Construction Needs to Make Supporting Workers’ Mental Health a Priority

  • May 12, 2021

This column is featured in Constructor Magazine.

By Elizabeth Haynie, Health & Wellness Benefits Manager

Construction Safety Week and Mental Health Month share more in common than both being in May. Jobsite safety and mental health are closely intertwined when it comes to construction workers’ overall wellbeing.

Operating safely on the job goes beyond adhering to OSHA protocols and wearing personal protective equipment – it must go beyond the physical and include mental health. Construction workers need healthy food, proper hydration and adequate sleep so that their attention and energy levels stay optimal, and good physical health is necessary to meet the rigorous demands of their jobs. Positive relationships and a sense of belonging are essential for workers to support and look out for one another onsite. Deficiencies in these areas may cause distractions, decreased awareness or missteps, resulting in accidents.

Some construction companies offer mental health awareness programs, counseling and other related benefits for workers. But a significant amount of effort is still needed to persuade companies and workers — whose occupation is among the highest at-risk for developing mental health issues — to understand the importance of mental health awareness and practices clearly.

It’s literally a matter of life and death. A CDC study found that construction workers have one of the nation’s highest suicide rates. According to published reports, one out of five construction workers struggle with anxiety, depression and other mental health issues.

For information on the 2021 Construction Safety Week & OSHA Falls Stand-Down, please visit this AGC resource page. For additional safety news and updates, subscribe to Safety Matters.

The demands, pace and environment of the construction industry present challenges that can contribute to mental health issues. Construction workers have long and irregular hours in a physically exhausting work environment. They are often separated from family and friends due to distant and changing work locations and may experience financial uncertainty caused by short-term employment or economic downturns. Job stress or work-related injuries can lead to alcohol and drug abuse, as workers try to self-medicate or numb pain. Physical health conditions like obesity can also contribute to mental health issues such as depression and low self-esteem.

Adverse mental health issues among construction workers have been more pronounced during the pandemic. Because the construction industry was deemed an essential business since the start of the pandemic, workers continued showing up at sites amid the uncertainty of the impact of the viral outbreak. They experienced concerns and stress over the possibility of getting the virus or spreading it to their families or losing pay if they were unable to work due to illness or that of a family member.

A big hurdle in building greater awareness and acceptance of mental health in the construction industry is that men, particularly those in male-dominated occupations like construction, do not typically openly share their feelings. Reluctance to discuss emotions may lead to a fear that it shows weakness within an industry culture perceived to be tough or “macho.” Work to shatter that perception and create an open, safe space for workers to express their feelings confidently is necessary.

Men are also significantly less likely to seek out care for mental health than women. Mental health issues should be recognized and treated and are just as important as treating physical health issues – you wouldn’t let a broken bone go untreated, would you?

The construction industry must embrace a holistic approach to workers’ safety for significant improvement to happen in workers’ mental health. That means the industry must make the awareness and support of mental wellbeing as necessary as jobsite safety initiatives.

How Can Companies Support Workers’ Mental Health?

Realizing the importance of workers’ mental health on and off the job, The Beck Group, a member of multiple AGC chapters, offers various informational programs and benefits to support employees and subcontractors.

Beck added mental health content to its standard safety orientation for its workers to ensure that everyone stepping onsite receives it. Team members get wallet cards with warning signs and resources for mental health services, and posters in English and Spanish are placed at jobsites to increase awareness and offer resources for treatment.

The company provides in-person and telehealth mental health benefits as part of the medical plan. This year they are at no cost or reduced cost to the employee (dependent on medical plan selection). Beck’s employee assistance program also provides free counseling to all employees who are eligible for company benefits.

In addition, the company recognizes Mental Health Month each May. It holds an annual month-long awareness campaign that includes communications from corporate and safety leadership, weekly emails, toolbox talks, guest speakers, postcards sent to homes, education and webinars.

The Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention offers excellent suggestions on how companies can get started in supporting the mental health of their workers:

  • Make a Commitment: Pledge to make mental health a key focus for your organization
  • Take Inventory: Mental health can be an overwhelming subject to tackle but selecting and starting an action is the first step. Take inventory of what you or your organization does, and then create a plan to expand from that point
  • Build on Existing Practices: Find different ways to integrate mental health into processes already in place. For example, toolbox talks, safety orientations and staff meetings
Normalizing The Conversation On Mental Health

The words “mental health” and “mental illness” have a stigma associated with them, which can trigger negative connotations resulting in avoiding seeking help or treatment. The CDC reports that the average delay between symptom onset and treatment is 11 years.

Normalizing the conversation about mental health is essential for eliminating that stigma. The discussion must continue, and this topic must move out from the shadows and be discussed often. Make mental health a reoccurring part of your communications. Beck distributes monthly “Mental Health Minute” content to workers to continue the conversation beyond May.

Leadership involvement and support are critical in normalizing mental health discussion and creating a company culture that feels open and safe. Some organizations use alternative terms like “mental wellbeing,” “total wellbeing,” or “holistic wellbeing” as a tactic for making the topic more approachable.

Construction companies have familiar phrases like “our people are our most important asset,” “Zero Accidents,” “See Something, Say Something,” and have safety programs aimed at sending workers home to their families each day. There is no doubt the construction industry cares for its people. However, we are at a critical point in identifying solutions to help workers resolve their mental health issues. More must happen. Increasing awareness and treatment of mental health are essential for workers who require sound minds and bodies to be productive at work and available for their families and friends at home.