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The problem of mental health in construction


Woman depicting poor mental health in construction

It’s time to turn our lens to mental health in construction—one of the industry’s deep-seated yet unspoken obstacles. Let’s start with the good news. Acknowledgment of mental health and its treatments has become more prevalent and socially acceptable. As more people become comfortable discussing it, the consensus is that it affects everyone from world-class athletes to parents taking care of their families.

But construction is still notoriously plagued by mental health issues. These impact not only the individual worker, but their coworkers, supervisors, companies, and the industry overall.


According to McKinsey, “The construction sector is one of the largest in the world economy, with about $10 trillion spent on construction-related goods and services every year. However, the industry’s productivity has trailed that of other sectors for decades, and there is a $1.6 trillion opportunity to close the gap.” The industry has to change to save not only itself but—more importantly—those who work in it.


If you’ve spent any time on a major construction site, you’ve seen the OSHA poster with the big four construction hazards on it. In reality, mental health is a greater risk for construction workers than the big four combined. The CDC reports that men in construction commit suicide at a rate of 49.3/100,000. That’s close to twice the rate of other industries in 32 states for working-age men. It’s five times more than the rate for all fatal work-related injuries in the construction industry.


Why are the numbers surrounding mental health in construction so disastrous?

So, what’s the root cause of this sobering statistic? Similar to the labor shortage crisis there are multiple reasons.


Let’s begin with the extreme demands on the individual workers to produce. The construction industry, especially in certain areas such as New York City, places high demands on companies to build within an extremely tight schedule. One unforeseen condition that causes a delay could have a ripple effect where time can’t be made up without working around the clock. The demands quickly roll down hill from senior project executives to project managers. Then to project superintendents and finally to the trade workers themselves. With each step comes an increased sense of urgency to make up for lost time.

Sacrificing mental health in construction equates to loss of time and money.

Another common scenario that worsens mental health in construction is when a hyper-competitive market forces companies to under-bid jobs. With those companies immediately in the red before they even mobilize, the pressure is on to make up for the losses. No matter the cost. This translates to extreme stress and even worse decision making. In some instances, it can even lead to contractors’ being removed from the project. In the long run, this directly affects the overall productivity of the individual, team, and company. Not having a clear mind to think critically can result in lost time and money for the overall project. Contractors and developers must understand that the higher demands, the greater the stress. And in the end, the project suffers, too.


Not all issues with mental health in construction derive from unattainable schedules and budgets. The way the industry operates, workers are often unsure if they’ll even have a job once a project is finished. It is common for workers to be completely uncertain where the next project will be and how long they’ll be out of work. To counteract the uncertainty, many will work long hours—increasing the mental and physical strain—to be able to build up enough savings if work becomes scarce. This is sadly common across the industry.


How mental health in construction is contributing to the labor shortage

This trend plaguing mental health in construction is another reason for the industry’s labor shortage. Why would someone want to join an industry that almost guarantees some type of mental or emotional issue? Along the same line, why would a current construction worker want to recruit someone new when they know the perils physically and mentally?


What can be done to fix the issue of poor mental health in construction?

What are some steps that can be taken today to reverse this unsettling trend?

  • First and foremost, the industry needs to acknowledge that mental health is serious and should be addressed.

  • Workers at every level can leverage the resources that are out there to help prevent suicide.

  • Companies must make an effort to ensure their employees are taken care of.

    1. One company that’s looking ahead and taking care of their employees’ mental health is Skanska UK. Skanska has full-time mental health professionals on site, similar to site safety inspectors, who can be identified by a special sticker on their hardhat.

    2. Other companies have thought of approaching the work week in a new way and giving the workers a longer break. One contractor in Hawaii, Truth Excavation, is working four days a week, 10 hours a day. The owner, Kimo Clark, wants his team to have more time off to spend with families and come in Monday morning charged and ready to go.

 

If you know someone in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (Lifeline) at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or text the Crisis Text Line (text HELLO to 741741). Both services are free and available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. All calls are confidential.

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