In construction, there’s an alarming but little-known statistic: a construction worker is six times more likely to die from suicide than from a workplace accident. For construction workers under the age of 24, that risk is ten times more. The power of the social stigma that encapsulates suicide in particular, and mental health in general, is so strong that this issue goes largely undiscussed. As May is mental health month, SafetyCulture is exploring what mental health looks like on a construction site, how to elicit conversation around mental health, and what construction firms can do to support their employees.
Construction sites are comprised of mostly men, ages 20-54 and this happens to also be the group the most at risk for suicide. Construction is consistently listed in the top ten of industries most at risk for suicide as well. Machismo is a pretty strong aspect of the culture on most construction sites, which makes it difficult for a lot of construction workers to open up about personal struggles. There’s frequently a perception that opening up about these difficulties will be met with indifference. Furthermore, this mental distress seemed to impact construction workers at every level within the organization.
Many cited the quantity of work and the amount of time in which it had to be accomplished as major stress triggers, while supervisors reported that a lack of participation in important decisions and lack of social support from upper management contributed significantly to their anxiety. Construction is, of course, a very deadline-driven operation and so construction workers are frequently under incredible amounts of stress to meet those deadlines. What’s more, the United States is seeing a significant uptick in construction development but is seeing a pinch in available labor, particularly in certain large cities like San Francisco and New York. Construction firms are thus feeling the pressure to deliver on time, and could be translating that pressure to employees, who may be understaffed to begin with.
Impending deadlines aren’t the only thing construction workers have on their plates. In a study published by the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, they discovered a high prevalence of mental distress in construction workers, and a link between this mental distress and physical pain or injuries. The construction industry has a high prevalence of musculoskeletal pain among workers and in fact, 40% of construction workers over the age of 50 report chronic back pain. Furthermore, workers who were injured had a 45% higher depression rate than non-injured workers. Not only does physical pain impact mental health, but vice versa as well. When a worker is struggling with depression or anxiety, they experience cognitive impairment. This cognitive impairment can take the form of concentration issues or memory problems. This creates a barrier to performing the crucial safety checks that prevent injury.
This points to a delicate interdependent relationship between injury and mental health on the job. If a worker sustains an injury, they’re more likely to experience mental distress. If they experience mental distress, they’re more likely to be injured. This is why focusing solely on physical safety on a construction site creates a huge blind spot in overall workplace safety. Glazing over aspects of mental health and its impact on physical health and overall wellness leaves issues unspoken and facilitates the cultural stigma tied to asking for help.
Barriers To Seeking Help
The barriers to seeking help for mental health struggles do not stop with stigmatization. In data pulled from the National Survey on Mental Health, the biggest barrier to receiving mental health treatment is cost. This is followed by respondents believing they could handle their struggles without treatment, than lack of knowledge of where to go for treatment.
Many of the reasons people do not seek help as stated in the chart above (thought could handle without treatment, may cause negative perception, might have negative effect on job, did not want others to find out) revolve around this fear of vilification. This is why facilitating discussions around mental health is so important.
MIC, which stands for mates in construction, is an Australian program developed to train and support construction workers in mental health initiatives. They take a three-pronged approach to discussing suicide on construction sites, and to promoting overall mental wellness. The first prong focuses on general awareness training, which is delivered to 80% of the workers on-site. It opens up the conversation. To provide social support, they also work with “Connectors”, who are volunteers on the construction sites and receive additional training to keep someone in crisis safe and connect them to professional help. The third tenet of MIC’s program is ASSIST – workers who are trained in ASSIST are comparable to a first aid officer on site, they can speak with someone who is contemplating suicide and develop a “safe plan” for the worker.
How One Firm Is Making A Difference
RK, a construction firm out of Colorado, took their wellness programs a step further and partnered with Carson J. Spencer, a suicide prevention non-profit. Heather Gallien, Marketing and Communications Director at RK says, “safety and well-being are tied together, and we actually leverage our employee safety messaging by using it as an opportunity to ‘tack on’ additional messages about the importance of seeking help for mental health issues. Our field workers are used to hearing safety messages, so safety announcements create an opportunity to promote mental health as well.”
RK first conducted a survey of their employees and 39% of them reported knowing an employee with substance abuse or addiction issues and most did not know the suicide prevention hotline. There was a clear gap in what the workforce needed and what they had access to so RK sought to eliminate the taboo around discussing mental health, and make asking for help incredibly easy.
Highlights of this program include mental health toolbox talks with construction workers on jobsites, suicide prevention training for managers, and a lot of mental health resources. The key to providing these resources is to make them very available and remind people of them frequently. For example, RK sends out an internal newsletter and mental health resources are listed right at the top. They also have an in-house wellness coach who is available for one on one counseling and promote mantherapy.org, a website developed for men struggling with personal issues. They provided stickers for hard hats and posters with the slogan “you can’t fix your mental health with duct tape” at offices and jobsites.
As we saw in the chart above, lack of insurance coverage and the expense of mental health treatment are huge barriers to seeking help for most people. RK also partnered with their benefits provider to make wellness a part of their overall strategy. They added counseling to their benefits package and all employees have access to three free mental health counseling visits, regardless of their insurance participation. They also have a full-time wellness coach available at no charge to employees who travels to all the jobsites.
Of course, RK is an incredible example of a firm that is going above and beyond to provide mental health resources to their workforce. However, there are easy wins that every firm can implement, and which are outlined in this free guide from Carson J. Spencer. It includes information on how to protect against suicide; like putting emphasis on teamwork and a sense of “brotherhood”, or providing leadership and supervisor training. It also provides very actionable information on how to speak with someone in a potentially suicidal position and what numbers or resources to provide. Many times, the easiest and simplest thing to do to bring mental health to the forefront of any jobsite is simply to open up a discussion about it. Ultimately, companies that slow down to emphasize mental health and assist where they can will create a culture of caring for peers. As May is Mental Health month, this is an ideal time to assess current mental health initiatives or to implement brand new ones. It’ll not only encourage happier and more engaged employees, but you’ll also likely find that it has a tangential effect on physical injuries and overall workplace culture.
The information contained in this article is general in nature and you should consider whether the information is appropriate to your specific needs. Legal and other matters referred to in this article are based on our interpretation of laws existing at the time and should not be relied on in place of professional advice. We are not responsible for the content of any site owned by a third party that may be linked to this article. SafetyCulture disclaims all liability (except for any liability which by law cannot be excluded) for any error, inaccuracy, or omission from the information contained in this article, any site linked to this article, and any loss or damage suffered by any person directly or indirectly through relying on this information.
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