May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and this year we are working to bring attention to how greatly mental health impacts the construction industry.
Over the past few years, the industry’s mental health crisis has become a major topic for discussion (and for good reason). Here are a few startling statistics from AGC’s mental health and suicide prevention webinar:
- Twenty percent of the U.S. workforce experience a diagnosable mental illness in their lifetime.
- Less than 50 percent of workers with a mental health condition will seek help.
- By the end of 2020, construction had the 7th worst industry mental health score.
- Construction has the second-highest rate of heavy/binge drinking, and 16.5 percent of workers report drinking five to seven drinks in a sitting multiple times each month.
The questions we need to ask are: what is causing the mental health crisis in the construction industry, and what can we do better?
America’s Mental Health
To understand the construction industry mental health crisis, we need to first take a look at the issue on a national scale.
On average, 132 Americans die by suicide each day, and 1.4 million Americans attempted suicide last year. With suicide being the 10th leading cause of death, the United States’ mental health status has been on shaky grounds for years, and adding a pandemic only exacerbated the issue.
According to Mental Health America, more than half a million people reported signs of anxiety and/or depression during the height of the pandemic. Anxiety screens increased 93 percent from 2019, and depression screens rose 73 percent from the start of the year. Feelings of loneliness, isolation, financial uncertainty, and lack of healthy outlets worsened an already fragile state.
“We already knew that not enough was being done to support people living with mental illness, but the State of Mental Health in America Report confirms the trend that mental health in the U.S. continues to get worse,” said Paul Gionfriddo, president, and CEO of MHA. Gionfriddo says, “Many states are ill-prepared to handle this crisis, and policymakers at every level of government need to act immediately.”
A Demographic at Risk
Though construction remained an “essential industry” in most states, workers were not exempt from the fear and anxiety the pandemic caused. This only proved to worsen the situation for a population that is at risk for mental health-related issues.
Take a look at the demographics:
Construction is undoubtedly a male-dominated industry with men making up over 90 percent of the workforce. Men are 3.6 times more likely to die by suicide, and 49 percent of men feel more depressed than they are willing to admit to friends and family.
The average construction worker age is 42, and 25 percent of people in the 26-49 age group experience mental illness.
Industry Induced Stress
The construction industry employs a demographic that is at high risk for experiencing mental illness. When you add this group to a job that exposes workers to physical and psychological stresses, the results can be disastrous.
Steve Mongeau, the executive director of a Boston suicide prevention center, says the factors that contribute to industry-related depression include “working in a high-pressure environment, a higher prevalence of alcohol and substance abuse, separation from families, and long stretches without work.”
One major work-related stress for laborers is job uncertainty. The industry operates with a churn-and-burn mentality which can leave workers in a constant state of flux. This lack of stability contributes to feelings of anxiety which can lead to depression and even suicidal ideations.
Another stress is for workers is their physical safety as they work with heavy machinery, flammable materials, and dangerous job locations. These conditions can take an emotional toll on the workers who consistently face life-threatening risks, and this toll usually goes unaddressed.
Safety measures are discussed daily during a project, but how often do we discuss the emotional toll these workers carry with them off the job site? According to the Bureau of Labor and Statics, 9.7 of every 100,000 construction workers suffer a fatal injury, which is the fourth-highest rate of any other industry. While this is a devastating statistic, the number of construction worker deaths by suicide is over five times this amount (49.4 per every 100,000).
So all this begs the question: how do we combat the industry’s mental health crisis?
With early intervention, workers struggling with mental health issues have an 80 percent recovery success rate. The key to early intervention is knowing the warning signs. In a previous blog, we dove into the warning signs of suicide as listed by the National Institute of Mental Health, some of which includes:
- Talking about feeling trapped or feeling that there are no solutions
- Talking about unbearable pain, both physical or emotional
- Talking about being a burden to others
- Using alcohol or drugs more often
- Acting anxious or agitated
- Withdrawing from family and friends
- Changing eating and/or sleeping habits
- Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
- Taking risks that could lead to death, such as reckless driving
- Displaying extreme mood swings, suddenly changing from very sad to very calm or happy
- Giving away important possessions
- Changes in work performance like increased tardiness or absenteeism
By staying vigilant of changes in employees’ or co-workers’ behavior, you can intervene quickly and possibly save a life.
Start the Conversation
Mental health is often seen as a taboo topic to discuss at work. However, in an environment where workers are often separated from close friends and family, developing a culture of openness is critical.
We know toolbox talks are used to remind workers of the necessary precautions to maintain physical health on-site. With this mentality in mind, supervisors should also give workers the tools to improve their mental health. The Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention provides several toolbox talk guides on how to start the conversation with your employees on topics including mental health, bullying, racism, and discrimination on the job.
These discussions should also educate and promote the use of Employee Assistance Programs and reduce the stigma around reaching out for help. Mental Health America recommends sending EAP promotion info through your company’s regular communication channel to share how to access the EAP and the services provided. They also recommend including this information in the new employee onboarding process.
The construction industry is made up of tough, hard-working people with complex emotional struggles. For those who are proud members of this industry and want to see fellow professionals live longer, happier lives, let’s spread awareness and overcome the stigma behind mental health.
For more information on industry-related tools and resources, visit The Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention website.
If you or someone you know is at a point of crisis, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
For help with alcohol or substance abuse, contact Drugfree.org by calling 855-378-4373 or texting 55753. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration can also assist with referrals to treatment facilities, counselors, support groups, and more. Call 1-800-662-4357 to speak with a counselor 24/7.