Building a Case for Construction Mental Health

Almost two years ago, Amy Morin wrote an article in Forbes’ online magazine addressing mental health in the construction industry. That article has resonated with me since I first read it. In an industry that can be challenging and stressful, it’s important to recognize the impact of mental health problems, and in recent years, employers have increasingly understood the very real impact of stress and anxiety in the workplace. Breaking the stigma of mental health by raising awareness can only be a good thing when it comes to chipping away at frightening statistics.

Pressure caused by the working patterns and demands of a life in construction can exacerbate the impact on emotional health and well-being. In a sector with a high number of male workers, the specific risks associated for men and mental ill health cannot be ignored.

As Morin noted in her article, here are the facts:

  • Construction jobs are still predominantly filled by young males. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for men in the United States between the ages of 25 and 54 (CDC).
  • Men in high-stakes and high-skill occupations are almost 1.5 times more likely to die by suicide (Business Insider).
  • People in occupations that don’t require any education after high school are at a higher risk of suicide (The British Journal of Psychiatry).

Of course, the culture that exists in most construction companies doesn’t lend itself to talking about feelings. Many construction workers pride themselves on “being tough,” which prevents them from admitting there’s a problem and stops them from seeking help.

Seasonal unemployment, long hours, and exhaustion can also trigger mental health issues. Unfortunately, many workers go undiagnosed and untreated, putting the construction industry in the top nine occupations at risk for suicide.

The construction industry can be notoriously difficult to change. It is multi-organizational (joint ventures, framework contracts) and has a multi-tiered supply chain with numerous and exacting requirements.

There’s also a very high emphasis on driving out costs with tight margins posing a challenge across many projects. All these factors can serve to make the industry a challenging one in which to work.

On top of that add the fact that mental health issues are difficult to identify, as there are often no obvious visible symptoms.

Common mental health problems include anxiety and some forms of depression. Anxiety is defined as “an unpleasant feeling when you feel worried, uneasy or distressed about something that may or may not be about to happen”; while depression is defined as “when you have feelings of extreme sadness, despair or inadequacy that last for a long time” (Buildings Magazine, 2014).

In an environment such as construction where there are deadline-driven targets that sometimes put workers under intolerable pressure, and where a male-dominated workplace might pre vent those feeling under pressure from seeking appropriate help, many suffer in silence, sometimes with tragic results.

According to an article published by Buildings Magazine, 88 percent of those working in construction experienced workplace stress, and a study by the Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB, 2006) found that 85 percent felt the industry did not do enough to address mental health in the workplace.

Recently though, the construction industry began to take notice. It realized that its workers weren’t just at a high risk of mental health problems, but they were also at a high risk of suicide.

The Construction Industry Blueprint was created to help managers put protective factors into place to reduce the risk of suicide. The blueprint offers strategies employers can use to educate and support their employees. It is filled with useful tips to help construction managers change the culture of their work place so they can reduce the stigma associated with mental health problems.

It also gives supervisors scripts to help them talk to someone they believe might be at risk of suicide. Additionally, it offers ideas about how they can lead the conversation about mental health.

The construction industry is making suicide prevention a top priority. By educating employees, offering resources to support them, and intervening when a problem exists, it’s likely these efforts are saving lives. For your copy of the Construction Industry Blueprint, just send me an email: bblack (at) bhsn (dot) org