Empowering the Freelance Economy

time to talk: suicide is rife among self-employed construction workers says new data

Photo source: Cleyder Duque from Pexels
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Builders had the highest annual turnover among self-employed UK tradespeople in 2021, according to new research. However, not all is rosy for the sector.  

According to the ONS, self-employed men in construction are three times more likely to take their own life, which equates to two people committing suicide each day.

The Freelance Informer takes a closer look at the darker side of the construction sector, how tradespeople are preparing for one of their most challenging years yet and how a growing number of people are shaking things up for the better.

What this report covers:

  • Highest earning turnover by trade in the construction and building trades
  • The level of suicide in the construction sector and why it keeps happening
  • The emotional triggers causing increased stress and anxiety among construction workers
  • Charities that understand the strains of the sector offering a listening ear to those who need a talk
  • How bacon butties are at the heart of a mental health campaign
  • What to say to someone you think may be struggling or even suicidal

The good news first. On the surface, builders and tradespeople reported some impressive turnover figures in 2021, with an average turnover of £103,891, according to Simply Business data. But the amount builders can make very much depends on where they live and if they have staff to pay. Turnover may sound good, but it does not equate to profit.

“Tradespeople all over the country suffered supply chain problems throughout 2021, leading to rising costs and project delays,” said Simply Business. “Inevitably this eats into profit and cash flow, causing continued uncertainty.”

It looks like these challenges will continue in 2022, following the outbreak of the Omicron at the end of 2021 and delays at UK ports for supplies.

On average total coronavirus-related losses to a tradesperson was £18,039 on average in 2021

Self-employed tradespeople will like so many Freelance Informer readers struggle to make ends meet in the face of a national cost of living crisis in the coming months when energy bills are set to rise 50%.  But despite that, they are confident about recovery, with 80% of business owners expecting to continue or restart their existing business in 2022.

The top three trades in terms of turnover earned in 2021 were builders, dry liners and groundworkers.

Mental health stigma and ageism taints building trade

High levels of mental distress and a reluctance to seek professional help among UK construction workers is leading to increased alcohol consumption, non-prescription drug use and even self-harm according to a major study. Construction workers from a range of trades that are often too hard to reach, from bricklayers to groundworkers to plasterers, told researchers from charity Mates in Mind and the Institute for Employment Studies (IES) that the continuing stigma of mental illness prevents them from discussing it beyond close friends or family members. What do they do when close friends or family are in fact the contributing factor to their stress? Where do they turn to then?

This mainly male workforce has long been known to contain workers who are reluctant to talk about their mental health. Preliminary survey findings from over 300 respondents suggest that almost a third are now living with elevated levels of anxiety each day.

As reported by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), the suicide rate among self-employed construction workers is already three times the national average for men, equating to more than two construction workers taking their own life every day.

The study found the following factors are combining to significantly raise stress and anxiety levels:

  • intense workloads
  • financial problems
  • poor work-life balance
  • Covid-19 pressures on the supply of materials

“We have a real concern that the data shows that sole traders and those working in smaller firms with more severe anxiety were least likely to seek help from most sources,” said Sarah Casemore, Managing Director of Mates in Mind.

“This means that too many construction workers every day are going under the radar and are not seeking support from healthcare professionals or mental health charities. This represents a real hidden crisis which threatens the viability of a major sector of the UK economy and many of those who work in it,” said Casemore.

#ExcludedUK is a grassroots volunteer-run not-for-profit organisation, which was established in response to financial challenges faced by +3M individuals & businesses when the COVID pandemic struck the UK in 2020.

Next steps

The study, funded by a research grant from B&CE Charitable Trust, is investigating both the extent of mental health problems in this important workforce and the extent to which new, more accessible, forms of support and guidance on mental wellbeing can be offered to individuals experiencing distress, depression, or anxiety.

Head of HR Research Development at IES, Stephen Bevan, who has led the survey component of the research said:

We have been concerned to find that so many construction workers are finding it hard to disclose their mental health problems and that these are also causing them to lose sleep, develop severe joint pain and exhibit greater irritability with colleagues and even family members. We are hoping that our upcoming interviews with some of our participants will shed more light on the types of support which they feel comfortable and confident to use.

Mates in Mind will be using the insights from the research to shape a series of interventions to educate, inform and support workers whose mental health is causing problems with sickness absence, an increased risk of accidents at work and, ultimately, the risk of an exodus from the sector. 

Steve Hails, Director of Business Services & HSW at Tideway and Chair of the Board of Trustees of Mates in Mind said:

Those working for the smaller organisations, sole traders or self-employed – the vast majority of workers in our sector – do not have access to the necessary mental health support to allow them to thrive within our industry.  The next phase of the research is essential to help us understand what that support should look like and how Mates in Mind can assist with the required improvements.

🥓Saving lives one bacon buttie at a time

Mates in Mind and other support groups, such as Second Step, are reaching out in unique ways to get tradespeople to have a space to talk if they do not have a sound ear to listen to their personal concerns on the job. Second Step, for example, is a men’s mental health charity that is touring Somerset to reduce the number of suicides in the West Country by giving out free bacon butties to highlight the help on offer.

🥓The next stop for the ‘Bacon Buttie Team’ is:

Bradford’s Building Supplies in Taunton on Tuesday 15 February🥓

😱Ageism: it could come back to haunt you

None of us is getting younger, so to make tactless ageist jokes to a colleague or work partner could just come back to haunt you. Ageism in the construction sector still exists, even though years of experience should garner respect and higher rates. In some cases that is the case, but not in others as David Robson, a plumber and gas fitter can testify when he was sacked “without warning” at the age of 69.

According to a news account by GMB Union, Robson was dubbed “Half-Dead Dave” by his colleagues for years. The plumber and gas fitter worked for Clarke’s Mechanics Ltd on the Isle of Wight and was let go without consultation in 2020.

An employment tribunal found he felt “distressed and embarrassed” by the term which was used by colleagues and his manager since 2015.

Following a three-day hearing in Bristol, Mr Robson won his claims of age discrimination and unfair dismissal. The tribunal awarded Mr Robson just under £25,000 in compensation, which included £13,000 injury to feelings.

“I was obviously very disappointed to have been dismissed after working at Clarkes for years,” said Robson.  “I’m delighted to have received this compensation and am very grateful to GMB and their team of solicitors.  It was wrong of the company to get rid of me because of my age and I’m glad I was able to seek justice,” said Robson.

Emily Bradshaw, Solicitor and Partner at Pattinson & Brewer Solicitors, said the judgment is important as it highlights the need for a fair and transparent process in redundancy situations.

“This is a clear example of a discriminatory employer who thought they could hide behind a sham process. This is a great result for the GMB member who showed great resilience and determination throughout a very difficult time in his life,” said Bradshaw.

How to help someone you suspect is struggling

Mates in Mind offers some simple tips to get that sometimes awkward or dismissed conversation started:

Ask Twice

‘How are you?’ can often lead to a standard response of “I’m fine” or “I’m okay”. The simple act of asking again, with interest, shows a genuine willingness to talk and listen to the person. If you’re worried about someone, the next time they say they’re fine, try asking ‘How are you really?’ or ‘Are you sure you’re ok?’

Keep it informal

You don’t have to set aside hours to have a talk with someone, 10 minutes may be enough, but just make sure there are no distractions. Perhaps turning off your phone and minimising other distractions will help you focus on the person and what they might need. Talking when doing something else such as cooking or walking can also take some of the initial pressure off – it doesn’t need to be a formal sit-down conversation.

Be Supportive 

Make it clear that you’re there to listen and support them, without judgement. Talk about mental health in the same way you would physical health. This normalises mental and emotional difficulties, making it easier for people to talk about them.

Use Open Questions

The best types of questions are open-ended because the person can answer however they feel most comfortable. What kind of thoughts are you having?” or “How can I help?”


Take time to listen to what they have to say – let them do most of the talking. If they don’t want to talk, don’t push them. Respect their boundaries and try again another time.

You don’t need to have the solution

After they finish talking, don’t jump to conclusions or tell them what they should do. Resist the urge to offer quick fixes which can often lead to people to feeling dismissed. Sometimes people aren’t seeking advice, but instead, just want someone to listen to their concerns.

Follow Up

Show that you care by following up later on, even if they don’t want to continue the conversation at that exact moment.

Look after yourself too

Choosing to talk can make a positive difference to someone’s life but it can also be very difficult. Make sure you look after your own personal wellbeing and mental health or seek support if you need it.

Connect them to information and support

Encourage them to seek professional help if they feel like they can’t cope or if the problem is impacting their daily life. Suggest Mates in Mind or another charity if their GP cannot manage to secure them an appointment with a practitioner in the short-term.

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