NBS lists suicide as the biggest health risk in the construction industry. Every year, more construction workers die of suicide than because of the falls on the sites.This is why mental health is extremely important. Let’s talk about what we can do to support it!
Warning: this article discusses mental health issues, mental disorders, addiction and suicide. If that is a sensitive topic for you, please consider not reading it.
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What first comes to your mind, if I ask you about the biggest health and safety risk in the construction industry? Fall from heights? Getting injured while operating some machines? For sure you can assume these are the most significant threats – considering the amount of safety training, resources and articles written about improving physical safety, you can definitely feel like that would be the case.
I may surprise you now – NBS lists suicide as the biggest health risk in the construction industry. Every year, more construction workers die of suicide than because of the falls on the sites.
According to the Centres of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), construction is the industry with the second-highest suicide rates. Yet, the construction workers get little to none support considering mental health – the focus seems to be only on the physical aspect of their well-being.
Now don't get me wrong – I believe physical safety is a fundamental matter. We need all those safety training, toolbox talks, procedures, and articles to make sure construction sites are as safe as they can be.
But we need to really think about why we ultimately oversee that mental health is just as important, has just as severe consequences and needs just as much care and consideration as a physical one.
Read on to find out what is the situation, what are the factors affecting mental health of construction professionals, what consequences do they hold for the companies and industry as a whole and what can be done to ensure a healthy and supportive work environment.
The situation is bad. Just to let you fully understand the actual scope of the problem, here it is, in numbers, black on white:
According to different studies, around 20-25% of construction industry workers experienced mental health issues.
According to HSE, the most prevalent disorders are depression, anxiety, and substance use disorder (SUD), constituting 25% of work-related ill health.
Men in construction are three times more likely to commit suicide than average man their age outside of the industry.
73% of construction workers feel that their employer does not provide sufficient support on mental health problems.
Behind all these numbers, there are individuals who are struggling. Mental health issues often make people feel isolated, and in the construction, this problem may even be amplified because of specific demographics and the image of the workforce.
Construction is a heavily male-dominated industry, with the assumption that construction workers are "tough lads" - we still live in the world, where since the day we were born, we hear that "boys don't cry". This attitude and mindset make it almost impossible to feel comfortable sharing feelings, struggles or asking others for help.
On the other hand, this perception makes people in charge forget that mental health needs taking care of. That way, the industry is daunted by the so-called "silent epidemic" of mental health struggles that nobody talks about and that is not addressed sufficiently.
According to official government data, mental illness results in 70 million sick days per year, making it the leading cause of sickness absence in the UK. Mental illness costs the UK economy £70–£100 billion per year. Poor mental health in construction is not only affecting an individual and his or her family but also causes delays, management problems and costs for the employers and affects the whole of the country's economy.
Several factors can contribute to developing mental health problems in the construction industry. Of course, for each individual, these will differ as everyone has their history and reality. But in the course of multiple studies conducted on the well-being of construction workers, some were thought to be most impactful in terms of developing mental health issues.
Long working hours, hard physical labour, chronic fatigue, an excessive number of working hours during the week which leads to little time for sufficient recovery - all affect overall well-being. Also, competitive work culture and great speed of work can cause a significant amount of stress.
Physical injuries and chronic pain
Dealing with injuries and pain can put a tremendous strain on our mental well-being. Additionally, with a big focus on productivity, construction workers are often prescribed opioid painkillers, which are highly addictive and may lead to Substance Use Disorder. Opioid addiction increases the likelihood of suicide attempt by 75%.
Lack of job control
Significant risk factor in multiple studies, mainly limited opportunities for decision making, imbalanced work distribution, authoritarian culture and little or no flexibility to work schedule.
Related to job insecurities, low income and also sessional layoffs. This factor was even more prevalent among workers with families for whom they needed to provide.
This factor was true mostly among female and BAME (Black, Asian and Ethnic Minorities) professionals. There were reports of harassment, discrimination and bullying in workplaces. The studies also showed that male subordinates were less likely to accept work orders from a female superior, which led these women to feel low job control.
If you would like to know more on the topic, check out our Women In Construction articles and articles about Ethnic Minorities' situation in construction.
Lack of support and harmful coping mechanisms
Due to perceived lack of social support and inability to ask for help, many individuals turn to maladaptive coping mechanisms such as alcohol and other drugs. Even 15% of construction industry workers suffer from substance abuse.
The social awareness of the importance of mental well-being is gradually improving. Many companies in the industry are making changes in their policies to address the mental health crisis in construction. Hopefully, now you are also more aware of the scope of the problem and want to take action to change our workplaces for the better. So, what can be done?
Removing the stigma
First and foremost, we need to remove the stigma around mental health problems and struggle with one's feelings and emotions. We should start by being careful about messages we give to our children about expressing emotions.
Within construction, we need to start speaking openly about mental health and the importance of seeking help if needed – having created acceptance and space for these issues, people will be able to ask for help without the fear of rejection and being misunderstood.
Educating the industry
Secondly, we need education. Both employers and employees need to be trained on caring for one's mental health. It needs to be done with just as great care as we care for physical safety on the construction sites. We need new training initiatives; maybe some toolbox talks should cover emotion regulations and early signs of depression, anxiety, or addiction.
Also, mental-health first-aid training may be a great option so that employees would know how to react in case of noticing psychological distress or signs of mental disorder of a colleague. Recognizing some traits of psychological struggles within one self and coworkers can enable recognizing the need to seek help and doing it earlier, which can literally save lives.
Offering real support
Finally, companies have to be willing to provide real, practical support in that matter. Counselling services should be part of an employee's benefits package, and the company should provide resources and tools they could use if they are not yet ready to go to a specialist for help. It could be iconographic or psychological crisis lines phone numbers. It's also important to include paid off days in case of mental health problems.
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Construction industry has a great deal of experience in caring for safety in the workplace - the thing we need to do is notice that there is another, equally important aspect to the health and well-being of the employees.
If we could use the experience and devotion we have for protecting physical health and extend it to mental health as well, we can create a healthy, supporting space and successfully fight the number one health risk in the construction industry.
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