3 Actions to Address Mental Health in the Construction Industry
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.
The US construction industry has one of the highest suicide rates — suicide rates for men in construction and extraction occupations were almost twice the rate of civilian working men in 2016 — indicating greater mental health challenges.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated worries about health, finances, and other pressures, adding to the stress already experienced by workers in the construction industry. Overall, more than 50% of adults said they felt that worry or stress related to the pandemic had a negative impact on their mental health.
In an already strained industry, employers have an important role to play in both highlighting the importance of early intervention and in providing necessary resources to their people.
Early Intervention Key
Despite its prevalence — half of all Americans are diagnosed with a mental health illness or disorder at some point in their life — stigma persists. This is especially the case among men, who are less likely to seek medical support or tell family and friends when they are experiencing symptoms of depression.
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.
The Role of Employers
It is in employers’ best interests to look after the mental health of their employees, and many countries require employers 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 through training at least a portion of their workforce in first identifying the signs of mental distress and knowing what action to take when they are concerned about a colleague. More contractors are addressing mental health during toolbox talks — group discussions focusing on a specific safety issue — to both reduce stigma and raise awareness about available resources, including suicide prevention hotlines. And construction companies are including suicide prevention in their crisis management plans.
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.
1. Recognize the Challenge and Provide Information
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 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 colleagues. Short videos can also be useful in providing information in a concise manner.
2. Facilitate Access to Resources
Employee assistance programs can help workers with a variety of issues, ranging from health problems to financial challenges, which 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:
- Facilitate the creation of peer support groups that bring together workers going through similar difficulties who can provide mutual aid.
- Raise awareness about the availability of mobile applications — for example, apps geared toward meditation and mindfulness — to help with stress management.
- Target publicity materials toward workers who may still be reluctant to speak about mental stress.
3. Train Managers and Employees
Recognition of mental health problems and the need to address them has grown significantly in the last year. Managers should 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 helps remove the stigma still surrounding mental health challenges.