As we leave 2022 and head into 2023 a shadow of uncertainty trails not only the construction industry but all industries worldwide. We’ve talked extensively about the looming recession and the possible effect it may have on construction businesses as a whole. This is an event whose shockwaves will reverberate and spread into every aspect of a company. The first thing we think of is the financial pressure contractors will face and how that’ll change how business decisions are made.
While there’ll certainly be a financial squeeze, there’s a pervasive after-effect from a recession that’s nearly impossible to quantify and deal with by shifting money around. That after-effect is stress, more specifically how that stress affects employee mental health in construction.
Mental illness has been a silent killer in construction for over a decade. The statistics are staggering. In a year, more construction workers die from suicide than every other workplace-related casualty combined. The industry also has twice the suicide rate as any other industry in the United States. The same is true in the UK where low-skilled workers had a suicide rate 44 percent higher than the national average and 29 percent higher for skilled trade workers. They were the first and second highest rates respectively.
What’s causing this?
Generally speaking, the causes of mental illness are too widespread to clearly point to a single deciding factor. There are genetic components, childhood trauma, drug and alcohol abuse, work and financial stress, as well as physical illness and injury that can take a toll on mental well-being.
The point is that trying to find a singular cause for why people become mentally ill is impossible, and the same goes for trying to point to a singular cause in construction. Despite that, there are some common trends in how the industry operates that can exacerbate mental illness.
One of these trends is simply demographic. The people at the highest risk for suicide are middle-aged white men, which accounted for nearly 70 percent of suicides in 2017. The average age of an employed construction worker is 39, 93.8 percent of them are men, and 58.7 percent are white. So part of the reason suicide is so prevalent in construction is due to the fact the majority of people working in the industry are the largest portion of the population committing suicide.
This doesn’t tell us much about why people are getting sick in the first place though. One of the major trends affecting the mental health of construction workers is opioid abuse. Due to the physical nature of a lot of jobs as well as workplace accidents, construction workers deal with chronic pain. There are essentially two ways to deal with it. One option is using pain medication like Tylenol and opioids. The other option is long-term physiotherapy. Unfortunately, the industry has tight deadlines and needs people back on the site as soon as possible, leaving the first option as the most efficient way to get back to work. Abusing drugs like opioids doesn’t only take a toll on the individual’s mental health, but makes the workplace less safe in general.
The other major indicators leading to stress and mental illness in construction are a lack of job control and welfare concerns. A lack of job control is associated with limited opportunities for decision-making, an inability to speak about happenings in the workplace, imbalanced work distribution, and inconsistency in the communication flow. Welfare concerns are associated with job insecurity, the inability to further career development, and financial insecurity. The interesting part of welfare concerns isn’t that they were limited to laborers, but also included middle and higher levels of the industry. For example, even overpromotion can create job insecurity because it leads to burnout caused by the overwork done as a means for an employee to prove themselves.
How can improvement happen?
As an employer, you won’t be able to snap your fingers and remove stress and mental illness from workers’ lives but it’s still important to make mental health a priority at your company. Not only will it improve the quality of life for your people, but it’ll also help make your company more productive and appealing for a younger generation of workers.
Making employee mental health a priority means you need to develop a company culture where it is discussed and there are resources for workers to use either proactively or reactively if they’re suffering in the moment. Some of these resources can include helplines like SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration), having seminars and guest speakers come in for mental health discussions, additional vacation time, and comprehensive health care that includes mental health services and physical health services like physiotherapy.
Beyond the resources offered, leadership and supervisors have to take the first step in talking about mental health and normalizing the conversation for everyone. This may mean getting vulnerable in front of employees and making it clear there’s an understanding that construction is a stressful job and you’re there to help reduce that stress and make their role as clear as possible.
It’s become ubiquitous in construction to talk about workplace safety and to make sure it’s a priority so injuries can be avoided. While that’s important, it’s vital that the health of employees becomes ubiquitous too, especially since more people are dying of mental health issues than all safety incidents combined.
The way you plan your projects can play a role in making mental health a priority in the coming year. Taking a proactive people-first approach can help make project timelines more realistic and reduce stress on the workforce.
Two of the trends leading to mental illness in construction are job control and welfare concerns. Both of these issues will always exist to some extent, but they can be mitigated. By planning your projects well and making sure your workforce is utilized effectively you can reduce burnout by not spreading people too thin.
A major problem in construction project planning is that it’s reactive. Many contractors don’t bother planning their workforce for project pursuits, so when they win them they have to scramble to find labor. Doing this drags employees from one job to another without a thought for their satisfaction. By planning your workforce for pursuits you can develop longer-term plans for hiring and labor needs. You won’t take on jobs that you can’t handle, leading to better overall business decisions.
Remember, randomness exacerbates stress. If your team is already under stress due to tight deadlines and budgets, imagine when they have to scramble to a new job site with little notice. Over time, the stress will compound and can lead to mental health issues.
Using a people-first approach to planning your workforce entails the development of your workforce too. One way you could do that is to take inexperienced employees eager to develop and create teams where they’re learning from more senior team members. One of them gets to learn new skills and the other gets to learn how to lead.
Often when we talk about employee mental health we’re talking from a reactive position, trying to figure out how to fix a problem that’s already there. One of the best things you can do is to proactively try to develop the skills of your team. This does a few things:
- Gives employees a sense of purpose. They feel like they’re striving towards something.
- As people develop, more career opportunities open up meaning they can be paid more, and have transferable skills resulting in job security.
- Employee satisfaction improves, and this makes people more productive and willing to work for your company long-term.
- People can build networks inside your company. This is important because it builds cross-functional teams that trust each other. Having widespread trust in your company leads to people willing to talk about, and support each other through any mental health issues.
Taking a people-first approach to planning and developing your people will prove to be invaluable. Having healthy employees isn’t antithetical to running a profitable construction company. Since we know that people are at the center of project delivery, healthy, satisfied people can only make those projects better.