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 significant progress in promoting and supporting a healthier work environment. Unfortunately, mental illness still greatly impacts the construction workforce.
According to a study conducted by CIRP, 83% of construction workers have struggled with mental health issues. On top of that, suicide rates have skyrocketed over the years due to the negative stigma associated with mental health in the construction sector.
With mental health concerns on the rise in the wake of COVID-19, the construction industry needs to raise awareness about this epidemic to minimize the risks associated with mental illnesses.
Read on to find out what factors play a role in mental health in the industry and preventive tips your company can follow to maintain a healthy work environment. Or jump straight to the infographic below.
What Impacts Mental Health in the Construction Industry?
Many different factors come into play when looking at the construction industry’s impact on mental health. As with any job, there are emotional and physical stresses that can cause strain on mental well-being.
Some of the factors impacting mental health specifically 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 stigma harms the construction workforce because workers may not be equipped with the necessary tools and programs to support their mental well-being, forcing them to battle their struggles in silence. This ultimately can lead to more serious mental health concerns like suicide, a major problem within the industry.
Suicide is a national issue that affects many different sectors. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (ASFP), 47,511 Americans died from suicide in 2019. When analyzing the suicide rates by industry, construction was one of the five major sectors with the highest suicide rates, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The following statistics reflect the demographic breakdown of suicide rates in the construction industry.
- In 2021, 96% of construction workers were male and 85% were white. [BLS]
- The rate of suicide is highest in middle-aged white men. [ASFP]
- Men die by suicide 3.56 times more often than women. [ASFP]
- Construction has one of the highest suicide rates of any industry. [CDC]
Substance Abuse and Suicide in Construction
Injury and illness rates in construction are higher than in any other industry. Because construction workers often experience injuries from falls and other accidents, they are often prescribed painkillers to combat pain and get back to work sooner.
A 2018 study conducted by the Midwest Economic Policy Institute found that 20% of spending on prescription drugs was used for opioids in the construction industry. The same study found that 15% of construction workers suffered from substance abuse disorders, many of them stemming from the use of opioids for pain management.
- 20% of spending on prescription drugs was used for opioids in the construction industry in 2018. [MEPI]
- 15% of construction workers suffer from substance abuse disorders. [MEPI]
- Opioid abuse increases the likelihood of suicide attempts by 75%. [Addiction Center]
- Men with opioid addiction are twice as likely to fall victim to suicide as men without an addiction. [Addiction Center]
When looking at these alarming facts, it’s safe to say that mental health awareness needs to be a priority in the construction 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 end the mental health crisis in the construction industry. Here’s what you can do to help.
Create a Safe Space for Conversation
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 and encourages them to share any mental health battles they may be facing. Companies should prioritize a safe emotional space for employees just as much as physical safety.
“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 a personal investment into the team.”
In a story published by NPR, construction company RK Mechanical said it had made mental health a part of its regular “toolbox talks” after losing one of its employees to suicide.
Provide Mental Health Benefits and Resources
Counseling services should be a part of every employee’s benefits package, and companies should encourage access to mental health services and additional resources. Employees may not feel comfortable coming to their employer at first, but providing them with the resources and tools they need to find help can have a substantial impact.
For workers who know they need help but don’t know where to start, resources like the Suicide Prevention Lifeline and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration resource list could help tremendously. Offering mental health days or flexible hours can also make it easier for employees to attend therapy or medical appointments.
Educate Yourself and Your Team
Education is powerful, and when your team has the proper training and education, they will be better equipped to handle high-stress situations. Proper education is one of the first steps toward 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.”
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 adequately handle these high-stress situations.
Offer Mental Health First Aid Training
Providing training for managers and employees can help them understand the signs and offer help should a crisis arise. Mental Health First Aid training is available and provides training on mental health and substance abuse issues.
“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 abuse 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 can identify and mitigate risks associated with mental illness.
Know the Warning Signs
Proper training and education can make early warning signs of mental illnesses easier to spot. Some of the warning signs you may see in employees include:
- Decrease in productivity
- Increase in conflict with other team members
- Isolation from coworkers
Should any of these signs present in workers, respond immediately to avoid a more serious consequence.
Mental Health Resources for Construction Workers
If you or one of your employees is experiencing a mental health emergency, the following resources can help:
- Construction Working Minds: Construction Working Minds aims to increase awareness and provide resources on suicide prevention in the industry.
- Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention: CIASP provides resources and tools to construction professionals to help create and promote a zero-suicide industry.
- National Suicide Prevention Hotline: You can call 1-800-273-TALK at any time for free, confidential support.
- Crisis Text Line: Text HOME to 741741 at any time to speak to a trained crisis counselor.
- COVID Coach: This free app provides education, self-care tools and well-being tips and allows you to track your mental health progress.
The nature and structure of the construction industry put workers at significant risk for mental illness, and employers have a responsibility to protect their employees’ lives and safety. To make a change, companies must stay informed, decrease the stigma in the industry and create space for discussion. Check out the infographic below for more helpful information and resources you can use to help combat the crisis.