How to Support Mental Health in the Construction Industry

Over the years, the stigma around mental health has started to diminish, with many industries making an effort to raise awareness and offer support. Mental health in the workplace is important in any industry, and companies have shown great progress in promoting and supporting a healthier work environment. Unfortunately, mental illness still greatly impacts the construction workforce.

According to a study conducted by MATES in Construction, one in four construction workers struggles with mental health issues. On top of that, suicide rates have skyrocketed over the years because of the negative stigma associated with mental health in the construction sector.

With World Mental Health Day coming up on October 10, it’s important for the industry to raise awareness about this epidemic to minimize the risk of mental health illnesses and injuries.

Read on to find out what factors play a role in mental health in the industry and preventive tips your company can take to maintain a healthy work environment. Or jump straight to the infographic below.

What Impacts Mental Health in the Construction Industry?

There are many different factors that come into play when looking at the impact the construction industry has on mental health. As with any job, there are stresses, both emotional and physical, that can cause strain on mental well being.

Some of the factors impacting mental health in the construction industry include:

  • Physical exhaustion due to hard labor
  • Long working hours
  • Physical injuries and chronic pain
  • A competitive, male-dominated work culture
  • Increase in alcohol and substance abuse
  • Seasonal layoffs

Demographic Impact and Suicide Rates

When exploring the demographic impact of the industry, it is known that the construction sector is and continues to be one of the highest male-dominated industries. Workers face the underlying social stigma that they’re supposed to be tough, strong and rarely show emotions. It’s no wonder why people refer to this problem as “the silent epidemic.”

This has a negative impact on the construction workforce because workers may not be equipped with the necessary tools and programs to support their illnesses, forcing them to battle their struggles in silence. This ultimately can lead to more serious mental health concerns, such as suicide, which has been a horrific problem within the industry.

Suicide is a national issue that affects many different sectors; according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (ASFP), 48,344 Americans died from suicide in 2018. When analyzing the suicide rates by industry, construction was a part of the five major sectors with the highest suicide rates, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The construction workforce in the U.S is composed of predominantly white, middle-aged males, which is also the leading demographic with the highest rates of suicide. According to the U.S Labor of Bureau Statistics, 97 percent of the construction workforce is male and 59 percent of those workers are white. ASFP found that the rate of suicide was the highest in this demographic, and men die by suicide 3.56 times more often than women.

In addition, the physical demand and nature of this industry can start to take a toll on workers if not handled correctly. Many workers are expected to work long hours and push through any pain they may be feeling. A recent study exploring the link between bodily pain and mental health in construction workers found that participants who experienced pain from work-related tasks had significantly higher levels of anxiety and depression.

Substance Abuse and Suicide in Construction

With physical injuries come physical pain and to combat the pain and continue to work, construction workers are often prescribed painkillers. These workers often experience injuries from incidents like falls, which can put them out of work for a few days or longer. Painkillers act as a “quick fix” to ease the pain and get employees back to work sooner.

A study conducted by the Midwest Economic Policy Institute found that in the construction industry, 20 percent of spending on prescription drugs was used towards opioids. The same study found that in 2018, 15 percent of construction workers suffered from substance abuse disorder. This method of managing pain has led to opioid abuse within the industry.

The Addiction Center reported that opioid abuse increases the likelihood of suicide attempts by 75 percent, and men with opioid addiction are twice as likely to fall victim to suicide.

When looking at all of these alarming facts, it’s safe to say that mental health awareness needs to be a priority in the industry to stop the rate of suicide and substance abuse. The underlying question is, what can construction professionals do to get employees the help they deserve?

How to Combat the Mental Health Crisis in Construction

Many construction companies are making changes in their policies and raising awareness to put an end to the mental health crisis in the construction industry. Here’s what you can do to help:

Create a Safe Space

One of the most important initiatives a company can take is reaching out to its employees on a human level. Start conversations about mental health and open up in your team meetings. Doing this helps employees feel supported, which could help them share about any mental health battles they may be facing.

“To have a healthy work environment there must be a foundation of care beyond just profits,” says Daniel Young, CEO and Founder of Kingdom Roofing Systems. “There must be personal investment into the team.”

In a story published by NPR, construction company RK Mechanical said they have made mental health a part of their regular “toolbox talks” after losing one of their employees to suicide.

A safe space for employees should be prioritized, just like physical safety.

Provide Your Team with Proper Support

Counseling services should be a part of your employees’ benefits package, and access to these mental health services should be encouraged.

Aside from mental health services, have resources readily available to your employees. They may not feel comfortable coming to you yet, but providing them the resources and tools they need to find help can have a tremendous impact.

Employees may know they need help but might not know where to start. Resources like the Suicide Prevention Lifeline and this list of resources from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration could help workers tremendously.

Construction is a demanding job and many may feel scared to reach out and ask for time off to treat their illnesses. Offering mental health days or flexible hours to your employees can make it easier for them to attend therapy or medical appointments.

In addition to talks around mental health, construction company RK Mechanical started offering 24-hour access to counseling services and has a lenient leave policy for all employees.

Educate Yourself and Your Team

Education is powerful, and when your team has the right training and education, they will be better equipped to handle high-stress situations. Proper education is one of the first steps towards decreasing the stigma around mental illness.

“Industry-leading project management software, Procore, has even started to include a mental health component of their online curriculum,” says Zach Yuzdepski, Director of Marketing at myComply, a construction technology company that helps contractors proactively manage safety certifications and training.

“This open course for continuing education aims at helping construction workers and supervisors identify and mediate situations in which mental health may be negatively impacting a team or worker,” says Yuzdepski.

Workers need to be aware of the symptoms associated with mental illness so they can recognize them in themselves or coworkers and seek help. Implementing educational resources and education into company training programs will help ensure team members can properly handle these high-stress situations.

Offer Mental Health First-Aid Training

Providing training for managers and employees will help them understand the signs so they can offer help should a crisis arise. Mental Health First-Aid training is available and provides training regarding issues around mental health and substance abuse.

“One thing we are starting to notice is a significant increase in the number of users in our system that have “Drug and Alcohol Training” as part of their safety training mix,” says Yuzdepski. “The increased awareness behind addiction in construction and the commitment by contractors across the globe to educate their workers on the impacts of drug and alcohol is a good starting point.”

This type of training should be mandatory and built into all training programs in the industry moving forward. When employees and managers are equipped with the right tools and knowledge, they will be able to identify and mitigate risks associated with mental health.

Know the Warning Signs

After proper training and education, warning signs regarding mental illnesses should be easier to spot.

Some of the warning signs you may see in employees include:

  • Decrease in productivity
  • Tardiness
  • Increase in conflict with other team members
  • Isolation from coworkers

Should any of the signs present in workers, respond immediately so these feelings don’t fester and become more serious.

The nature and structure of the construction industry put employees at great risk for mental illnesses. To make a change, companies must decrease the stigma in the industry and raise awareness.

The Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention is helping raise awareness about the risk of suicide in the industry and provides companies tools and resources to create a safe environment. Businesses must stay informed, educated and stand up for suicide prevention.

With more companies continuing to raise awareness, mental health in the construction industry is slowly starting to lose its stigma. The industry has a responsibility to protect the lives of industry workers and help keep them safe. Check out the infographic below for more helpful information and resources you can use to help combat this crisis.

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