
  • Mental health in construction industry and the importance of an increased focus
  • Why the group has expanded and the area it now covers
  • The uptake and engagement with the SWAG services
  • What the future holds for SWAG
  • The impact technology can have to alleviate industry stresses within the industry

Surviving to Thriving: SWAG Transcript

When it comes to the construction sector, the revelation that workers are three times more likely to commit suicide than the UK average has led to the industry to apply a fresh approach and give renewed importance to mental health.

There is no better indicator of this approach than the launch of award-winning organisations such as the Southern Wellness Action Group (SWAG). Founded in 2020 to get people talking about mental health and to remove the stigma around it in the industry, the organisation has grown to over 40 affiliated members.

Ella Brocklebank, Head of Communications & Business Development at Jenner, explains why the importance of joining the scheme cannot be overstated.

Anthony Puma: Why do you feel it's important for Jenner to join SWAG?

Ella Brocklebank: Mental health in construction is a huge issue for us. As a building contractor, we have to take it very seriously as it's to do with the wellbeing of our people. I first heard about what was initially Sussex Wellness Action Group online during lockdown through a Constructing Excellence talk, and I just thought, 'Wow, this is an amazing initiative!'.

They'd actually just won an award, and even though it was very focused on Sussex, I knew we needed to pick this up and roll it out across Kent. It's a huge issue, and it's something I'm very passionate about. I just felt there was a need to explore the initiative further and see how we could adopt it.

Anthony Puma: Mental health is taking on a bigger and bigger focus within the industry. With the group forming during the lockdown, it's seen contractors working alongside each other to bring this message to the forefront. Why do you feel it was important?

Ella Brocklebank: The stats speak for themselves - there are two suicides every day in construction, which is awful - you can't ignore that suicide accounts for more deaths in construction than physical falls. We've rightly focused on physical safety recently, so it's only right we focus on mental health and wellbeing in the same manner.

In terms of working with other contractors, you have to put that competitive advantage to one side and think, "This isn't about the bottom line - this is about people" and if we can work together and save lives, then that's exactly what we need to do.

Anthony Puma: So, what do you think the impact of having contractors working alongside each other, supporting this message, has been?

Ella Brocklebank: Collaboration in this form is unbelievably powerful. Nobody can change things on their own, so we have to keep working together to bring about that change that needs to happen - it's essential.

Anthony Puma: Absolutely, and the company has developed from the Sussex Wellness Action Group to now cover the south. Why was it decided to expand the group, and could there be more growth in the future?

Ella Brocklebank: Absolutely - this could be huge, and I'm very excited about that. When formed, it was predominantly for Sussex but we were exploring how we could pick it up and roll it out across Kent.

We looked at new names, and as Jenner was working closely with several parties, ultimately, we decided the name didn't need to change too much. The ‘Wellness Action’ part of it has a lovely ring, and we kept the strapline of 'Don't lose your swagger' in our mind. It's a strong initiative and brand, so it was a case of tweaking it so it could roll out across the south.

Ultimately, we want it to be a national initiative that the industry signs up to. It's not just contractors either; we want consultants, subcontractors, clients - anyone across the supply chain can get involved. The whole idea of the initiative is access to the first line of support for somebody in a time of need. Because of that stigma associated with mental health, people wouldn't necessarily talk to someone in their business, which is why at Jenner, we have eleven mental health first aiders - something that's crucial to us and above-average numbers for the size of our workforce.

That same stigma may stop someone from approaching somebody, as they may wrongly assume that if their colleagues know they're anxious or depressed, they may not be able to have career progression or confidentiality. The idea of the initiative is to speak to anyone in the industry - it could be from a nearby competitor, someone in London or Brighton. There's a freedom to pick up the phone and talk to somebody who will listen without fears or worries of it going any further.

Anthony Puma: Can you tell us more about the uptake - and engagement - with SWAG's services?

Ella Brocklebank: In Sussex, it's gaining strength - the services are being utilised and are already saving lives, which is amazing. It's in its infancy now in Kent, and we're rolling it out across the south as part of the rebrand to the Southern Wellness Action Group.

Additionally, we're working with a business to help market and push the initiative out to the industry. All we need is some impetus and momentum to gain traction. People volunteer a considerable amount of time and effort for the scheme as they see the importance, and as nobody knows when they may need that support, that first line of support is crucial. The more people we get involved and on board, the better.

We're trying to get more businesses on board to push it on from there - I'm beyond hopeful for the future and what we can achieve.

Anthony Puma: Access and awareness of the group is increasing, and with this in mind, what do you think the future holds for the SWAG?

Ella Brocklebank: Ultimately, a greater awareness of what's available. It's a charitable organisation, so we're looking to raise money to keep functioning and increase our offerings through mediums like counselling, as the wait times on the NHS are too long for those who need it. We're looking to improve and save people's lives throughout Sussex, Kent and beyond so that anyone who needs help has access to it.

Anthony Puma: One of the late causes of stress in the industry is late payment. With software such as Payapps minimising the time it takes for specialist subcontractors to be paid. Do you feel there's potential for digital offerings to help reduce stress?

Ella Brocklebank: Let's hope so! We have to do all we can, and late payments can be a huge worry for businesses.

However, construction can be a lonely environment with tough conditions. Arguably, this is most prevalent during the winter months, so communication is vital. It's a male-dominated industry, so there's still a macho culture, and the pressure of needing to ‘man-up’ continues to exist.

We're trying to break down the stigma of talking about feelings, being more inclusive and working to the mantra of 'a problem shared is a problem halved'.