Aug 23, 2021

More than half of bricklayers receive customer abuse

construction
mentalhealth
Wellbeing
UK
Dominic Ellis
6 min
A shocking 86% of tradespeople have been abused at work by customers and bricklayers top the abused list, according to IronMongeryDirect

Almost nine in ten UK tradespeople (86%) have been abused at work by customers with a fifth experiencing abuse every day and 10% suffering physical attacks.

The shocking findings were contained in a study by IronmongeryDirect, after its Mental Health in the Trades report found customer tensions and abuse are among the leading causes of stress. The survey also found female tradespeople receive more regular abuse, but men are sexually harassed more often.

Swearing and insults (34%) are the most common form of abuse, but one in ten (10%) tradespeople have been physically attacked by a client, and one in 14 (7%) sexually harassed.  

The intimidation continues even after workers have left a job, with one in seven (14%) receiving aggressive text messages or calls. 

Such behaviour means many tradespeople have felt unsafe (16%) or threatened (13%) at work, and one in eight (12%) have felt stressed, depressed or anxious because of heated exchanges. Sadly, incidents like these are happening on a regular basis, with more than a third (34%) berated every week. 

While both male and female tradespeople are victimised, the type of abuse they receive varies. Women are more likely to be sworn at or insulted (37%) and receive threatening messages (18%), but men are more commonly on the end of physical attacks (10%) and sexual harassment (8%). 

Overall, tradeswomen are abused by customers more regularly, with almost a quarter (23%) being mistreated every day, compared to 19% of men. 

Age is also a factor, with younger workers generally most likely to be targeted. Gen Z (18-24 year olds) and millennial (25-34s) tradespeople receive the most insults, threats and sexual remarks. However, customers are most likely to threaten to withhold payment when it is an older tradesperson (over 65) in their home (16%). 

Furthermore, some trades receive more abuse than others. While bricklayers experience incidents most frequently, with over half (56%) abused daily, carpenters are the most likely to be physically attacked (21%), and plumbers suffer the most sexual harassment (17%). 

The UK trades most likely to receive daily customer abuse are: 

1) Bricklayer – 56% 

2) Builder – 24% 

3) Plumber – 22% 

4) Plasterer – 20% 

5) Joiner – 20% 

6) Building surveyor – 19% 

7) Electrician – 19% 

8) Carpenter – 16% 

9) Painter decorator – 14% 

10) Landscaper – 7% 

With the scale of the problem revealed, IronmongeryDirect has partnered with experienced psychological therapist, Michael Padraig Acton, who has provided advice for tradespeople dealing with confrontational customers: 

Ask for specifics 

“Make sure you are hearing and understanding everything the person is complaining about. Don’t assume anything and double check that you know what they are referring to. Be genuine and make note of their sense of the problem.” 

Stay calm 

“Don’t raise your voice or antagonise the customer. It’s the worst mistake you can make as you will just escalate the situation. Sometimes staying calm is enough to diffuse the situation as the customer might back down after having their say.” 

Check your involvement 

“It is always helpful to reflect on your involvement and consider how you did or didn't manage something. You can also ask your employer or company for training and support.” 

Dominick Sandford, Director and Head of Merchandising & Marketing at IronmongeryDirect, said: “It’s horrific to see how widespread the problem of customer abuse is in the industry, with many tradespeople experiencing it every single shift. It’s so important that tradespeople look after themselves and don't just put up with hostility, as it can have a detrimental effect on their mental health. Our research found that one in eight workers have walked away from jobs because of abuse and that is a really sensible action to take.” 

For more expert advice on how to deal with confrontational customers, click here.

CLC and CITB partner to tackle mental health issues

The latest survey echoes finding from recent research from CITB which outlined the scale of the mental health challenge facing construction. A consistent approach to supporting construction workers’ mental health is the goal of a new initiative led by the Construction Leadership Council (CLC) and CITB. 

The risk of suicide among some site-based workers is three times the national average and a May 2020 Chartered Institute of Building report found that 26% of construction workers who responded to their survey had experienced suicidal thoughts; 97% had experienced stress over the past year.  

CITB’s research highlights a growing number of good initiatives but finds that their impact is currently held back by the lack of a coherent aim and message. Given the growing need to tackle mental health, developing a joined-up approach has become more urgent.  

Encouragingly, the CLC has backed the research having already prioritised mental health in its recovery plan, and is now pulling industry together to agree a plan to address it. This will seek to tackle the underlying causes of poor mental health, generate better evidence of what impact the initiatives are achieving and develop a more joined up approach.              

Industry culture still perpetuates poor mental wellbeing. Factors include working away from home, heavy workloads, long working hours, and job insecurity. Poor management practices and understanding can exacerbate the problem, but some exemplars do a great job of looking after their workers - this inconsistency needs to be tackled. 

The level and quality of evidence must also improve. There is a range of different mental health and wellbeing support available from industry professional bodies, charities and employers. However, evidence of the effectiveness of the support available is limited.  

There needs to be more consistent and accessible support for workers in the smaller firms that supply larger ones. Many employers provide mental health and wellbeing support programmes to workers in their supply chains. However, these workers are often not aware that they can access mental health and wellbeing resources from their principal contractor.  

CITB has invested in programmes aimed at helping industry develop skills, behaviours and ways of working that will make it a safer, healthier place to work. Since June 2018 it has funded over 29,000 mental health courses. 

CITB provided funding for a Build UK and Timewise project where BAM Construct, BAM Nuttall, Skanska and Willmott Dixon joined forces to identify what measures best enhanced flexible working for some 11,000 employees. Funding by CITB, through the Building Mental Health initiative, the Lighthouse Construction Industry Charity and Mental Health First Aid England, has helped train over 260 Mental Health First Aid Instructors.  

CITB Policy Director Steve Radley said: “The pandemic has shone an even brighter light on the need to tackle mental health across society. Construction faces greater challenges than most other industries but employers are demonstrating their awareness of the need to tackle it. The Building Mental Health programme beat its targets to train mental health first aiders by more than 40%.      

“As well as supporting construction workers, tackling mental health will help employers to retain more of them and get the best from them at a time when more firms are reporting skill shortages. We need strong industry leadership on this and it’s great to see CLC picking up the baton.”             

CECA Chief Executive Alasdair Reisner, who leads the CLC workplace culture workstream, said: “The CLC is acutely aware of the mental health and wellbeing challenges faced by industry. Progress towards improving the situation has been frustratingly slow in recent years and there is no doubt that some of the statistics relating to mental health and construction are not good enough. 

“Encouragingly, this report from CITB includes good examples of best practice from which the whole sector can be inspired. The CLC will provide the shared vision and goals that industry has called for. We will do our utmost to accelerate improvements across the sector, particularly for SMEs, and look forward to collaborating with stakeholders on this crucial construction priority.” 

Building Mental Health, supported by the Lighthouse Construction Industry Charity, provides free support and resources, from industry experts, to increase mental health awareness. 

Bill Hill, CEO of the Lighthouse Construction Industry Charity, said: “Doing things right is important. Doing right things can save lives. Implementing and measuring a comprehensive programme to improve workforce wellbeing in construction needs no thought, it is the right thing to do. It will improve the workplace culture, support and retain the existing workforce, make the industry more attractive to the next generation and will undoubtedly save lives."

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