Posted in Features

Mental health at work

Mental health at work Posted on 10 July 2023

Illustration showing the benefits of mental health awareness.

The construction industry is a place where poor mental health is often ignored, leading to tragic outcomes. One firm believes it’s time for that to change.

When Ewan Nicolson of George Nicolson Decorators in Edinburgh attended a Mental Health First Aid training course in 2019, he didn’t know what to expect. It turned out to be the most useful training session he’s had during 32 years with the business.

“Initially, we saw the two-day course being promoted and thought we should investigate. I went along with our Contracts Manager, Andy Scotland.” said Ewan. “As each day passed, we realised how important it was. It gives you a whole new perspective on mental health and the support people need.”

Following on from that realisation, the company has continued to put people through the course and now it has nine Mental Health First Aiders in total. Avril Allan, Senior Contracts Administrator, said: “Over the last couple of years we have increased the numbers at various levels, from Administrator to Managing Director.” 

This comes after the creation of a workplace policy that was drafted in 2019 and is reviewed every year. It gives details of support and lists all the mental health first aiders, the company’s approach to mental health, definitions of roles and responsibilities and so on.


“People may think they understand mental health, but until you’ve sat a course like this you don’t really know how to properly assist others,” said Avril.

“Most of us tend to rely on how we’ve been brought up and our own experiences. Life can be tough and the course doesn’t soften you, but does make you look at things differently.  Some people may not be comfortable speaking to friends or family, so it’s good for them to have someone in the workplace who they can trust and speak to confidentially. When you’re dealing with personal and emotional issues, it’s important to know what questions to ask but also know that you’re only there to provide assistance to a certain point. If it’s necessary you can recommend they talk to a doctor or other professional.”

More recently, we’ve concentrated on our younger people through arranging a mental health awareness course. It’s to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health, and to promote it in a more positive light. We’ve always asked people to attend courses rather than make it compulsory because we appreciate that for some it might be a difficult thing to do. However, everyone we’ve offered it to has taken it up.” 

One of the key aims has been to make sure there’s mental health first aider presence on site. “The more staff who attend this course, the more people we have who can help others, no matter which part of the company they work in,” said Ewan. 

“Many people often decide to ‘just get on with it’ when they have mental health challenges to face. We feel that approach needs to change and we want people to know there’s always someone they can speak to.”


Ewan and Avril have noticed a different attitude among those who have attended the courses. “There remains much work to do and there are still barriers out there,” Ewan noted. “That’s understandable. However, I’d say there’s a more measured approach across the whole company now.”

Equally, he said he’d encourage other firms to think about mental health and tackling the challenges it can present for people. “Even if you have just one member of staff trained up it’s a start,” he said. “There’s absolutely no doubt this is extremely helpful in your personal life too.

“One in four people are estimated to be affected by mental health. It makes sense that if you can support someone, in the workplace or in your personal life, then go ahead and do it because it’s certainly worth it.” 

St Andrew’s First Aid operates across Scotland and provides mental health training to George Nicolson Decorators and many others. Here, Tony Houghton of the organisation outlines why it’s important to be aware of the need for positive mental health.

What is Mental Health First Aid? 

It’s a training programme that teaches people how to help someone who is experiencing varying degrees of worsening mental health issues. Like traditional first aid, it does not teach you how to treat or diagnose mental health or substance use conditions. Instead, it lets you know how to offer initial support until people can receive appropriate professional help or the crisis is resolved. You are not taught to counsel a person in distress, but to recognise some of the signs of poor mental health and mental health conditions.

Why is it important in the workplace? 

The HSE reported that in 2022, there were 915,000 cases of stress, anxiety and depression reported by UK employees. What’s more, 1 in 4 adults will suffer a mental health concern in any given year. Mental health first aid helps give employees relevant knowledge and offers guidance and support if they are struggling with their mental health. It also helps promote a more inclusive and healthy workplace culture overall.

More and more employers are recognising that mental health and in particular, positive mental health
in the workplace helps deliver a successful business. A positive mental health culture makes people more aware of mental health, makes staff more likely to talk about or disclose their problems, and increases productivity in the workforce, teamwork and morale.

What’s more, it enhances a firm’s reputation and reduces staff turnover and absences, in turn reducing costs. Many people are scared to discuss mental health, and we recognise that talking about it is the starting point.

What is Mental Health First Aid when it comes to painters and decorators? 

The construction industry is still male orientated, especially on the work floor. It’s recognised that men are reluctant to discuss their feelings, especially if they are struggling with mental health issues – they often feel that they are seen as weak or “less of a man”. 

Having designated mental health first aiders helps people take the first step to regaining control of their lives and can prevent conditions worsening until they result in disastrous consequences. 

Male suicide is very high – men are three times more likely to take their own live than women. The suicide figures for 2021 released by Samaritans show there were 753 suicides in Scotland; 565 of those were male and 148 of those were aged 25-34.

Any opportunity to engage with people – especially men – and discuss mental health is a chance to prevent unnecessary deaths. The impact of suicide is far reaching, touching family, friends, the community and the workplace.

Can you tell us about the recent training you provided for George Nicolson?

We were invited to meet a group of young apprentices and provide an awareness session.

The aim in these sessions is to start conversation around mental health, the reasons why people may be affected by poor mental health and the signs that help you recognise someone is suffering.

The session is interactive, and is shaped by participants’ comments, drawing from their knowledge, awareness and experiences.

We look at stress and its impact on mental and physical health. 

We also discuss topics like anxiety and depression, the use of recreational drugs and excessive use of alcohol to mask mental health conditions. Our goal is to help people understand the impact of drugs and alcohol and how avoiding these can help you better deal with issues. With a clearer, more focused mind and the support of a mental health first aider, issues that seemed insurmountable can be put into perspective – what may have seemed difficult and out of control can become easier to deal with.

What response did you get? 

The nature of the course means emotions, feelings, and sentiments can be raw. However, everyone who took part was ready to communicate. It turned into a relaxed session with people comfortable to share their thoughts, opinions and experiences.

Find out more about the courses at