Poor Mental Health Huge Concern on U.S. Jobsites

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Originally Published by: EHS Today — August 4, 2021
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Ask what the top dangers of construction work are and you’ll get the same answers almost every time: falls, electrocution, caught-ins and struck-bys. Yet more construction workers die from suicide each year than every other workplace-related fatality combined.

In fact, the construction industry has the highest suicide rate of any profession, and more than 80% of construction workers have experienced stress at work. Working tirelessly throughout the COVID-19 pandemic to support their families and communities has only exacerbated the stress, burnout and mental health struggles for these essential workers.

But there’s a deeper issue: Most individuals struggling with mental health do not seek help or express their feelings to others.

In the male-dominated world of construction—where mental health discussions are rare—it’s critical for employers to cultivate a workplace environment in which workers feel supported and comfortable discussing mental health issues. Providing support and the right resources can help shift the industry’s outdated mindset around mental well-being.

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Stressed in Silence

Workers in the construction industry are more vulnerable to burnout than in any other field, and for good reason. Long, irregular hours spent in dangerous work environments, along with the added stress of job insecurity, are major stressors. Not to mention, workers now face concerns about materials shortages, exposure to COVID-19 and the risk of government-mandated shutdowns, which can cost them their jobs.

The majority of construction workers never express their feelings or seek help. Nearly 60% of construction workers reported struggling with mental health, but only a third said they would communicate this to their employers. Their reasoning for not telling their employer about their struggles includes fear of embarrassment, a belief their employer wouldn’t be able to help, and the fear it would negatively impact their career.

The stigma around mental health discussions—particularly among men, who make up nearly 90% of the construction industry—causes individuals to resort to unhealthy coping mechanisms. And chronic stress can contribute to more serious mental and physical health issues like high blood pressure, diabetes, exhaustion, decreased immune system, depression and anxiety. But it’s not just individual employees who are at risk: The mental health of your employees can affect your entire organization.

More mistakes: Depression and anxiety coupled with long workdays can lead to a lack of sleep, a significant hazard on construction sites. Construction work is dangerous and often involves handling heavy machinery, performing electrical work or working on tall buildings. But the likelihood of accidents is even greater when exhaustion and mental absenteeism are in the equation. More mistakes increase the likelihood of accidents, resulting in more injuries and legal implications for your company.

Lost focus and decreased productivity: Poor mental health contributes to lost productivity in the workplace, from a lack of focus on-site to missed work due to sick days. Research shows there is a negative and significant correlation between job burnout and job performance, which can also negatively affect relationships between colleagues. Additionally, employees with mental health issues are twice as likely to be distracted on the job. And according to the CDC, depression causes an estimated 200 million lost workdays each year, costing organizations valuable time and money.

Not surprisingly, the prevalence of mental health issues is significantly higher in organizations that fail to prioritize the well-being of their workers. So, it’s critical to pursue strategies to proactively reduce stress and promote mental health in the workplace.

How to Support Your Workers’ Mental Health

Cultivating a supportive workplace environment begins with reducing the stigma around mental health. By normalizing these discussions and providing the right tools and resources, you can create a safe space for your workers.

Take Preventative Measures While you can’t magically remove stress from the workplace, there are measures you can take to help reduce workers’ stress. Job stress is caused by several factors, role ambiguity being one of the top contributors. You can avoid this by clearly communicating what your expectations are, what your workers’ specific roles are, and who each individual should take directions from on-site. You should also encourage your workers to take regular breaks, which are good for both their mental and physical health. But for preventative measures to gain traction, you need supervisors and managers to model self-care and take breaks themselves.

Training supervisors to spot signs of mental health struggles and high stress is an invaluable preventative measure to invest in. But this type of training is much more effective if you have solid rapport with your workers. Vulnerability is essential in building strong relationships with your workers: Share your failures, discuss personal topics outside of your work and most importantly, be genuine.

Discuss to Destigmatize Adherence to masculine norms is typical in the construction industry, and it often prevents men from expressing their emotions and speaking up about mental health struggles. While eliminating the stigma about mental health is no easy feat, supervisors and workers may benefit from regular mental health check-ins. Research from Health Shield shows that 57% of workers would feel more loyal to their jobs, be more productive and take less time off work if their employer supported their mental well-being.

Another positive approach to improving mental health involves hosting guest speakers and seminars in the workplace. It’s important to find a diverse pool of speakers who your workers can relate to and who can act as positive role models. Hearing others speak up about mental struggles can help individuals recognize their own struggles and encourage them to address these issues.

Provide Tools for Outside the Workplace Some people are simply not willing to express their mental health concerns, regardless of how supportive your workplace may be. So, to help these individuals, you need to provide resources and tools for workers to use on their own time. An effective first step is to increase awareness around local and national resources, like the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). SAMHSA offers a national helpline that provides referral routing services for individuals and families facing mental health challenges and substance use disorders. You can also compile information about nearby resource centers and their hours to make it convenient for workers to receive the help they need, outside the workplace.

Another worthwhile resource is an employee well-being portal, which can range from a mobile app to a website portal. Here, you can provide short videos about topics like exercise and the importance of gut health for mental health, options to log food or exercise, and quizzes to gauge well-being. Tools like these are meant to educate and motivate workers, while creating a culture of support. An employee well-being platform allows workers to explore these options in the comfort of their homes, and share resources with family members.

Normalize Discussions Around Mental Health

Your main priority should be the safety of your workers, mental health included. Stigmas about mental health have prevented many people, especially men, from seeking the help they need. In the construction industry, redefining gender norms and cultural expectations can help normalize mental health discussions, reduce suicide rates and encourage men—and women—to speak up about their struggles.