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The Striking Role Mental Health Plays in Construction

Safety

Here’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 10 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. It’s important for construction firms to explore the mental health risks and triggers on a construction site, as well as encourage mental health discussions and understand what they can do to support their employees.

DEMOGRAPHIC CONTRIBUTORS

Construction sites are composed of mostly men, ages 20 to 54, and this also happens to be the group most at risk for suicide. Construction is consistently listed in the top 10 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 impacts construction workers at every level within the organization.

CONSTRUCTION-SPECIFIC CONTRIBUTORS

Many cite the quantity of work and the amount of time in which it has to be accomplished as major stress triggers, while supervisors report that a lack of participation in important decisions and lack of social support from upper management contribute significantly to workers’ anxiety. Because construction is a deadline-driven operation, 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 a pinch in available labor, particularly in large cities. Construction firms are feeling the pressure to deliver on time, and could be translating that pressure to employees, who already may be overburdened.

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, the research showed 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; in fact, 40 percent of construction workers over the age of 50 report chronic back pain. Furthermore, workers who were injured had a 45 percent higher depression rate than non-injured workers. Not only does physical pain impact mental health, but vice versa. When a worker is struggling with depression or anxiety, he or she experiences cognitive impairment. This cognitive impairment can take the form of concentration 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 workers sustain 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 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.

fig-1-mental-health-safetyculture

Many of the reasons people do not seek help (see chart above) revolve around this fear of vilification. This is why facilitating discussions about 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 percent of the workers onsite. 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 onsite. 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 in Colorado, took its wellness programs a step further and partnered with Carson J. Spencer, a suicide prevention non-profit. “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,” saysHeather Gallien, RK’s marketing and communications director. “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 its employees and 39 percent 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 onsite mental health toolbox talks, 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, as well as promote mantherapy.org, a website developed for men struggling with personal issues. They provided stickers for hardhats and posters with the slogan “You can’t fix your mental health with duct tape” at offices and jobsites.

As seen 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 its benefits provider to make wellness a part of its overall strategy. The company added counseling to its 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 who travels to all the jobsites, available at no charge to employees.

RK is an incredible example of a firm that is going above and beyond to provide mental health resources to its workforce. However, there are easy wins that every firm can implement, as outlined in a free guide from Carson J. Spencer. It includes information on how to protect against suicide, such as 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 wherever possible will create a culture of caring for peers. Assessing current mental health initiatives or implementing new ones will not only encourage happier and more engaged employees, but it also will have a tangential effect on physical injuries and overall workplace culture.

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