Russel Stilwell Interview
“The ‘macho’ culture masked my pain. Now the chance to help just one person drives me”
We at BoxHuman take time to celebrate humans who are inspiring, helping and bringing light within the world. We do this in order to rebalance some of the negative messages we often hear, see and receive on a daily basis. We met up with one of these amazing individuals…
Hi Russell, thank you for speaking to us, let’s get to know you! Can you please tell us a little bit about you and what you do?
I am now the Founder and Managing Director of three companies: RSE Building Services, RSE Technologies and Construction Wise Minds, after first starting my own company in 2004. I’ve worked very much from the ground-up, meeting exceptional colleagues and clients whilst now turning over £12m annually, as I’ve continued to develop my skills and leadership qualities. Although, above all else I am father to Harrison and Poppy and husband to Deb.
At RSE we use cutting edge technology to streamline design, construction and maintenance disciplines, but we also put great emphasis on the wellbeing of our staff and partners. Above all else, I’m incredibly passionate about supporting the mental health of workers throughout the construction industry, for I’ve experienced first-hand how important it is to both sustain your mental health and feel sufficiently supported.
What an incredible start to this interview, I’m already inspired! As a tech geek I’m really interested in the cutting edge technology RSE is using, but I’d really love to find out more about Construction Wise Minds and the special charity ‘Mates In Mind’ and why it’s all so close to your heart?
I am a determined advocate for changing attitudes towards mental health in the workplace, especially within the realms of construction. Throughout my career, I have experienced the negative impacts that poor mental health can have, both personally and professionally. My journey charts the transition that I’ve made from working with tools to running a successful multi-million pound business.
However, this success has not come without struggle; a dysfunctional upbringing, personal trauma and experiences encountered at the sharp end of a toughened and ‘macho’ UK construction sector contributed to mental health difficulties which loomed over me for years.
By 2009 I had grown my business delicately through the recession, my daughter was one and my son was two, so I was under intense pressure. I was passionate about my business and had grown it in a typical ‘owner-tradesman’ fashion, I was good at my trade but not necessarily knowledgeable in business.
However, the ‘macho’ culture I was surrounded by led me to ignore any evident signs of stress and I ploughed on. My resilience was certainly put to the test in the May of 2009 when I lost my best mate Frankie Dickens-Waters, after he had open heart surgery. Six weeks later his dad Brian (who’d been a father figure to me for most of my life) was also taken by cancer. I was devastated but I didn’t really want to grieve properly or show it, so I masked my pain.
I then lost my own father in July 2010, whilst the business took a severe knock just one week later. Addictions followed. I almost lost my family as a result. Eventually seeking professional help allowed me to discover a renewed sense of balance, leaving me determined to help others in the construction industry who may encounter similar hurdles. I spent eighteen months in the priory as I fought to overcome my depression, GAD and suicidal thoughts. Fortunately, the significant progress that I made whilst at the priory has allowed me to maintain this mental health continuum today.
I also faced unfortunate difficulties when I was at school; as a 15-year-old trying to discover what I hoped to achieve in life, I felt lost and without direction as I struggled to flourish within the realms of academia. Despite my talents clearly lying elsewhere, the practical opportunities available to me simply weren’t explained. As with countless other young people, I was faced with pressure to pursue a stereotypical path to success… If I didn’t excel in academic subjects, the education system didn’t support me. However, when I was eventually offered an invaluable apprenticeship opportunity my luck changed. I was suddenly welcomed into the world of construction, allowing me to work with tools and fellow professionals; I quickly saw my skills develop and truly found my calling.
This journey inspired me to co-found ‘Constructionwise’, an education enrichment initiative that’s been created to connect local educational establishments with construction programmes. I hope to connect young people with satisfying, purposeful opportunities at an early age, creating a new generation of resilient, employable construction professionals with advanced capabilities. An opportunity that I feel would have propelled my progress, I feel it’s crucial that we support young people without restriction, encouraging them to pursue any appropriate path.
My personal experiences have also inspired me to back the ‘Mates in Mind’ initiative, a registered charity addressing the stigma of poor mental health whilst promoting positive mental wellbeing across workplaces.
Construction is one of the most important industries in our economy, it’s therefore crucial that we take the wellbeing and mental health of its workers seriously, using initiatives like ‘Mates in Mind’ to create real change. As we attract young people into construction-based professions, it’s pivotal that we improve upon our efforts reduce mental health and suicide. It’s been found that men in the construction industry are ten times more likely to die of suicide than accidents on site.
For me, ‘Mates in Mind’ was the perfect place to start. I first heard about the programme whilst picking up an international British Safety Council award in 2017; I remember seeing the first film they ever made and it really touched me, due to my own story of overcoming adversity.
Thank you so much for sharing that with me Russell. It’s amazing to see someone very successful be so open and honest about their own journey. It’s also very inspiring to hear how you were able to overcome your challenges and in turn help others and help bring awareness to a very serious issue. So knowing all that you do-do you think there is a problem with young people being open about mental health within the construction industry?
I actually think that the younger generations are more likely to talk about mental health and wellbeing, particularly in comparison to older professionals who work in construction. The problem lies with younger engagement and improving our methods of prevention, offering young people a pathway into construction at a younger age. Creating a proactive approach to invigorating passion as opposed to leaving mental health as an afterthought is essential.
The construction industry is also rife with unfair, unhealthy stereotypes. For example, an unwavering ‘macho’ culture suggests that men working within construction-based professions need to maintain an emotionless façade, something that undoubtedly contributes to the rising number of workers struggling with their mental health. Men don’t feel they should show emotion, often bottling up their concerns and struggles due to fear of being ridiculed or judged. It’s important that we support the wellbeing and mental health of construction workers from the moment they express an interest in construction, for example during their schooling, through to their retirement and beyond if necessary.
“The most important lesson I’ve learnt is that anything is possible, but you have to want to get better. Take personal responsibility and face adversity head on to return from a dark place, this is the key to recovery.” – Russell Stilwell
That’s so very true and relatable! With that being said, what do you think or want people to learn from your inspiring story?
I think people should learn to disregard stereotypes; working in the construction industry doesn’t mean you’re void of emotion, nor should it mean that mental health suddenly becomes a taboo topic. We need to have more honest conversations with one another.
So true! As with anything, there is always something someone can learn from another’s story. So if there was one positive thing you would say to someone to inspire and empower them, what would it be and why?
If I could say one positive thing to empower someone, it’s that there are people who want to listen if you’re struggling at work, or at home. Whether that’s family members, employers, colleagues or specialist charities, you’re never alone.
Such brilliant advice! Can I ask you what inspires you to do what you do on a daily basis Russell and why?
I’m inspired by the progress that I’ve made; there was a time when I didn’t see a light at the end of the tunnel, yet I’ve gone on to find success and happiness. If I can help others to overcome similar difficulties, offering a source of comfort and reassurance, then I’ll know I’ve made a difference….
The chance to help just one person drives me to continue with projects like ‘Construction Wise Minds’.
And last but not least… A BoxHuman is an empowered individual. They will not be defined by society’s labels. They show the better qualities of humankind, such as strength, kindness and inspiration. Can you please tell us what makes you a BoxHuman?
I am a BoxHuman because I truly care about those around me, I hope to inspire our society to become more open-minded and accepting, demonstrating strength as I openly discuss the most difficult periods of my life to hopefully benefit others.
I like to think that I set a positive example for those working within the construction industry, as I proudly highlight the importance of mental wellbeing and yes, emotions! Men should embrace their feelings, disregarding the ‘macho’ pressures that surround them… If I can use kindness and sincerity to make this happen, I’ll feel fulfilled.
Ultimately, I focus my energies on delivering strength, kindness and inspiration to the younger generation of construction workers. Thinking of the future and contributing to a better society helps me to feel empowered, as I simultaneously empower others with my purposeful projects, most notably including ‘Constructionwise’.