As many as two construction workers are lost to suicide in the UK each day, research suggests. LBB’s Zoe Antonov spoke to Howard Kee, communications and events manager at Ford UK, and Matthew Lee and Brian Riley, creative leads at VMLY&R, to find out how they plan to drastically reduce these numbers
VMLY&R and Ford have partnered with The Lighthouse Construction Industry Charity and Balfour Beatty, to tackle the growing and underrepresented issue of construction worker suicide. This campaign comes after a surge of long-awaited education and awareness around men’s mental health, especially in creative media, to drive change. With this increase of education, we have all come to realise that a lot of male-dominated workplaces suffer from lack of mental health support and employees in these occupations are at higher risks of loneliness and suicide - Ford wanted to change that.
According to research, as many as two construction workers are lost to suicide every day in the UK, as they are unaware of how and where to seek help. These kinds of issues span over a number of sectors, and Ford, with the ambition to expand this beyond construction work, brought mental health first aiders directly to places of work - construction sites. The branded Ford vans were made highly visible as per the common high vis vest in a bid to make sure that construction workers on site know exactly where to seek help.
Coming after Ford’s ‘Elephant in the Transit’ campaign a few years ago, aiming to raise awareness on the issue of the high suicide rate amongst their core audience, transit drivers, this year’s ‘Make It Visible’ campaign aimed at construction workers was supported by The Lighthouse Construction Industry Charity. This time, they were certain that only raising awareness wasn’t enough, so they aimed to make a real tangible difference at the workplace.
LBB’s Zoe Antonov spoke to Howard Kee, manager communications and events at Ford UK, and Mathew Lee and Brian Riley, creative leads from VMLY&R about why just “being in plain sight” is what was most crucial for this campaign to work and where else it could be carried out to continue supporting workers’ mental health and wellbeing.
LBB> How did this initiative come to fruition and what were the initial conversations surrounding it?
Howard> Back in 2018, we at Ford discovered some statistics regarding the high suicide rate amongst our core audience of transit drivers. So, we made the decision to put our weight behind raising awareness of mental ill-health and trying to break the stigma around talking about it.
We wanted to make sure we did as much to look after their mental safety as their physical safety, so we launched our first ‘Elephant in the Transit’ campaign to drive awareness.
Following this launch, we were looking for the next iteration of this activity. We were keen to not do another piece focused solely on awareness, but work with a partner where we could help make a real difference. And when we saw the recent statistic that two workers take their own lives each day in construction in the UK and Ireland, this felt like something we could help with.
Construction is one of the most important sectors for Ford Commercial Vehicles so it felt that an area to focus on where we could help raise the importance of mental health and safety to the same levels as physical health and safety.
Matthew> Ford briefed us to follow on their mental health campaign which began back in 2018 with ‘Elephant in the Transit’. Our task was to develop an idea that went beyond just awareness.
During the creative development we came across a scary statistic; everyday two construction workers take their own life. It was crazy to think that construction is one of the most dangerous jobs in the world, that every physical safety precaution is taken to protect them, yet every day two workers commit suicide due to stress and anxiety. How do you protect them from something you can’t see?
That was the eureka moment, what if we took the high vis vest, an iconic symbol for physical safety and made it even higher vis to raise awareness for mental health safety.
But this couldn’t just be a PR stunt, we wanted to make a real difference. So, we teamed up with The Lighthouse Construction Industry Charity who provide emotional, physical and financial wellbeing support for workers and their families, and we spotlighted their helpline number on the back of the vest. Putting their very real help in sight, on site. The initiative became #MakeItVisible.
LBB> Tell us more about the collaboration between Ford, The Lighthouse Construction Industry Charity and VMLY&R!
Howard> VMLY&R developed the strategic approach and the ‘Make It Visible’ idea and connected Ford with the Lighthouse Construction Industry Charity. The Lighthouse Club was already doing amazing work supporting construction workers and their families, however, they needed help to reach the workers on the ground and make them aware of the help that was available.
This is where the idea of a tour was developed and brought to life; Ford could help get the Lighthouse Club’s Ambassadors and Mental Health First Aiders to the construction sites.
LBB> What was the research that went into the campaign and what were the main findings from it?
Brian> The main research centred around the challenges that construction workers, primarily men, face with their mental health. Working with the Lighthouse Club and analysing their ONS studies, it was clear that while there has been a lot of work over the past few years in the construction industry, this had primarily been focused on the head office and company staff, and a significant challenge still remained. Help was missing the sub-contractors on site who are not covered by large corporate schemes.
So, while suicide rates have been falling in more ‘white-collar’ roles, it has been increasing in the workers on the ground. Their research also highlighted that being too overt around mental health would in turn create a stigma amongst these workers as they wouldn’t want to stand up and be identified as suffering from any form of mental ill-health.
We needed to create awareness of intrigue without building any barriers for our key target group. By promoting the help available and focusing this around well-being and wellness helped us to avoid these on site barriers, while still creating standout so that those who needed the help would still notice us.
LBB> How does the initiative resonate with Ford as a brand?
Howard> This activity really connects with the Ford+ plan. Within this, it especially resonates with two of our eight key pillars: ‘Care for Each Other’ and ‘Treat Customers Like Family’.
What you do as a family is look after each other, so if we can elevate mental health and safety to the same level as physical health and safety on construction sites hopefully we can help save some lives.
LBB> Can we expect to see it in other countries as well?
Howard> At the moment this is focused on the UK & Ireland.
LBB> What do you believe is the role of creative media in opening up conversations on topics such as this one?
Matthew> Our approach is simple, just be there, in plain sight. With the help our audience needs.
LBB> How have audiences perceived the project? What about workers on construction sites?
Brian> They have really noticed and engaged with the campaign. The bright colours act as a signpost that stands out, even amongst the usual high viz vests that are seen all over construction sites! We have gone further than many mental health awareness messages, which focus on breaking down the stigma, by putting a huge focus on how and where to access the help available.
This focus has made it more approachable for our target audience. By not highlighting the stigma itself we’ve found many feel more comfortable talking about their mental health as more of a general wellness and wellbeing topic.
While this has only been from the first few interactions with the campaign, we are hoping to really connect with our audience and save lives by getting the help out to the workers on the ground in the long-term.
LBB> In practice, can you explain how the initiative will take action?
Howard> The initiative will have several levels. Ford will supply the vehicles to the Lighthouse Club so that their ambassadors and mental health first aiders can visit the construction site to raise awareness of the support available.
As we can’t reach every site all of the time this work will also be supported with paid media partnerships and social activations at key moments across the year to raise awareness of the initiative and support.
The hope is that we can get these important jackets (and First Aiders wearing them) on more sites around the country so that we can improve the visibility of mental health and safety.
LBB> What do you expect the outcome of this to be?
Howard> In the first week of pilots we ran with the Lighthouse Club, we managed to reach 700 construction workers, 90% of whom had never heard of the Lighthouse Club or the support they provide. They also managed to reach three people in serious situations to get them the help and support they needed. Going forward, if this initiative means we can save one life then it would have been worth it.
LBB> Any final thoughts?
Howard> Obviously, construction is not the only industry where workers are both struggling and unaware of support that may be available to them. So, in the longer term, we may look to expand to other key sectors.
The more that we can make support and help visible, the more people we can hopefully help.
Matthew> We want to create a legacy by putting mental safety on an equal footing with physical safety in construction. The aim is to make the higher vis vest a permanent fixture on site, something that site safety officers can wear as a permanent reminder to workers that there is always help available.