Mental health: The conversation you can no longer avoid

MIPIM UK: At the panel discussion on mental health, the turnout was revealing: this is an issue that is not yet considered a priority in the industry and one that is little understood owing to lack of available data

Usually, when you attend an industry event, the first thing you’ll do is clock who’s there. Scan the room. Catch that client you’ve wanted to talk to during the coffee break.

But at MIPIM UK’s panel discussion on mental health, organised by EG, the focus wasn’t on who was in the room. It was about who wasn’t.

“I think it’s quite fascinating, the turnout in the room today,” says Henrietta Frater, HSE and wellbeing manager at the Crown Estate. Frater is of the opinion that everyone at the conference should have been in the room to find out about the state of mental health in real estate, and how we can create places to live, work and play that boost wellbeing. Why? Because “every single person at this conference and every single person in this room has mental health”, she says. But still the stigma prevails.

Poor mental health in real estate could be even more prevalent than we think. Men make up 86% of the industry’s workforce, according to RICS, and it is this demographic that is most at risk of experiencing suicidal thoughts.

According to mental health charity Samaritans, men are three times more likely to take their life than women in the UK, and middle-aged men hold the highest suicide rate across the country. A huge scope of people working in real estate fall under this demographic most at risk. But currently, there is little data available to understand the state of mental health in the industry’s workforce.

No data

Between 2011-2015, 48 quantity surveyors took their life, according to the Office for National Statistics, and in construction more than one worker is lost every day to suicide. But how property sits in relation to these statistics is hard to tell, says Davina Goodchild, chief executive of LionHeart, the charity for RICS professionals.

Of the calls that are made to LionHeart’s hotline, 15-20% are made in relation to mental health conditions and stress. But beyond that, Goodchild says that it is difficult to find more data.

Laura Drury, a consultant at happiness training and consultancy firm Laughology, suggested the reason there is a lack of research could be because the subject of mental health is still considered a taboo. Add into the mix that men aren’t generally open to discussing the way they are feeling, and the industry could have a knowledge gap about mental health that it might find difficult to address.

“I think that the reason men have difficulty being open about these things is because they don’t want to be perceived as being weak,” says Drury. “I think it’s a much harder conversation for a man to have.”

How businesses can help

It is clear that more research is needed, but Frater says we all have a role to play in raising awareness of mental health – especially those in senior leadership positions.

“If we start the conversation and make it top of the agenda, it absolutely has a huge impact,” she says. “It’s actually really heart-warming when you have senior people in the organisation prioritising mental health and talking about it. The impact it can have is absolutely significant.”

Frater gave one example of just how instrumental the Crown’s open approach to talking about mental health has been. One employee said that the conversations around the subject in the organisation have helped save his life.

Despite the lack of industry-wide data, the Crown has started collecting its own. Internal surveys have been conducted into the different personality types of employees, and from this data the business has been able to see how it can create a workplace which caters for all its staff.

“Some people are introverts and desperately crave to have some quiet space,” says Frater, explaining the survey results. “Having lots of open-plan offices is great for some people. But understanding that different people have different needs is really critical.”

One initiative the Crown has taken is to introduce a contemplation room, which Frater says is “heavily used”, in order to provide a quiet space for employees to retreat to if needed.

Creating healthy spaces

As well as creating the right workspaces to promote the mental health of those working in property, it is equally important to understand the effect that the built environment can have on society at large.

But, according to Josh Artus, co-founder of Centric Lab, society currently has a “very unhealthy” relationship with our towns and cities in the UK.

Centric Lab pulls together science and data to understand the impact that urban environments can have on mental wellbeing and workforce productivity, and Artus outlined some of the research that the company is doing on the issue.

One line of investigation that Centric Lab has pursued is how pollution can affect neurological development in unborn foetuses.

“We’re starting to see a really horrible, insidious nature behind how a high toxicity of air pollution can lead to neurodevelopmental disorders in people,” he says.

Real estate, says Artus, has a significant role to play in understanding how the design of the built environment can contribute towards mitigating the impact of air pollution on health.

More talk needed

Although more forward-thinking businesses such as the Crown demonstrate the good progress that property has made in addressing poor mental health, grasping the extent of the situation across the wider industry without any property-specific data will be more challenging.

But before this can happen, panellists urged the industry to start holding conversations about mental health. Perhaps next year we will then notice the people who are in the room, talking about mental health, rather than those who aren’t.

For more on real estate’s role in optimising mental health, visit EG’s Mental Health Hub

The panel

  • Josh Artus, co-founder, Centric Lab
  • Laura Drury, consultant, Laughology
  • Henrietta Frater, HSE and wellbeing manager, the Crown Estate
  • Davina Goodchild, chief executive, LionHeart
  • Chair: Tim Burke, deputy editor, EG

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