In an industry that can be deadline-oriented in the best of times, the pandemic and nationwide supply chain shortages have compounded stressful conditions for many of your construction clients and their employees.
Workers are stretched thin. They’re concerned about their livelihoods and ability to provide for their families. Longer job hours and back-to-back jobs increase injury risk—and Covid-19 remains a threat.
But there is hope. More companies are providing resources to help employees so they can better manage stress. Conversations are happening that encourage workers to tell someone when they’re not coping well. It takes time and intentionality, but change can happen.
It’s important to examine what the construction environment looks like today. Then, solutions can be discussed on how employers can help their workforce stay mentally and physically healthy. Mental health awareness must come from the top down and be taken seriously by management. By implementing the right steps today, the future of employee well-being looks much brighter for your construction clients.
The State of Mental Health in Construction
Nearly two years after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, construction workers are as busy as ever.
Residential homebuilding is in a market frenzy. Its commercial counterpart faces supply chain problems that drive up building costs and make meeting deadlines more challenging. Labor shortages put excessive stress on employees to do more work in less time.
These factors mix into a field that has one of the highest suicide rates of any industry. A 2020 CDC press release stated the suicide rate for men in the construction industry is almost twice the total suicide rate for working men in other civilian sectors.
Every day, many workers are battling a mental illness that’s eating away at them, often without anyone else knowing there’s an issue.
But, the world is changing. Mental well-being conversations are normalized instead of taboo.
Companies are seeing the importance of providing resources to employees to manage their mental health and stress levels.
“It’s an important part of what they [an employer] need to bring to an employee,” said Pam Guttman, Senior Safety Specialist at Safesite.
Supporting employees’ mental health will lead to healthier lives and drive long-term retention. A better mindset on the job site can help reduce the number of physical injuries.
How Contractors Can Help Employees
Mental health resources and conversations are common in white-collar work environments. But construction is unique for myriad reasons. There is an assumption that construction workers are “tough” individuals and therefore it can be difficult identifying who might need help if employees don’t self-present. For this reason it is even more important that managers stay vigilant.
“You’re always holding a lethal weapon when you’re working in construction,” said Guttman.
The dangers of daily tasks alone can put a strain on the mental fortitude of workers. According to Guttman, a small break from the grind of the job can have the most impact on a worker’s mental health.
It all starts with a conversation, preferably at a tailgate or toolbox meeting. Supervisors need to address mental health and offer resources to workers. Make it a regular part of their daily meetings.
Next, have your client implement tangible rewards and actions related to employee stress:
- Build-in time for breaks (in shady areas if it’s hot) to give employees a mental and physical pause from their current tasks
- Bring food trucks or offer on-site meals and snacks on days when there are safety meetings and mental health discussions
- Encourage time away with family, such as outdoor outings or movie nights at home with snacks and treats
Small investments in employees’ lives demonstrate an employer cares about them. What may seem insignificant can give someone a break and get their minds away from a problem at exactly the right time.
Making Mental Health a Management Priority
Mental health isn’t measurable like near misses or fall injuries. As a result, it’s hard for leadership to see the impact of mental health on their crews.
But, to continue changing the perception of mental health, construction managers must make it a priority.
Workers should feel okay and comfortable speaking with someone about their mental health struggles.
Something tangible employers can do is offer programs and benefits that help employees lead healthier lives, such as:
- Wellness programs to encourage physical activity, which improves mental health
- Employee assistance programs with access to mental health professionals
- Implementing a reward system for positive behaviors
When people feel good about themselves, they’ll appreciate their employer. An important part of this relationship is building trust with an employee. Communication is essential to trust.
In updated guidelines for construction firms, the CDC recommends discussing how the pandemic affects jobs and what’s going on in the company. When employees know what’s happening, it eases their stress.
Resources for Managing Stress on the Job-Site
On every job site, an employer should be their employee’s advocate. Managing the stress level in construction is dictated mainly by the interaction between managers and workers.
Prepare templates or utilize technology that helps managers lead mental well-being conversations during meetings.
Identify leading indicators that suggest someone is struggling and encourage them to take a break or step away during moments of increased stress.
What the Future Looks Like
In every industry, mental health is increasingly a normalized topic. Business leaders, HR staff, and safety managers recognize the need for support.
“The more we can be proactive in planning to work on that, the more we’ll be able to work on the mental health for everybody,” said Guttman.
Safety technology will play a significant role in reducing incidents but also helping foster the mental health conversation.
OSHA and other organizations, like the Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention (CSAP), provide resources to help employers and construction workers address mental well-being and, as a result, lower suicide rates.
There are many positive indicators in the construction industry that suggest mental health will be a priority. As more and more construction industry firms address it and offer support, we will see employees live more fruitful lives and not struggle in silence.