Prioritizing Mental Health in the Construction Industry
The construction industry has the highest suicide rate of all occupations and mental health issues were the biggest cause of absenteeism among workers, even before the pandemic. Even though mental health causes so many disruptions in our work, it is not an issue that most people want to talk about. However, there are many recent statistics that show the construction industry needs to address it immediately.
The most prevalent cause of disability for all US workers is mental illness. A survey in late 2020 showed that 29% of respondents currently suffered from or had suffered from depression. And a recent cross-industry report by Mental Health America (MHA) showed 85% of 5,000 respondents said that workplace stress affects their mental health, and 83% said they felt emotionally drained from their work.
Mental issues like anxiety and depression can quickly spiral out of control, leading to a loss of production, errors, and conflict. Left unchecked, they can even lead to suicide. Getting a handle on stress and its effects can be difficult, especially in the construction industry.
Risk factors in construction
We don’t have to tell you that construction is a high stress industry. There are increasing expectations for improved performance for field and office workers alike. The pressure to meet schedule and cost constraints keeps many workers up at night. When added with other risk factors, and a lack of knowledge and tools to properly deal with stress, many workers simply suffer through or look for ways to distract themselves.
Since construction is a male-dominated industry, the overall approach to health and wellness tends to take a “tough guy” attitude. Workers are not encouraged to ask for help and are told to “gut it out.” There’s also a large stigma attached to mental health issues, like depression or anxiety, that discourages seeking help. Workers don’t want to be considered “weak” or “crazy” by their peers.
Many construction workers also suffer from financial stress due to the fact that they are paid on an hourly basis, and only get paid if they work. Recent attempts to mandate sick leave in certain states have helped, but there is still a stigma around taking time off. And if work slows down or the worker gets laid off temporarily, it can compound the stress and leave the worker feeling obligated to work when they can.
Construction workers often have to work in uncomfortable and even dangerous environments, which increases the stress level. Work location, the amount of work, project schedules, work sequencing, and necessary overtime can all lead to distractions and a stressful environment. Without a way to release or deal with these worries and problems, many workers internalize them, leading to potential mental issues.
Lastly, there are many worker lifestyle choices that can affect mental health. Proper nutrition, getting enough exercise, and taking time off with family or friends are all positive things that workers can do. Alcohol and drug abuse and less healthy food choices can exacerbate the stress caused by work. Workers need to be educated about how these choices affect their ability to deal with stress.
What companies can do
Construction companies and employers need to make mental health and suicide prevention a priority for their employees. This commitment needs to go beyond an occasional chat about stress relief or putting a sticker on everyone’s hard hat. Management needs to address issues like company environment that can unknowingly encourage workers to bury their problems.
Carolina Valencia, Vice President in the Gartner Research HR practice, stated, “Organizations, more than ever, must respond to all facets of the individual, from the physical to the emotional, and address some of the new stressors that have emerged over the past year.”
Here are a few suggestions for actions that can show a company’s dedication to their employees’ mental health:
- Provide health insurance that includes mental health benefits. Make sure that employees are aware of these benefits and how to access them. Don’t assume they know what is covered and what their treatment options are.
- Develop workplace mental health programs. These can be formal or informal, depending on what best suits your work environment.
- Provide workers with stress management resources. Provide information for workers on how to deal with stress, as well as giving them the space and time to take care of themselves when they need to. You can also provide employee training on dealing with stress during work or how to help others who are struggling.
- Develop a company culture that encourages openness about mental health. Employees should not feel that they will be retaliated against if they ask for help. Encourage employees to express concern about their coworkers. Ensure that employee privacy is the number one priority of any program dealing with health issues.
- Provide multiple options for treatment of mental health issues. Traditional talking therapy may not work for everyone, so offering a variety of potential treatments may encourage workers to seek help.
Mental health resources
Share these resources with your employees and make sure that everyone has access to them on every job site.
Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention – https://preventconstructionsuicide.com/
Crisis text line – text “HEAL” to 741741
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – 800-273-8255 (Spanish 888-628-9454) or online chat www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/chat
OSHA guidance for preventing suicides in construction – https://www.osha.gov/preventingsuicides/