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A lesson in mental health from Antarctica

The legendary naturalist Sir David Attenborough was immortalised today, as a polar research vessel was unveiled with his name.

Inevitably most eyes today will be on that ship, whose name was changed from the original public choice of ‘Boaty McBoatface’.

Most, however, will not be aware of the extraordinary construction work that had to go on in Antarctica ahead of its arrival, led by Bam Nuttall in partnership with Ramboll.

Before watching the boat naming in Liverpool today, I was able to listen to a series of exciting insights into how the project was optimised for environmental sustainability, including the use of solar power and details of an innovative design that will prevent the need to clear snow from the roof of the research centre.

Being sustainable is not just about what’s ‘green’, crucial as this may be. Social factors are also important, and the wellbeing of workers on this build is vital.

The phase one construction team were on site for a seven-month construction period, which ended in April this year. That’s seven months away from friends and family, working 70-hour weeks in freezing temperatures.

The mental health implications of such a stint could be stark – there’s a reason why such extreme and isolated conditions have inspired writers to come up with films like John Carpenter’s sci-fi horror The Thing.

Those who applied to the project therefore underwent psychological evaluation before being accepted.

Impressively, a Bam team member was assigned to visit all 60 workers at their homes before the project began, so that everyone would have a familiar face on site. He, in turn, was able to assess the team members.

This kind of personal touch shouldn’t just be limited to extreme environments. Mental health awareness in this industry has become a far more pressing consideration than ever before, as highlighted in CN’s annual Mind Matters survey. And with good reason – the fact remains that there are more worker suicides in construction than any other industry.

The Guardian recently reported that 10 workers had attempted to take their own lives in the first four months of 2019 at the Hinckley Point C nuclear site, a reminder that remote sites exist closer to home too.

Graham Hopper, Bam Nuttall’s operations director on the Antarctica project, was unequivocally positive about the morale among his team over the phase, saying that the workers he spoke to all want to return for future phases of the five-year project.

This demonstrates the success of a wellbeing strategy that is at once systematic and highly personal.

No one should feel isolated on a project, no matter where they are. Surely, if we can look out for each other in the South Pole, we can get it right here too.

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