Mental Health in the Construction Industry

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While researching the impact of slow payments for our 2019 Construction Payments Report, we uncovered an unsettling statistic about mental health in the construction industry. According to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that examined suicide data between 2012 and 2015, the suicide rate was highest among males working in the Construction and Extraction occupational group. 

What is fueling the construction worker mental health crisis? And what actions can we take to resolve this grave issue? Here’s what you need to know.

This isn’t a strictly American issue. In 2016, about 450 construction workers in the UK took their own lives, according to data shared by The Guardian. And suicide rates among construction workers in Australia are significantly higher than rates among the general population, too, according to a 2017 study.

The construction industry goes to great lengths to keep workers safe. Anyone who has ever been in charge of monitoring and enforcing the strict regulations developed by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) can attest to this painstaking commitment. But while reducing job site accidents is at the forefront of construction leaders’ efforts, there’s minimal support for mental health in the construction industry.

What Impacts Mental Health in the Construction Industry?

It’s a high-pressure working environment

Construction is highly competitive, and the need to outbid competitors often results in tighter margins. Compounding the issue, the construction industry suffers from 51 days sales outstanding — the longest of any industry in the US.

When working capital is short, construction companies may not have the funds to compensate their workers. To avoid this situation, 63% of subcontractors report going to the extreme: They chose not to bid on a project due to a general contractor or owner’s reputation of slow payments in the last 12 months, according to our 2019 Construction Payments Report

But not booking enough projects can cause financial stress on a subcontractor, and losing their jobs or failing to make enough money to support their loved ones can wreak havoc on workers’ sense of self-worth. 

Workers aren’t encouraged to address their mental health concerns

“Many workers feel forced to ‘deal with it,’” says Sarah Lorek of Trimble Buildings in an article for Constructible. She also points out that the industry’s effects on workers’ wellbeing are often “compounded within a work culture which valorizes ‘toughness.’”

In other words, while workers may recognize their own mental health concerns, they don’t feel comfortable acknowledging them to their employer and peers. Often, they internalize their struggles and may choose to self-medicate with drugs, alcohol, or opioids, especially if they’re experiencing physical or chronic pain resulting from the demands of the job.

Another challenge: access to mental health resources. Layoffs due to seasonal work or economic downturns can increase the stress related to loss of income, but job loss also means employees may lose medical benefits and/or access to Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs). 

Isolation and separation from family

Depending on the job, construction workers often spend significant amounts of time isolated from their loved ones, and even their coworkers. For example, a crane operator may spend many hours doing highly technical and stressful work without any social interactions — or even access to a mobile phone. 

Moving from jobsite to jobsite can create an environment in which workers aren’t as connected to one another. Feeling alienated from others can worsen symptoms of anxiety, depression, and other mental conditions. 

What Steps Can the Industry Take to Improve Mental Health?

There are several things the industry can do to help workers.

First, it’s critical construction companies address any symptoms of a toxic culture, such as bullying, and help end the stigma associated with mental health concerns. From empathy training to providing worker access to outside resources, like counseling and helplines, employers can make a significant positive impact on workers’ mental wellbeing. The Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention provides free helpful resources like printable wallet cards to distribute to all workers to increase awareness.

Additionally, since financial duress can contribute to feelings of stress and hopelessness, it’s important for everyone involved in the construction industry to do their part to accelerate payments to contractors. In the UK, a coalition is pressing government to abolish the practice of cash retentions in construction — and they’re fielding a survey to understand precisely how poor payment practices impact mental health. In the US, sending faster payments can help alleviate much of the stress and anxiety associated with worker compensation.

By making cultural shifts, addressing taboo topics head-on, and taking responsibility to help eliminate unnecessary financial burdens, we can help improve mental health in the construction industry.

If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide or in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.