We need to talk about mental health in the construction industry
Although there is more awareness about mental health now than there was ten years ago, it continues to be referred to as “the silent epidemic” impacting construction workers around the world. Suicide rates for people in the construction industry are 3X higher than the United States national average. Men in high skill and high stakes occupations are 1.5X more likely to die by suicide. According to one study, 1 in 5 construction workers suffer from mental illness.
We may have come a long way, but there is still a long way to go.
What Is Mental Health?
Mental health refers to the psychological well-being of a person. It incorporates both emotional and behavioural health. Mental health can be impacted by a variety of serious illnesses including depression, anxiety and chronic stress.
Mental well-being is not just one thing. Image borrowed from Thrive Global.
Although the very nature of mental wellbeing is internal and emotional, it can manifest itself in physical symptoms. A decreased ability to focus, lower quality of sleep, loss of appetite and a decreased ability to interact with coworkers and management are all symptoms of mental illness. It can also manifest itself in physical symptoms. These include an increased risk of more severe health issues such as panic attacks, heart attacks and strokes. Together, these can increase the chance of injury in the workplace and put both an employee and those around them in danger.
Construction is already so focused on safety and PPE, and mental wellness needs to become a part of that. It will not be immediate or easy, but just like with physical safety, the impact can be life-saving. It’s time to take this silent crisis and make it loud.
Why Is Mental Health A Problem in Construction?
There are a number of factors which make mental health in the construction industry more apparent than other industries. In an article for Construction News Dr. Alys Cole-King, psychiatrist and director of Connecting With People and Open Minds Health says, “The construction industry lifestyle, particularly those who work on site, is highly relevant. People who work away from home, perhaps for weeks at a time, may be removed from their regular close social network.”
Stress levels, feelings of loneliness, isolation, and depression can all be impacted by these factors. This is especially relevant as the winter season approaches northern geographies where snow removal can demand days on site with little time at home.
Related to this is how the mental health of your employees actually plays a role in the production and value of a business. While the industry itself can impact the mental health of your employees, the mental health of your employees is also affecting your business.
Mental health in the construction industry needs to be talked about openly, and frequently. It needs to be taken serious. Image borrowed from Construction Coach.
How Does Construction Impact Mental Health?
– Seasonal work and possible layoffs
– A highly competitive, “macho” culture
– Expectation of over time and working long hours
– Difficulty securing payment from clients
– Physical exhaustion which can impact life outside of work
– Workplace injuries which can lead to chronic pain, psychological trauma and missed hours
The Influence of A Mainly Male Work Demographic
Construction continues to be a male-dominated industry. Men are already less likely to talk about emotional issues, stress, depression, or anxiety than women are. They are also less likely to seek help or support from professional services or for help in finding these services if they feel they need help.
Other male-dominated industries such as police, paramedics, and firefighting are challenging these social norms. As front-line workers, they see the reality of mental health almost daily. It can be shocking and scary, and encourages a deeper consideration for the impact mental health can have on a life.
Men in these fields have become some of the most outspoken advocates about the value of taking care of yourself, both psychologically and physically. Barriers can be broken. Construction needs to be next.
Making Policy Changes To Support Employees
Trying to create a safe place for employees mentally is much like creating a safe place for employees physically: it is not going to be immediate, it must be an ongoing initiative, and it needs to involve support and changes at all levels. The first step is to update and adjust policy and company procedures.
Organizations like the Canadian Mental Health Association and the National Institute of Mental Health in the US both offer resources for companies and individuals who are looking for information about programs and support systems.
Resources for Americans about mental health assistance can be found at the National Institute of Mental Health.
Canadians can access resources for mental health assistance at the Canadian Mental Health Association.
The Canadian National Standard for Psychological Health and Safety (simply referred to as The Standard) is a voluntary standard that companies can use as a platform for creating a safe place for their employees. This standard, launched in 2013, provides a set of guidelines, tools, and resources to help empower organizations and companies to take action in promoting mental health.
There is no American version of the Standard, but the Candian Mental Health Association does work with American partners to help share learnings and resources.
MATES in Construction is an Australian initiative which provides an evidence-driven plan for making the construction industry safer. Although it’s Australian, the resources and data are in line with what is happening in North America.
It is important that companies do not shy away from the challenge of making procedural and standardized changes to support this movement. “The Standard” gives a guideline for getting started and is a great tool for any business. In construction, there is already such a strong foundation around safety, that an easy way to begin is to include mental health in with safety talks and training.
Proudly Promote Mental Health
Safety and construction already go hand in hand. You don’t think twice about posting reminders to wear PPE on the worksite, but we rarely consider the impact of mental health on workplace safety. A due diligence for safety should be expanded and applied to mental health services and wellbeing as well.
Work to bring awareness to depression, loneliness and anxiety the same way you would for falls, electrocution, and crush injuries. Seek out experts in the field of mental health and invite them to the safety talks. Ask their advice on what you can be doing in the workplace.
It is possible to make safe work spaces for the mind the same way that that you make safe work spaces for the body. These initiatives all contribute to challenging the stigma and supporting the conversation around mental illness.
Employees Are Protected
Educate employees on their rights and protections associated with mental health. Both Canada and the US have disability laws which protect anyone with a disability from discrimination in the workplace: the Americans with Disabilities Act in the USA, and the Disability Rights of Canada within the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
These laws include mental health and illness as well.
Educate employees about these rights to help them understand what they are entitled to and what to expect when seeking help. Knowing there cannot and will not be any legal retaliation to speaking up for what they need can give a lot of people comfort and courage.
Provide The Support Your Employees Need
Include counselling services as a part of your employee benefits package to make it accessible for your employees to get the help they need. Awareness is growing but access to quality mental health services continues to be difficult for many people. 60% of people diagnosed with mental illness do not receive treatment. Highlight these features to your team and make them known.
Be Trained To Make a Difference
Mental health first aid, and Psychological Health and Safety Advisor courses empower people to recognize and support those who are suffering from mental illness in the workplace. The purpose of these training programs are to provide a safety service. It should be viewed the same way CPR or physical First Aid is. Mental Health First Aid Canada offers courses to train people to recognize and support those struggling with mental health. Mental Health First Aid USA offers the same types of services, as well.
“When moments of crisis occur, people don’t often rise to the occasion, but they sink to their level of training. Making safety procedures and responses a drill which we follow are what save lives,” says Lawrence Blake, Program Manager for Mental Health Works with the Canadian Mental Health Association of Ontario. These courses provide this same training for responding to mental health or suicide crises in the workplace.
When choosing who to train in these programs, there are different levels of influence within a company to consider: management and leadership. Blake identifies the difference between them and their role in creating a safe space in the workplace.
“Management is an appointed position within a company. They are the managers, CEO’S, site supervisors, etc. Leaders aren’t appointed, and can be found at any and all levels of an organization,” says Blake. “From the worker sweeping to the manager of a big team, anyone can be a leader. It’s an innate quality which defies any job description. It’s important to work with both management and leaders when working towards the creation of a space space.”
When implementing changes, you need the support of management. You can’t leave managers and supervisors out of the initiatives. At the same time, people who show leadership qualities need to be included. This ensures that workers have access to trained individuals on site and in the office and have access to someone who is available for vulnerable, open, and honest conversations.
Seek Help Where You Can Get It
The first step in getting help is to ask for it. There are many different ways to get access to resources, none of them the “right” way.
Doctors, local help lines, and online resources are all available through a quick search. These tools are useful to connect you to the appropriate people and groups that can provide the support really needed. If you don’t feel comfortable talking to a professional, seek a friend or loved one. The most important action that you can take is to seek help and tell someone. There’s a really great video from the same organizers as Movember which looks at the importance of seeking help and talking about problems. You can see it here.
Campaign from Movember for men’s mental health. Image borrowed from Movember.
Movember is a well-known men’s health movement associated with November mustaches that men grow to raise awareness for men’s health. The movement originally brought awareness to physical health issues like prostate cancer. In has transformed to incorporate all aspects of men’s health, including mental health. They have another helpful resource called Heads Up Guys which has great support information as well.
It’s time to embrace the fact that everyone – construction workers include – are humans. It’s human to struggle and it’s human to ask for help. Therefore, the stigma needs to end for us to truly support each other. Mental health should be protected the same way physical health is. The construction industry can lead the way in this movement and can make it the responsibility of everyone in the industry to protect the men and women who work in it.