“Hinkley Point nuclear power station, Britain’s biggest construction project since the second world war, is grappling with a mental illness crisis, with several attempted suicides since work began in 2016, a Guardian investigation can reveal.
More than 4,000 workers are on site delivering the vast decade-long building project, a central plank in Britain’s future energy strategy.
But according to union officials, there has been a surge in suicide attempts this year, a rise in the number of people off sick with stress, anxiety and depression, and an increase in workers suffering from mental distress.
Officials from the Unite union say they have been told of 10 suicide attempts in the first four months of 2019. The Guardian understands at least two workers connected to the project have taken their lives since construction started in earnest in 2016. …
… The main causes of the distress appear to be loneliness, relationship breakdown and the struggle of being sometimes hundreds of miles away from family.
Électricité de France (EDF), which is in charge of building Britain’s first new nuclear power plant for more than 20 years, disputes the figures, acknowledging two suicides – one of those a former worker who had left the project.
Executives say that a number of workers have said they are suicidal, but point to a wide range of measures to address the problem, including 200 mental health “buddies”, “time to talk” rooms, an on-site GP, and plans to recruit a chaplain.
“I’m aware of people who have said they have felt like committing suicide,” said Angie Young, the site health and wellbeing manager. She said the figure of 10 was a “total exaggeration”. “We do have people say life is not worth living but we’re getting in there and helping.”…
… At Hinkley, workers live on special campuses in nearby Bridgwater, or else in converted digs in the town. They work a variety of shift patterns and are shuttled to and from the site on scores of buses. Some contractors work as much as 11 days on with three days off, including an extra weekend day for travelling home. …
… Socially there are reports of increases in drinking, gambling and prostitution in Bridgwater, which has been upended by the huge construction site on its doorstep. One source in a local betting shop told of some workers spending up to £3,000 a week and others “self-excluding” from the premises in an effort to arrest the development of a financially detrimental habit.
Such is the concern among EDF management that, together with Unite union, they have stepped up efforts to tackle the crisis, including bringing in the former boxer Frank Bruno to talk to contractors about his own mental health condition.
Bruno, who has spoken about being sectioned after a mental health crisis, hosted three sessions with more than 200 attending each.
“People were talking about it for a while after. It energised people because they thought if someone like Frank Bruno can have mental problems, anyone can,” said Jonathan Davies, another union official.
EDF is also implementing an impressive mental health programme on the site, with posters urging troubled contractors to open up and one in 20 workers now trained as a mental health first aider, or “buddy” as they are known.
“We are seeing 12 people a month, mostly about relationships, some of them about gambling and being unable to cope with being away from family for a long time,” said Malcolm Davies, who has led the talks to get mental health top of the agenda with management.
“Construction is a very macho industry. We have the highest amount of mental health issues of any sector. People can be very upset over something but they won’t tell you.”
“Men are doing very physical work, with manual handling of heavy objects every day and if you’re the big bloke and you say you can’t cope or you are seen crying you get ridiculed,” he added. …”