For many in construction, being tough-as-nails is a badge of honor, with the best remedy for pain being to “suck it up.” Discussions of mental health can often feel uncomfortable in this environment, leading many individuals to suffer in silence rather than seek help. Today’s unfortunate reality is that construction has the second-highest rate of suicide among all industries in the United States at 53.3 per 100,000 workers (CDC). This alarming increase in suicide rates among construction workers shows the true cost of a distanced approach to dealing with emotional health.
Common occupational risk factors linked to suicidal thoughts include job strain and long work hours—familiar challenges in construction with its financial incentives to work overtime and labor shortages in specific skilled trades. While perhaps not as visible as physical risks that pose dangers to worker safety, the hazards of anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts require priority attention.
While construction safety is frequently a top concern for contractors, mental health is often left out of the larger conversation of worker wellbeing. Fortunately, a growing portion of the construction industry is beginning to prioritize mental health discussion within their organizations. Greg Sizemore, vice president of health, safety, environment, and workforce development at Associated Builders and Contractors, and chair of the Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention notes that workers in physical pain from past injuries or workers who find themselves needing to keep up will turn to substances, illegal or legal, which are frequently tied to mental health issues and suicide.
Grasping the magnitude of this problem is vital for creating the necessary urgency for addressing this growing construction problem. The following article explores how the construction industry can better develop a sense of community to address the problem and support people struggling with their mental health.
A point worth repeating from the earlier article on this subject is the issue of stigma. It is important that our industry encourages dialogue about mental health. “Stigma is changed through experience. The more we speak openly about things, the more others feel permission to explore them,” explains Dr. Emily Anhalt, Co-Founder & Chief Clinical Officer of Coa. “Many people think mental health isn’t important because they’re not in crisis. But if you have a mind, you have mental health, and every single one of us needs support. We wouldn’t expect a world-class athlete to reach their potential without a coach—why do we expect ourselves to reach our own potential without support?”
When we normalize discussions and destigmatize the topic of mental health, those struggling are more likely to seek out support; and those in a position to offer resources have a better capacity to understand and provide what’s needed. Removing that stigma eliminates a barrier to social connectedness and opens a path to a feeling of community.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, mental health, just like physical health, heavily influences our quality of life and needs to be taken care of and maintained. One way to do that is through a community. A community is not just an entity or a group of people, it is also a feeling of connection. The community provides many critical elements to mental health, including a sense of belonging, support, and purpose.
“Emotional fitness is an individual journey, but a communal pursuit,” adds Dr. Anhalt. “When you go to the gym, you have to lift your own weights, no one can do that for you. Yet lifting is a lot easier when there are other people around—people to spot you, support you, encourage you to keep going, to show you how far you’ve come. The same is true with emotional fitness. We each have to do our own work, but doing the work alongside the community can make all the difference.”
Why is a community at work important? Well, the labor shortage has exacerbated the already long workdays and time that contractors must spend away from home—whether in the office, managing the project, or as a trades pro on the job site. Add to that the stresses of working in construction, including physical exertion and tight deadlines. Conditions like this can lead to mental health problems and burnout, on top of the bodily pain associated with this line of work. These issues compound for negative consequences that can affect a person’s overall quality of life. Your coworkers in construction may be the only people who truly understand what your workplace and the industry are like! It’s valuable to have a culture that recognizes these impacts on mental health.
A September 2021 survey of working Americans by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) found that 26 percent of workers hid their mental health struggles from their supervisors. The SHRM survey also found that 15 percent of supervisors did nothing in response to learning about a direct report’s mental health struggles.
Employees should be encouraged to seek mental health help just as they seek treatment for physical illnesses or injuries. They should also have support and access to resources. A healthy community includes strategies to educate workers on mental health issues and behavior that promote a supportive workplace culture. SHRM explains: “Organizations can take the lead in overcoming the stigma of seeking treatment for mental illness. Through education and advocacy, employers can ensure that employees know the symptoms and causes of mental illness and how to access mental health services.”
It is critical that the construction industry recognizes the growing mental health problem and start taking action. Coa’s CEO, Alexa Meyer, says, “Burnout is the workplace injury of the 21st century. If we don’t support the mental and emotional health of those working with us, we cannot possibly expect sustainable, quality work.”
This is further advocated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which reports that the workplace is an optimal setting to create a culture of health:
Our next article on this subject will further spotlight how companies can improve culture and community when it comes to mental health and spotlight successes and best practices around mental health in the construction workplace.