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Addressing the Mental Health Crisis in Construction Requires a Two-Pronged Approach

Originally published December 14, 2021 in Construction Executive

By Lauren Lazar | Wednesday, December 8, 2021

When a construction worker steps onto a jobsite, the safety focus tends to be on physical hazards. These physical and environmental hazards are usually addressed through prevention programs and focus on reducing the risk of injury. However, site accidents and OSHA’s “big four” construction hazards are not leading factors in most construction worker deaths. According to 2016 data from the CDC, individuals working in the construction industry have one of the highest suicide rates compared to other industries and a suicide rate about four times higher than the general population.

These startling statistics underscore the mental health crisis facing the construction industry. Research shows that job strain and long work hours are contributing factors to these rates. The physical nature of construction work and the potential for burnout also negatively affect worker mental health.

More and more construction leaders are recognizing the need to take direct action to address this crisis. However, unlike other workplace hazards, mental health risks extend beyond the jobsite and can vary significantly from individual to individual. Leaders must understand that there is no effective one-size-fits-all approach to mental health. Employees will have their own unique needs and will be at different stages of their mental health and wellness journeys while at the same time taking cues from larger company culture and initiatives. This understanding is prompting many leaders to take a two-pronged approach focused on individual needs and organizational culture to ensure the best possible wellness outcomes.

SUPPORT INDIVIDUAL EMPLOYEE HEALTH

In 2019, only about 37% of U.S. adult males and 49.7% of females with any mental illness received treatment. Many employees may not know where to start when addressing the mental health obstacles they are facing. In addition, employees may feel the support they need is not available at work. Proven and effective workplace mental health resources are beginning to shift those expectations. Establishing mental health and wellness programs can have a huge impact on employee health and wellbeing, productivity, and job satisfaction.

Mental health and wellness programs must include a spectrum of resources offering personalization to the individual. Some individuals will require more education and awareness resources, while others might need more access to healthcare professionals and counseling services. In addition to in-person or onsite support, construction executives should consider collaborating with a digital mental health-therapy provider to offer online support when workers are off the job. A resource like this equips employees and site clinicians with the tools needed to deliver education, access and care.

CREATE A HEALTHY COMPANY CULTURE

While providing mental health resources is crucial, employees may not take advantage of them if they are afraid of judgment. Eliminating the stigma around mental health is vital to creating a healthy company culture. A study from the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine found that the masculine culture of the construction industry and job insecurity played into the mental health stigma.

Changing company culture starts with talking about mental health regularly; this can take the form of mind, body and safety team talks, wellness events, or lunch and learns. Opening up lines of communication between employees, clinicians and supervisors can immediately have an effect on reducing stigma and helping employees feel more comfortable in expressing their levels of stress. Another step companies can take is adding a certified mental health clinician to the team, including an athletic trainer or EMT. These clinicians can assist with crisis interventions, education, as well as health and well-being program development, implementation and engagement. Their presence can also help encourage informal discussions around mental health, by assisting employees in acknowledging that good mental health is essential for themselves and the company.

MENTAL HEALTH IS SAFETY

As an industry, construction must recognize that better mental health means safer workers and better safety outcomes. For construction sites and companies that want to remain competitive, addressing physical and mental health must be a priority. Working with experienced onsite medical experts can help construction executives achieve the healthy worksite culture needed for optimal results.

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