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Sharing Experiences on Mental Health-‘All you see is gloom and negativity’

Nick Sterling is  the Managing Director of Osborne Communities and this week shared his experiences with Construction News.

“Back in the early 90s, I had my own business. We were carrying out a programme of hotel refurbishments across Europe.
There was one particular job I was on in Paris: we were one of the subcontractors.
The main contractor got into a disagreement with the hotel owners, which meant the client didn’t pay the main contractor, so the main contractor didn’t pay the subcontractors.

Overnight, I got a hit for £300k, which back in those days was an awful lot of money. Not only was the business itself in big trouble, but the livelihoods of 40 people were at stake too.
When you get into situations like that, you can’t see a way out. All you see is gloom and negativity. You can’t see the next contract and all you think about is how you’re going to pay your guys and where you’re going to get your money from.
We had three young children at that point and we were a month away from losing the house and being out on the streets. It’s not a good place to be.
It absolutely consumes all your thinking and you can’t sleep well. I had alopecia and a lot of my hair fell out. All your routines go out the window. You go insular, you go quiet and your behaviour becomes erratic.
“To start talking about how stressed and anxious you were was definitely seen as a weakness”
I was fortunate in that I had people to talk to. My wife, Helen, was a rock, while one friend paid our mortgage for 12 months. We lost the business but we managed to keep the house, regroup, dust ourselves off and move on.
I didn’t have any professional support, none was offered. Now I would take up professional support. Back in those days you weren’t offered support and you didn’t know where to go for it. It was seen as a weakness.

There’s no doubt that the stigma made me unwilling to go for help. The construction industry is macho. To start talking about how stressed and anxious you were was definitely seen as a weakness – and nobody wants to be seen as weak. You put on a facade but inside, it’s eating you.
There’s an awareness of mental health now in the industry, but it’s still stigmatised.
Within the company in recent years, we have had the tragedies of not one but two suicides. They had deep personal issues, unrelated to work, with which they just couldn’t cope, and tragically they took the last resort as they saw it.

Those were bad days.

We gave the family financial support, guidance, mentoring and counselling and we still keep in touch with them as much as we can.
“Look at your colleagues: why have they gone quiet? Why do they keep disappearing? Why are they coming in late?”
We asked ourselves whether we could have prevented it. In terms of what was happening in their mind, we probably couldn’t. But you can see the signs, so we set about trying to be more aware of people.

Look at your colleagues: why have they gone quiet? Why do they keep disappearing? Why are they coming in late? Why are they taking days off randomly? This tells you that something is wrong.
One of our managers noticed a change in the behaviour of one of our team. One time, the person in question left the building in a hurry and the manager followed. He found him in a car park, sat there, with a Stanley knife in his hand.

Senior leaders in the industry should be more vocal about mental health. When you get to senior levels, stress is probably greater and there’s still a macho image around boardrooms as well – that you need to be tough, whether you’re male or female.
Show people they’re not alone, show people they can be hit at any time with mental health issues, and show them it is nothing to be ashamed of.”

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