Mental health in construction: The ugly truth

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Did you know that working in construction you are six times more likely to die from suicide than from a fall from a height?

That is a statistic that “The Construction Industry Helpline”, an organization to help those in the construction industry on a variety of topics, CEO Bill Hill has discovered. A quick search of “mental health in construction” and can you see countless construction-related articles showing the heartbreaking statistics of workers who have either taken their lives or considered it. Construction has one of the highest risks of suicide amongst its employees but they aren’t taking the statistics lying down, they are starting to fight back.

Mental disorders in construction: The striking stats

Just some of the frightening mental health statistics:
“Substantial mental distress is associated with both injury rate and self-reported pain.”
“Low-skilled male construction workers had the greatest risk, at 3.7 times above the national average.”
“8.9% of construction workers have a condition affecting their mood, such as depression.”
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So how did the construction industry fall into the pits of worker depression and start to find it’s way to come out on top of the mental health in corporation’s awareness movement?

Let’s start with the “why?”

Why is construction, already a sometimes-dangerous job, such a target for depression & suicide? lays out the facts:

  • Construction jobs are still addressing predominantly to young males. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for men in the United States between the ages of 25 and 54.
  • Men in high stakes and high skill occupations are almost 1.5 times more likely to die by suicide.
  • People in occupations that don’t require any education after high school are at a higher risk of suicide.

How do the signs go unnoticed?

In the previously mentioned article from Forbes, they went on to point out two factors as to why the signs of depression go unnoticed on the job site.

One being, there’s a “tough guy” stigma in construction so asking for help is not something that comes natural to those working these jobs.

Bam Nuttall CEO Steve Fox said in an article for Construction News, “I think the fact construction is a male-dominated industry highlights male-related issues. Men don’t talk about this stuff at all. One of the big things we need to do is to make it safe for people to talk about mental health.”

The other point is the work conditions that go along with the job. Although we have recovered from the last recession, its impact is still there in regards to construction. Offices were shut and more job sites are reopening up, this means the travel to get to most sites has increased as well as the pace of work and time to completion has gotten shorter.

Paul Hodgkinson, chief executive and chairman of contractor Simons Group, said in a 2014 interview for,  “There are issues with the pace things are happening. Undoubtedly, as the market gets more competitive, the pressure on smaller teams is getting more and more. You can’t tell the impact of that just by looking. The script on mental health is that you can’t see it – you really need to watch people’s’ behaviour.”

Seasonal jobs, long hours, long commutes, time away from family and exhaustion are just a few of the conditions that can trigger a mental health illness. These triggers, however, are sometimes every day factors for construction workers.

The stigma surrounding mental health isn’t just an issue in construction; it is a worldwide stigma. This mentality of keeping mental illness a secret needs to be stopped considering the fact that the World Health Organization is predicting depression to be the world’s second biggest health problem by 2020.

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What are the signs of mental health issues?

The Construction Financial Management Association best summed up the common signs that someone may be suffering from a depression or other mental health issues:

  • Increased tardiness, absenteeism, and presenteeism (showing up to work physically, but not able to function)
  • Family and Medical Leave requests due to long-term absences attributable to depression and other mental health illnesses
  • Decreased productivity due to distraction and cognitive slowing
  • Decreased self-confidence
  • Isolation from peers
  •  Agitation and increased interpersonal conflict among coworkers leading to a potential for workplace violence
  •  Increased voluntary and involuntary attrition
  •  Increased overwhelming feelings
  •  Decreased problem-solving ability

How does poor mental health affect the job site?

Besides the point of being concerned for your team’s well being, unrecognized mental health issues can be a huge monetary cost to your business. According to the National Building Specifications in the UK, “mental health issues account for people taking almost 70 million days off sick per year – the most of any health condition – costing the UK economy between £70 billion and £100 billion a year.”

What about the employees who do not take sick days from work even if they are feeling “off”? They increase the risk of accidents & mistakes being made on the job.

During these “off” days or moments you could find some of situations, as pointed out by Construction Financial Management Association, occurring on your job site:
• Legal and illicit substance abuse affecting workplace performance
• Quality defects leading to waste and rework impacting profit margins
• Near hits, incidents, and injuries affecting safety and risk performance metrics

Just by being aware of the signs, you increase the productivity and safety of your crew. “We can reduce absenteeism and make sure workers have a longer, happier retirement and this is a moral obligation as well as a professional one. Construction has to change – and it is”, said Mr. Johnson, the head of health and safety at Land Securities.

The “all of one” mentality found on job sites is something that comes up often in talk of mental health in construction. How are more people not getting help if everyone helps each other? Unite, the biggest union for construction workers, points out how “all for one” isn’t always true. “It is also important to recognise that some workers are only on sites for a few days and it is difficult to get messages across to them, and when you are working in a fragmented manner, the camaraderie of the construction site can be a myth.”

How can you be aware & help?

The first thing you can do to help your crew breaks the stigma. Small steps eventually lead to bigger leaps. Create an open dialogue, be aware of any changes in your coworkers and don’t be afraid to speak up! Take that “all for one” attitude found on the job site & apply it to help your fellow team members.
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Are you a manager wondering how you can make a change?

A respondent to a survey done by Construction News said, “Mental health is frowned upon in the workplace – my manager said it was because I was weak. If a staff member breaks a bone then they are sympathetic; anything mental or that they can’t see, they ignore or make people leave.”

Don’t be the manager that makes your crew feel worse about their thoughts than they already do. Start by setting an example! Be open, make healthy choices, and show that you are there for your crew! Make mental health conversation apart of weekly discussions so your job site becomes a safe place to express concerns. A lot of times the signs go unrecognized not because managers don’t care but because they don’t know how to spot the signs.

Get educated!

There’s a wealth of helpful resources online that give you skills to address mental illness in the construction industry and within your own team Mates in Mind.

Backed by Health in Construction Leadership Group & the British Safety Council, MiM helps improve mental health awareness, education and suicide prevention across job sites & construction companies in the UK.

Take Action!

If you are already thinking you are depressed & on the job site what can you do now?
If you’re in the United States, please don’t hesitate to reach out to the suicide prevention line at 1-800-273-8255 or get on their online chat now.

So many organizations & hotlines have been but in place for construction workers in mind. In the UK you can reach the Construction Industry Helpline at 0345 605 1956.

If you are not in the UK and you or someone you know may be suffering please contact your local suicide hotline to help.

Text written by: Jara Lipman