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What Can We Do to Address Mental Health in the Construction Industry?

Jun 18, 2024
Group of construction workers wearing PPE on a job site and looking at a tablet computer

The construction industry is struggling to deal with the impact of a rise in mental health issues among workers. But how can leaders help — especially when some interventions may not be effective?

Mental health concerns among construction workers are higher than rates among the general population, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study. The construction industry’s suicide rate is also more than three times higher than the national average.

Construction industry leaders want to reverse this trend, but their help can often be ineffective — even harmful — a new study suggests.

The Construction Safety Research Alliance and the Construction Industry Institute guide, “Mental Health: Where Do We Start? A Guide for the Construction Industry,” shares evidence compiled by a team of 15 industry professionals and academics who reviewed indliterature and analyzed data collected from 1,197 employees in the construction industry in the U.S. and Canada. It offers insight into what works — and what doesn’t — when addressing mental health among construction workers.

The researchers found that while many construction industry leaders, especially safety professionals, feel duty-bound to help workers, particularly in areas that may affect their safety and well-being, they simply are not qualified to diagnose mental health issues. The research also noted that third-party programs can have harmful effects if they rely on personal experiences or unqualified professionals, such as peer-to-peer counseling or unscientific mobile apps.

So how can construction industry safety leaders help improve worker mental health without compounding the problems?

The best approach is to “destigmatize mental health and serve as a bridge that connects workers who need support with qualified medical professionals,” the researchers say.

Company leaders can also recognize and address the work-related stressors within the construction industry: 55% of construction workers attribute poor mental health to what the industry does and how it does it, the study found. “This is where we need to act.”

The guide identifies specific ways the construction industry can affect mental health, then offers a road map for leaders to address those issues without trying to assume the role of mental health provider.

3 Ways the Construction Industry Impacts Mental Health

To determine the biggest stressors on the construction workforce, the guide’s authors asked workers to rank work-related stressors identified in previous research. Across all demographic groups, including office and field, white, Latino, and younger and older workers, the three top stressors were:

  1. Financial stress: Because of the transient, cyclical and fragmented style of work in the construction industry, workers are not confident about when their next paycheck is coming, which makes long-term financial planning difficult, a strain that exists irrespective of economic standing. In other words, consistency and security of compensation have the greatest impact on mental health, not necessarily the amount of the check.
  2. Job demand: Several factors, including the transient nature of work, amount of control, fluctuation in workload, physical strains, burnout and excessive work pressure, affect mental health. The ongoing labor shortage magnifies these factors. Employees want to do the work, but it’s impacting their mental health, causing many to rely on unhealthy coping methods like opioids and alcohol to manage stress and burnout, the authors say.
  3. Factors beyond work: While construction industry professionals can’t effectively address non-work-related factors, depending on the situation, they can often be sympathetic or empathetic without prying.

5 Steps for a Construction Industry Mental Health Action Plan

To avoid harm, carefully consider any action plan that addresses workplace stressors and worker well-being. The organization must support any initiative collectively, starting with several feasible action steps.

  1. Educate yourself on the mental health crisis and learn to be supportive and empathetic. You can help everyone get a better grasp on mental health terminology and guide workers toward appropriate professional help while not diagnosing people.
  2. Define roles and expectations of everyone involved. While all employees play a crucial role in mental health, only senior executives and managers can take consequential action. “OSH professionals, site managers or coworkers cannot do much beyond acting as conduits to support a positive culture around mental health,” the authors say.
  3. Create a formal program with an achievable mission and corresponding metrics of success. Any program that attempts to address work-related stressors needs a clear and reasonable mission statement with metrics that are actionable, measurable and embraced. This mission statement and metrics should not revolve around reducing rates of suicide or mental illness. Instead, programs should focus on achievable, positive outcomes based on measuring work-related stressors such as job satisfaction, financial security and sense of belonging. Action steps could include enhancing job security, increasing wages, supporting personal growth, improved problem-solving, providing diverse and interesting work, and creating opportunities for social interaction with coworkers.
  4. Invest in evidence-based initiatives that target specific stressors. Avoid the common mentality of “let’s just try something.” Introduce any pilot program in a deliberate, safe and scientifically valid manner. Taking these steps can produce best results:
  • Ask the right questions. The pilot program should be able to answer purposeful and targeted questions with specific outcomes. For example, Does my investment improve job satisfaction?
  • Collect valid data. Make sure the sample has statistical power and is varied enough to represent everyone in your organization.
  • Evaluate data rigorously. Analyze the data and interpret the findings. Collaboration with appropriately qualified and skilled professionals can provide credibility.
  1. Understand how to communicate what the organization does to support employee well-being. Because studies indicate employees not only may be unaware of the available support, but also may mistrust it, an organization must create a robust communication plan and tailor it to appeal to employees of different backgrounds.

It’s important to remember that when you institute a plan that addresses worker mental health, it’s possible you’ll do more harm than good. Thoughtfully and carefully work with your colleagues to create your organization’s program based on the understanding that construction industry organizational leaders are not qualified to administer mental health care.

Instead, focus your organization’s programs on addressing industry uncertainty — associated with temporary work, finances, expectations, job loss — and demand — associated with workload, moving nature of work, and time away from family and friends.

By focusing the scope of a mental health program to address work-related stressors specific to the construction industry, leaders can improve employee well-being without unintentionally harming anyone in the process.

 

 

 

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