When you think about jobsite hazards, physical risks probably top the list — an unprotected fall, an unmarked restricted zone, etc. But what about the dangers you can’t see?
Anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, and more are as dangerous to worker safety as any more tangible jobsite threat, but these can’t be mitigated with caution tape.
Unfortunately, the frequency of mental health issues is increasing within the construction industry. A 2020 study found that 83% of construction workers have experienced a mental health issue. Evidence from the 2007-2009 financial crisis suggests that the COVID-19 pandemic could increase the risk of suicide in the construction industry.
This means that, of the people you work with every day — from happy-go-lucky Bill to Gina who always brings in donuts — chances are good that at least one of them struggles with their mental health. Or, maybe it’s you. From laborers to high-level executives, mental health issues affect people indiscriminately.
Your jobsite is not the exception.
While regulations and monitoring for physical safety have increased dramatically over the years, mental healthcare lags behind. But, mental health is important — very important — and should be prioritized as highly as wearing a hard hart.
The construction industry as a whole needs to work on improving mental health outreach and support, but that can only take place one jobsite at a time. May is national Mental Health Awareness Month, and although this element of employee safety should be a priority year round, there is no better time than now to educate yourself and begin making changes.
Mental Health in Construction Stats That Might Surprise You
According to the Centers for Disease Control, construction has the highest suicide rate of all industries, at 53.2 suicides per 100,000 workers. That's about four times greater than the national average (17.3/100,000) and five times greater than all other construction fatalities combined (10.1/100,000). In fact, suicide could rightfully top the list of OSHA's Fatal Four Hazards, which unfortunately garner a lot more attention.
Drug and Alcohol Abuse
Another recent CDC study noted that construction workers are also disproportionately prone to abuse alcohol and drugs — especially opioids, cocaine, and marijuana. The number of construction workers abusing prescription opioids is estimated at 3.2 percent versus 2 percent of the general population. Similar proportions are seen with cocaine use (1.8 percent versus 0.8 percent), and non-medical marijuana use (12.3 percent versus 7.5 percent).
This proved to be a two-fold risk for construction workers because abuse of drugs and alcohol can severely impair physical safety on the job, increasing the chances of a harmful or fata accident in what is already one of the most dangerous industries. Additionally, opioids have been linked to as many as 20 percent of suicides in the U.S. and excessive alcohol is involved in 22 percent of U.S. suicides.
Why are construction workers at risk?
There are many reasons why construction workers are so prone to facing mental health issues that can result in substance abuse and suicidal thoughts. One of the biggest factors is that 89 percent of construction workers are men.
Generally speaking, men underreport mental health issues and are therefore less likely to receive appropriate treatment. It's not a coincidence that men are also more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol and commit suicide, both of which are extreme forms of self-treatment for chronic mental health problems.
Additionally, construction workers — male or female — often deal with issues that can lead to high levels of stress, anxiety, and depression. Chronic pain, pressure to perform, and sleep deprivation rank high in this regard. The CDC study found that the construction industry exhibits many common risk factors that are associated with feelings of helplessness and loss of control:
- Competitive, high-pressure work environment
- High prevalence of alcohol and substance abuse
- End-of-season layoffs
- Separation from family
This has become especially prevalent in response to the COVID-19 crisis and its prolonged, compounding effects. In fact, studies have shown that 41 percent of U.S. adults are now reporting symptoms of anxiety or depression-related disorders, much of which is attributed in part to the pandemic.
All of the above, and more, are proven to challenge mental stability. Their effects on an individual’s well-being are only compounded within a work culture which valorizes “toughness.”
The Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention reports that many within the industry suffer in silence due to cultural expectations. Despite advancements in education and awareness, mental health issues remain stigmatized in some circles, and suicide is a taboo topic on the jobsite.
As such, many workers feel forced to “deal with it,” not seeking out the help they need, and symptoms get worse.
To counteract this long-standing challenge, the mental health of your workforce needs to be prioritized at the same level as wearing safety goggles and tagging out live circuits. While some within the industry struggle to keep up with an evolving narrative about mental health, empowering workers to seek out resources is a crucial part of every manager’s job description.
What you can do to help
One of the most powerful tools in your toolbox to fight against mental health issues is education. No progress can be made without a culture change, and every educated worker is a step closer to quashing the stigma that keeps workers from facing their inner demons.
Research mental health outreach programs, and make these resources readily available to workers. Something like the Suicide Prevention Hotline is a proven resource that could save a worker’s life. Construction Financial Management has compiled a list of suicide prevention partners specifically designed to serve construction workers. Many have been able to take advantage of Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention's (CIASP) online training program and behavioral health screening.
Empowering workers to seek out resources is a crucial part of every manager or superintendent's job description. Here's a list to get you started.
The other important element is awareness — if you’re in a leadership role you can’t help someone if you don’t know they’re suffering. You simply don’t know what you don’t know. This further punctuates the need for full disclosure.
Encourage workers to share mental health issues during new employee orientation. This insight — and other critical medical records such as preexisting conditions and contact information — can easily be stored and accessed through a labor management application. While some employees might be reluctant to share this information, if you foster a safe, understanding culture on and off the jobsite, workers will be more likely to open up.
Look for the signs yourself
Even with education, improved awareness, and transparency on and off the jobsite, it's still likely that mental health challenges will go unreported at times. But, that doesn't mean you won't be able to see the signs if you're looking for them.
According to CIASP, the following are signs of serious anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts can be especially noticeable on the construction site:
- Decreased productivity
- Increased conflict among co-workers
- Near hits, incidents, and injuries
- Decreased problem-solving ability
- Increased tardiness and absenteeism
Whether you’re a safety manager, developer, or a cement mixer — no matter what your job is — it is everyone’s responsibility on-site to keep each other safe. Not just from external threats, but internal ones, too.
Mental health awareness and suicide prevention are just as important as job safety issues and now is the time to focus on creating a safe culture, providing training to your entire staff, raising awareness of the problem, making resources available to all employees, and normalizing conversations around mental health.