Conversations about safety in the construction industry are often centered on the best practices for safe equipment usage, slip and fall prevention, hazardous chemicals and the like. But there’s one critical safety element that the construction industry often overlooks – mental health. Anxiety, depression, substance use and suicide are widespread struggles that have long been a quiet epidemic in the industry.
A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that construction workers are at the highest risk for suicide among the nation’s industries. But there is a silver lining. As mental health struggles become less stigmatized and we continue to learn more about how these issues impact our industry, construction leaders have an opportunity to take action.
Read on for three areas in which construction companies can take steps to meaningfully address mental health challenges and how technology solutions can support these efforts.
Understanding the Construction Industry’s Mental Health Problem
Mental health struggles are among the world’s most common health conditions. Worldwide, more than 50% of people will be diagnosed with a mental health illness or disorder at some point in their life, according to a study from the World Health Organization (WHO). Depression, WHO says, is a leading cause of disability globally. In the U.S., the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found that 1 in 5 adults face a mental health struggle in any given year.
“That's 43.8 million people,” said Stuart Binstock, CEO and president of the Construction Financial Management Association (CFMA). “Sixty percent are left untreated, 7% have depression, 18% have anxiety,” he added. “This can lead up to 27 lost work days per year.”
Depression, the CDC found, leads to 200 million lost workdays a year, coming at a cost to employers between $17 to $44 billion. When workers suffer, and mental health challenges go unaddressed, industries suffer. Taking a narrower look at construction, the industry’s intense demands, rapid work pace and high-risk environments create challenges that can negatively impact a worker’s mental wellbeing. These include: long, irregular hours, physically exhausting work, extended travel, and long separations from family and friends. Short-term employment, high-stress situations, work-related injuries, financial uncertainty, and economic declines are the tough challenges field workers can face.
There are a number of warning signs for serious anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts that can be especially noticeable on the construction site, according to the Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention (CIASP). These red flags can include decreased productivity; increased conflict; near hits, incidents and injuries; decreased problem-solving ability; as well as increased tardiness and absenteeism.
The organization, founded by CFMA back in 2016 to shatter the stigma surrounding mental health issues, is raising awareness about the risk of suicide within the construction industry. Sharing its suicide prevention resources and tools, CIASP is taking impactful steps to create a zero-suicide industry. It starts with companies evaluating their mental health and suicide prevention, preparedness and culture, Binstock says.
Turning to Tech to Support Construction Workers in Meaningful Ways
Armed with awareness and resources, construction executives, supervisors and field workers can create environments that promote mental health awareness and suicide prevention. With the help of technology, such as workforce management platforms, leaders can lay the foundation for best practices that support their workers in meaningful ways.
1. Toolbox Talks
Many construction companies have moved their in-person safety meetings and training to mobile workforce platforms that allow field workers to watch short videos and review best practices. Such platforms also give construction leaders the ability to see who has completed what talk and to make toolbox-talk completion a stipulating factor of clocking into work.
To encourage increased mental health awareness, companies can incorporate topics on mental health conditions, substance use disorders and psychological safety into their toolbox talks. Resources, support tools and treatment options can be shared alongside first-hand stories of struggle, hope and recovery. Toolbox talks incorporating these themes will help normalize conversations about mental health and provide workers with actionable resources to help themselves and their colleagues navigate mental health challenges.
Once a company’s toolbox talks incorporate mental health topics, it’s important that leaders back it up. Construction leaders set the tone for how mental health is handled by their actions, words and policies. With workers often separated from company leadership, there needs to be an effective way to create an environment that fosters communication, a sense of belonging and respect when it comes to mental health.
Mobile workforce platforms can help bridge the gap between field workers and leaders. When every worker has a smartphone in their hand, companies can regularly direct employees to fill out mental health checkup forms, giving leaders insight into how team members are feeling.
With this information, construction leaders have the opportunity to support team members who show signs they are struggling. This is an extension of an CIASP initiative called “Checkup from your neck up,” a brief, and anonymous self-screening tool to help determine if someone should connect with a behavioral health professional. Now, with a system in place to identify the need for mental health services, leaders can connect workers in need of support to such services. Having this open line of communication and system in place will prove pivotal to a company’s ability to create a caring culture that values mental health.
3. Productivity Data
The ability to collect live-field data through a mobile workforce platform can also play a significant role in a company’s mental health awareness and safety efforts. Tracking employee hours in real-time can help identify workers who have become increasingly tardy or absent — just one sign of distress. This data also gives leaders accurate insight into how many hours a worker is actually putting in. Are they working too many hours? Are you seeing signs of burnout, signs of duress? Time tracking is one way to detect issues.
Collected productivity data can also be utilized to help workers better understand their goals and what needs to be accomplished. This kind of open communication can help eliminate the uncertainties of a job and put workers in the driver’s seat of their success. It’s not meant to drive people to work harder, but rather give them greater insight into their tasks at hand, hopefully eliminating stress and guesswork.
When it comes to meaningfully addressing mental health: “Do something,” Binstock said. ”Do not sit still. You have an obligation to your employees, and you have an obligation to yourself as a company.”
Everyone plays a role in mental health awareness and suicide prevention. The more awareness field workers, supervisors and company leadership have surrounding mental health, and the more resources they have at hand, will mean safer job sites and a more secure, understanding and inclusive industry for everyone.