Recently the National Center for Construction Education & Research put an important spotlight on mental health in the construction workforce, saying: “Construction workers are at high risk because of what their jobs entail and the culture that surrounds it.” 

The COVID-19 pandemic and its lockdowns and uncertainties brought forward a heightened concern for mental health as more people are experiencing stress, depression, and anxiety. The climate also exposed how companies lack sufficient resources to handle and support employee wellness when it comes to mental health. For the construction industry, this situation compounded the difficulties in what many already experienced as stressful work conditions. Supply chain disruptions and increased workloads added to mental strain and workplace stress. 

An opportunity to do better has presented itself. While we have adapted to ‘pandemic operating conditions’ for business to return to normal, the underlying stresses for construction workers persist. Now is an important time to understand mental health and how to support those who are struggling.

Let’s be clear on what mental health is and is not. Dr. Emily Anhalt, Co-Founder & Chief Clinical Officer of Coa, explains: “People think that mental health is a dichotomy—that there is either mental health or mental illness. That is not the case. Mental health is a spectrum we’re all on, and often we’re on many parts of that spectrum at the same time.” 

The most widely agreed-upon definition is: Mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make healthy choices. 

Mental and physical health are equally important components of overall health. Yet, they are often viewed very differently, and particularly so in construction. 

Mental Health & Work

Workplace mental health can be measured by factors such as financial insecurity, burnout, supervisor support, workplace stress, and mental illness. If you’ve been giving your own mental health consideration lately, you’re not alone. Recent surveys reveal that:

  • 40% of workers experienced mental health issues in 2021, twice as many as in 2020
  • 9 in 10 employees feel their workplace stress affects their mental health
  • 4 in 5 employees feel emotionally drained from their work, an early sign of burnout

There were 7.8 million construction jobs in 2020 and continued growth is expected due to increased demand for residential housing, infrastructural upgrades, and other projects. While growth certainly has its benefits, there are impacts on mental health as well, and the time to give proper attention and support around the mental health of the construction workforce is long overdue.

Mental Health, Under Construction

The construction workplace presents a unique combination of factors that influence mental health. We’ll touch on them in detail, but in brief, the top 3 factors are Stress, Addiction, and Stigma.

Despite the common “Safety First” mantra on jobsites (a phrase that refers to physical protections to mitigate risk and meet requirements, not mental health), it is job stress that is considered one of the critical causes of construction workers’ unsafe behaviors.

1. STRESS

People working in construction are often confronted with issues that can lead to high levels of stress, anxiety, and depression.
A recent study found that common risk factors for stress are prevalent in the construction industry:

  • High-pressure work environment
  • Separation from family (long work hours and travel)
  • Financial instability (end-of-season layoffs)
  • Pervasive alcohol and substance abuse

While income uncertainty isn’t unique to construction, it’s worth noting:

  • Construction workers are paid an average annual salary of $24,802 (and the average starting salary is $17,000) In 2021, women earned 91% of what men earned.
  • The construction labor shortage has been a problem for over a decade, but the COVID-19 pandemic has put even more pressure on an already understaffed workforce.

Also, statistics around age and sex further paint a somber picture of stress’ impact among construction workers:

  • According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the majority of the construction workforce is made up of men between the ages of 25 and 54 (Suicide is the second most common cause of death for this demographic)
  • In construction, workers are six times more likely to die by suicide than they are to die from a fall.

 

2. ADDICTION & SUBSTANCE ABUSE

Ranking high among stress triggers in construction are chronic pain, performance expectations, and sleep deprivation. The demanding physical nature of construction promotes an environment that strains the body and mind. For many construction workers, their constant lingering pain leads them toward substances like alcohol and pain medication as a means of dealing with these issues.

Employees in construction have nearly twice the rate of substance abuse as the national average. Data from a National Survey on Drug Use reveals how dramatically construction workers are affected:

  • 16.5% of construction workers reported heavy alcohol consumption, nearly twice the average of all full-time workers surveyed
    14.3% of construction workers were diagnosed with a substance use disorder, more than 1.5 times the average of all full-time workers surveyed

According to the National Safety Council, the opioid epidemic has hit our industry especially hard:

  • The rate of construction workers reporting an opioid use disorder is almost twice the national average.
  • Almost 3 out of 4 injured construction workers were prescribed a narcotic pain killer in 2016.

Other recent findings from the CDC reveal that:

  • Construction workers are 7 times more likely to die of an opioid overdose than workers in other industries
  • Construction workers represent about 25% of fatal opioid overdoses among all workers

 

3. STIGMA

Finally, it’s critical to address the role of stigma (particularly in the construction industry) to understand the path to providing mental health support and removing obstacles to seeking treatment.

In behavioral health, “stigma” is defined as a level of shame, prejudice, or discrimination toward people with mental health or substance-use conditions. Because of stigma, such conditions are often treated differently from other chronic conditions, and likewise, prevent people from seeking help.

The demographics of the construction industry may perpetuate this stigma. More than 87% of construction workers are men. A work culture that boasts characteristics of tough, rugged, and manly can negatively affect people’s mental well-being and safety because employees don’t feel comfortable discussing mental health.

Clearly, a key step the construction industry can take to address mental health is to reduce the stigma around discussing it. Dr. Anhalt advises: “In the male-dominated construction industry, it’s likely that there is a lot of stigma and pressure not to express emotional struggles. Reducing the stigma, normalizing mental health as part of the conversation, and increasing mental health benefits are key. Just as we look after the physical health of construction workers, we have to make sure that mental health benefits are part of standard insurance packages, offer no-questions-asked mental health days, and train leaders to direct people to the right support when they’re struggling.”

We Can Do Better

We appreciate you taking the time to read this article that exposed some startling facts, scary challenges, and unfortunate impacts facing the construction industry in the area of mental health. Please know resources are available and we will feature them in more articles to follow, along with recommendations for employers seeking to do better for their construction workers in the days ahead.

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health, help is available:

SAMHSA’s National Helpline is a free, confidential, 24/7, 365-day-a-year treatment referral and information service (in English and Spanish) for individuals and families facing mental and/or substance use disorders. Call 1-800-662-HELP (4357) or visit https://www.samhsa.gov/find-help/national-helpline.