Demanding workloads, tight deadlines, long working hours, critical incidents, financial concerns, and isolation are contributing to high levels of stress among workers in the construction industry. And in a traditionally male-dominated industry, where addressing mental health challenges is often considered taboo, feelings of stress are often left unresolved and unaddressed.
Among all industries, construction has one of the highest suicide rates, indicating greater mental health challenges. In the UK, for example, close to 400 workers in the engineering and construction sectors die by suicide every year. In the US, suicide rates for men in construction and extraction occupations were almost twice the rate of civilian working men in 2016. And a University of Melbourne report found elevated suicide mortality among construction workers in Australia relative to other workers.
The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on mental health. Research carried out in the US showed that in December 2020 more than 50% of adults felt that worry or stress related to the pandemic had a negative impact on their mental health. Employers have an important role to play in both highlighting the importance of early intervention and in providing necessary resources to their people.
Despite its prevalence — one in six adults in the UK has a common mental disorder — stigma persists. This is especially the case among men, who are less likely to seek medical support or tell family and friends when a problem develops.
With construction workers often spending time away from home, the early signs of mental distress are often missed.
When not addressed in an appropriate and timely fashion, mental health challenges may start to manifest in physical ailments. And physical injuries, which are not uncommon in a high-risk industry, can themselves lead to mental stress, underscoring the importance of identifying the early signs of mental stress.
Employers have a clear duty of care towards their people, and in most countries are legally obliged to provide a working environment that is not detrimental to employees’ mental health. Beyond the risk of litigation, stress, anxiety, and poor mental health can lead to lower productivity, increased absence and turnover, and an elevated risk of workplace injuries.
Companies in the construction industry have a role to play in addressing mental stress among their employees. While employers cannot relieve their people of all stressors, they can focus on improving working conditions and providing access to health and safety resources.
Many employers are taking the issue seriously and finding ways to address an escalating problem. The Brazil-based HTB Group, for example, has focused on internal communications and virtual events to bring its people together during the pandemic. The organisation is also offering discounted online therapy sessions for its employees and has launched an online tool that provides access to content on multiple topics, including emotional health.
Aside from the positive effect on employees themselves, improving mental health is also likely to improve a company’s performance and financial results. Companies in the construction industry should take three actions to help lessen the impact of mental health challenges.
Accepting that there may be a problem is a crucial step toward seeking treatment. Considering the high levels of suicide among workers in the construction industry, employers should take action intended to help their people identify early signs.
In addition, employers can provide information about resources and helplines in a way that they are easily accessible to their people. For example, aside from putting up posters in public areas, they can stitch a helpline number on workers’ overalls or print it on personal protective equipment, such as gloves.
To overcome any perceived stigma, it is important to ensure that messages are coming from people who employees can identify with — for example, their teammates. Short videos can also be useful in providing information in a concise manner.
Employee assistance programs can help workers with a variety of issues, ranging from health problems to financial challenges, that could cause them stress and worry. These programs, typically purchased through a vendor, can connect employees with the right professional and may be available 24/7.
Employers can also:
Recognition of mental health problems and the need to address them has grown significantly in the last year. Managers must play their part by identifying when an employee needs mental support and pointing them in the right direction for help.
Employers can take action by providing their people with general training on managing stress — for example, by underscoring the importance of exercise as a coping mechanism. Training modules can address the creation of a sound work-life balance, cognitive skills to help employees change negative thinking patterns, and emotional intelligence skills. Employers should provide managers and supervisors with further training to help them develop empathy skills, identify early signs of mental health problems, and learn to listen to employees who need to talk. Managers and supervisors should also be trained on how to refer employees for further help if warranted.
Standalone programs are critical to address problems in the near term. In the long term, however, construction companies need to embark on culture change that does away with incidents of bullying and harassment at building sites and helps remove the stigma still surrounding mental health challenges.