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HomeBrian KingIt's time to man up about male floorlayers and mental health

It’s time to man up about male floorlayers and mental health

Men often think they don’t need to talk about their problems. But, as Brian relates in this hard-hitting look at mental health, they’re only storing up trouble for themselves by bottling it up.

I WAS recently at a training day at a flooring centre, in the kitchen making a cup of tea, when I overheard a conversation between two people which really interested me.

One said to the other that there was no support at all for mental health in the flooring industry, so if someone had some issues and needed some support or guidance there was none available.

I got to thinking: surely with what’s happened over the past two years there should be? Also with mu current role as president of the National Institute for Carpet Fitters (NICF), I feel it’s my responsibility to look into this a little further to try to at least offer something, not only for members but for the flooring industry as a whole, even if it’s only to guide or point someone in the right direction.

I know very little about mental health and haven’t really thought much about it. I suppose I’ve been quite ignorant about it.

Anyway, that evening I sat and pondered over what I’d heard in the kitchen. What is mental health? How do you know if someone has mental health issues? Do they run around waving their arms and screaming?

Actually, it’s quite the opposite, but especially in men. Men are traditionally expected to be tough and unemotional and few industries are supposedly as battle-hardened as the flooring industry. If we show we’re upset or want to talk about problems, it’s suggested we’re weak. But your job shouldn’t dictate what type of person you are, should it?

This topic reminds me of a situation in which I found myself many years ago. I used to be self- employed and 99% of my work was from a factory outlet. However they suddenly closed and I was left to go out and find my own work.

I ended up doing two days a week for a high street chain and three days doing my own supply-and-fit work. I’d done a big job for a builder and didn’t really take deposits. And when I’d finished the job he decided to close the company, leaving me with several thousands of pounds unpaid.

I’ve always bought materials and pay as I get them and still do to this day but in this job I couldn’t afford to pay upfront so the wholesaler let me get them on account. When I found out the company had gone bust I felt sick.

I thought he was an alright guy; he said he had loads of work coming up but all I could think was: ‘How the hell am I going to pay for the materials?’

I went home and did what many blokes in that situation would do – I acted as though everything was OK. My wife soon noticed I wasn’t myself but I kept saying everything was fine. The last thing I wanted to do was worry her.

The company opened up again under a different name but still said they couldn’t pay me because the company I did the work for had folded. I thought: ‘I’m a sole trader with not much money and a young family, how could someone do that to me?’

I didn’t sleep properly for weeks and just kept bottling it up. But the thing that made me break was that my oldest child was in her first year of primary school and was going on a school trip and she was so excited about it.

The balance I owed was due and I couldn’t afford it. My wife rang and said we needed to pay that day. I was at work in a customer’s house and I put the phone down and burst into tears. Afterwards, I sat in the van for about an hour and have never felt as low as that in my 47 years of life. I thought I was a failure.

The wholesalers started chasing their money and I just ignored their calls but they carried on trying to get hold of me. I ended up giving in, swallowing my pride, and ringing my dad for some of that advice you get from time to time from your parents.

I was so ashamed and point-blank refused to let him help me pay the bill. But he did reassure me that things like this happen from time to time in life and that it would eventually get better. He also pointed out I was doing a good job raising a young family and him and my mum were proud of how I was building up my small business up.

He told me to ring the wholesaler the day after and just explain what had happened and see if we could sort something out. Just by speaking to someone took a massive weight off my shoulders and made me feel a whole lot better.

I rang the wholesalers the morning after and explained what had happened and they were great about it. They said it was no problem and sorted out a payment plan for me. I was getting busy so I kept chucking lump sums on top of the weekly payments, meaning it didn’t take too long for me to pay off the balance.

The thing that I think made the whole situation worse was not speaking to anyone and bottling it up. Women tend to handle such problems completely differently, talking to their friends and families to help themselves feel better. Obviously, they’re onto something that many men could learn a lesson from.

Being a supportive mate
A guy I knew had a large commercial flooring company with many staff. He was in his early 40s but looked in his 60s and would openly complain he was constantly chasing money owed to him for projects he’d completed.

He sat in his warehouse at night alone, smoking and drinking to try to block the pressure of it all out. It makes you think though, surely these people with overheads and staff must be under lots of pressure waiting for money to come in and having to pay staff and materials, rent, rates bills and more bills. That alone will cause stress.

Surely some of these guys are quietly suffering from mental health but are holding it in? But because we’re ‘hardened’ floorlayers we’re expected not to show weakness. Really?
Back when I was fitting for the factory outlet my childhood friend became an alarm engineer; he was good at it and loved it. But suddenly he quit his job and stopped coming out with our friends for our Saturday night drink in our local haunt.

When I confronted him after a couple of absent Saturday night meetings he told me he was having panic attacks that were really worrying him. He said his chest tightened up and he couldn’t breathe and his anxiety was through the roof. He’d been to the doctor who’d offered him medication but if you knew my mate Cliff you’d know he’s the type of guy who refuses any kind of dependency and battles it with willpower. Ha, it wouldn’t surprise me if he’s refused his double jabs!

He remained in this rut and one day after speaking to his concerned mum I insisted I’d be popping round the next day and taking him to work with me so he could at least have a change of scenery and have someone to talk to and do something with.

Cliff loved it and stayed working with me for four years. When the factory outlet shut, he continued on his own and is now a successful floorlayer. He doesn’t suffer from anxiety or panic attacks anymore and spends every weekend climbing the Lakeland mountains.

A deadly experience
For my first ever interview with UKflooring tv, I was invited to London to cover the media on a project for war veteran Jamie Hull. A group of floorlayers from the NICF had volunteered to go and fit his floors for free so I went to conduct interviews for my newly-found venture. It was a Saturday and I was excited so I decided to take the train down.

I finally arrived at the house and nervously did my very first interviews which I think went well. Some people stayed on afterwards for a curry but I had to return home for a family birthday party. Arriving at the station, I sat waiting for my train in-between two platforms. There were two train lines in front of me and two behind me.

Suddenly, from nowhere, I noticed a lad who was about early- to mid-30s jump on the train track in front of me and start running across.

About 6m to his right was a footbridge to cross the line and I thought ‘you lazy swine’. As he crossed he climbed up opposite me, about 2m away, and looked me straight in the eye. I laughed as if to say: ‘If you get caught doing that mate, you’re going to get thrown out.’ His face was expressionless. He finally tore his eyes away and I turned back to my phone.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him run past me and jump straight in front of a Virgin train. The sound was horrendous – I’ll never forget it. Like a snare drum cracking. It was quickly followed by the screams of a group of women on the other side.

I was stunned, unable to process what I’d seen. Was I the last person he’d looked at? I’d laughed at him, thinking he was just being mischievous. Over the next hour, there was an uproar: police, ambulances, madness. I missed my party as the lines were shut for several hours but I often wonder, to this day, why he did it. What problems did he have? Did he ask for help? Did anyone suspect anything?

The incident that day left me profoundly disturbed; I’m just relieved I was looking at my phone when he jumped. And I’m sad knowing that if he’d sat next to me moments before he’d taken his own life, I could’ve said: ‘What’s up, mate? I know you’re a man, and therefore can’t admit weakness, but I’ll lend you my ear for a minute.’

Deciding to take action
We have ex-veterans in the flooring industry. What support do they get? I know the suicide rate is very high for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) sufferers and I suspect they’ve experienced unpleasant experiences they’d like to forget but are unable to.

When the marriage of one of my closest friends in the industry fell apart, he ended up having a mental breakdown but, again, he didn’t confide in anyone, thinking it more manly to just battle on alone. He’s currently completing a degree in mental health as his breakdown steered him on that path. He got better and decided he’d like to help other people who might be suffering like he was.

Why would a floorlayer be more prone to mental health problems than many other careers? I can speak only from personal experience, but what I know is this: much of my job is done alone, where I’m left with my own thoughts with plenty of time to analyse the bigger issues in life.

Usually, that’s fine. But imagine that’s your job when you’re going through something bad in your life. Suddenly all those hours in your own company will be filled with obsessive worries about your situation.

A significant culprit in many cases is alcohol. Why do so many floorlayers drink so much? I confess that I drink, and as I write this, there’s a nice glass of red right next to me.

I recently discussed the matter with some of the NICF council members and we’ve all agreed there should be more support available for mental health in the workplace and in flooring in general. A few of us have decided to do something about it – not only for our own members but for anyone in industry.

I’m going to try to use UKflooring tv to promote awareness; I’ve already contacted a charity called MIND. They’re happy for us to use them as a go-to place for people who need advice or help with the matter, and it’s completely free.

I think it’s amazing when you look into something like this – the things you find out and the people who you’d think would be least affected.

I’m no councillor or expert in depression or mental health but I have a lot of time for the people in this industry. I’ve said many times that the thing I like most about this industry is its people. If anyone is feeling like they need a chat with someone or have something they need to get off their chest I for one offer my ear and time to listen. If you’d rather speak to someone anonymously there’s www.mind.org.uk which has agreed to offer support to floorlayers.

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