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Mental health in the construction industry: the safety risk everyone should be talking about

Consider these sobering statistics: 

  • 1 in 5 construction workers struggle with anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues.

  • Men working in construction are four times more likely to commit suicide than the general population.

  • More workers die by suicide than all work-related deaths in the construction industry today.

What this tells us is that any conversation about worker safety in the construction industry must include mental health. While safety has long been a core tenet of construction, it traditionally has focused on physical safety, not as much on mental health. It’s increasingly clear that these two issues are intrinsically linked – if a worker is struggling mentally, it can have an effect on their job performance and adherence to safety protocols.

According to a 2021 survey by the Center for Workplace Mental Health, mental health is becoming a more prevalent discussion in the construction industry. Two statistics stand out in that regard: 

  • 93 percent agreed addressing mental health at work is a sound business practice.

  • 94 percent recognized the importance of sharing mental health resources with workers to raise mental health awareness, reduce stigma, and encourage people to seek help when needed.

However, the same survey found only 51 percent of respondents agreed their organizations had a caring culture in which workers reach out for mental health care when it’s needed. Clearly, more work needs to be done. 

How safety directors can support worker mental health

1. Be vocal about mental health

Mental health is increasingly being recognized in the workplace across all industries; however, the construction industry faces a few unique challenges. For example, as a male-dominated industry, the discussion of struggles with depression, anxiety, or substance abuse has traditionally felt taboo. 

Facilitating a workplace environment where it’s okay to discuss mental health is paramount, and starts with each one of us talking about mental health as leaders and colleagues within our organization and partner ecosystem. By reducing the stigma attached to mental health, individuals can better identify mental health struggles and feel like they can come forward to seek help. 

Need help starting the conversation? Here are a few ideas: 

  • Have team members take a self-screen for depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and anger. 

  • Incorporate mental health discussions and topics into safety trainings. Seek out relatable guest speakers to come talk about mental health to the organization. 

  • Provide managers with training to spot signs of stress and other mental health conditions. Empower them with resources to support employees and get them help if necessary.  

  • Take steps to get to know team members in a genuine way; this not only will increase rapport, but also create space for communication when someone is struggling. 

2. Advocate for employee mental health benefits

In conjunction with awareness and dialogue, putting actionable company policies in place that actively support employee mental health and overall well-being is critical. These can be formal programs like an employee assistance program (EAP), which provides anonymous guidance for employees on an array of mental health issues, or it can be more cultural, such as employing flexible scheduling or PTO policies, so employees don’t feel like asking for time off for a doctor’s appointment or therapy session will negatively impact their job. 

If these types of benefits are not available within your organization or a partner, advocate for them to be included to increase overall jobsite and worker safety. 

3. Make mental health resources visible

As safety leaders, we need to ensure our workforce and partners have awareness and access to the mental health resources. Include information on how to access mental health assistance and resources throughout safety trainings and jobsite signage. These messages should be shared with trade partners and be a visible part of the organization. 

The construction industry is beginning to recognize that mental health needs to be taken more seriously. There is a tremendous amount of work to be done. 

As we consider the safety and risk factors at play, there is an even more compelling case for a more comprehensive and pervasive approach to mental health in the construction industry. It comes down to this: creating a safe working environment must include a focus on employee mental health. 

Why should you care about your partners’ mental health

“Work-related stress can have severe impacts on mental health and without proper support may lead to substance abuse and even suicide,” stated Acting Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health Jim Frederick in a press release. “Workers in construction face many work-related stressors that may increase their risk factors for suicide, such as the uncertainty of seasonal work, demanding schedules and workplace injuries that are sometimes treated with opioids.”

Beyond the inherent dangers poor mental health can produce for an individual, they can also contribute to safety risks on a job site, which brings them further into a safety leader’s purview.

The only way change is going to happen is if the industry – companies, leadership, and workers, bring awareness to the issue and take tangible steps within their organizations and communities. Safety leaders for both owners and builders in capital construction and facilities maintenance can play a key role through Partner Elevation. 

Partner Elevation means that everyone owns and is accountable for a part of the safety puzzle – this needs to include awareness and resources around mental health. It’s a risk factor that needs to be addressed and mitigated across the construction industry and can begin within your own workforce and contracting partnerships. 

Additional mental health resources: 

  • Construction Safety Week put together a comprehensive list of resources for mental health, addiction recovery, and suicide prevention. 

  • The Center for Construction Research and Training has a host of crisis and conversation-starting resources to support your mental health awareness efforts. 

  • 2Tuff2Talk helps construction workers and their families navigate mental health issues.

  • The Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-TALK (8255). 

Webinar: How Skanska Elevates Partners Through Its Care for Life Program

Learn how David Watts, Skanksa’s EHS Director, elevates his contracting partners and mentors them to think about safety as a journey and the actions he takes to continuously make them better.

Watch Now

David Tibbetts

David Tibbetts is the Chief Safety Officer at Highwire. Prior to joining Highwire David managed the Construction Safety Program at Harvard University overseeing the implementation of the University's Construction EH&S Standard, Substance Abuse Prevention Program, and use of Highwire's Contractor Safety Assessment Program.

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