There is a growing mental health crisis in the construction industry. People are struggling at work.
“Mental health challenges are now the norm among employees across all organizational levels,” write Kelly Greenwood and Julia Anas, Mind Share Partners CEO and chief people officer at Qualtrics, respectively, after assessing the data in their 2021 Mental Health at Work Report. That study shows 76 percent of all workers report confronting at least one symptom of a mental health condition within the year. That’s up from 59 percent in 2019.
It’s a crisis that is impacting all industries, albeit some more than others. One of those seeing a disturbing increase in workers’ mental health issues is the construction industry.
“We know that in this industry there are folks that show up for work on any given day that are not in the right mental state to be able to perform their duties safely and efficiently,” says Suffolk Construction’s National Chief Operating Officer Tim Stroud.
Many Construction Workers Struggle with Mental Health
A majority of construction workers experience mental health struggles.
According to research conducted by the Construction Industry Rehabilitation Plan, “83 percent of construction industry workers have experienced some form of moderate to severe mental health issue.” Considering there are nearly eight million people working in the construction trades in the U.S., that’s an enormous number of workers who struggle with mental well-being.
And while everyone’s experience with mental health is different, most construction-industry workers have suffered symptoms associated with stress, anxiety, depression, and/or burnout. That’s largely because the very nature of the construction industry makes people more susceptible to mental health issues.
“Construction workers are at high risk because of what their jobs entail and the culture that surrounds it,” writes Holly Welles at the National Center for Education Construction and Research.
So just what is it about construction that is so damaging to workers’ mental well-being? While there are numerous and varied reasons, a few do stand out above the rest as why there’s a construction industry mental health crisis.
For starters, they are working in high-pressure environments. Construction workers are often forced to work long hours to meet ambitious deadlines that can change at any moment. They also often confront unpredictable changes and delays that cause confusion and chaos.
That’s before you consider how physically demanding construction is — the extreme temperatures, heavy lifting and constant wear-and-tear on workers’ bodies lead to chronic pain. A 2019 survey of construction workers conducted by Michelle Turner and Helen Lingard, professors at the School of Property, Construction and Project Management at Melbourne’s RMIT University, shows respondents “whose pain had originated from work had significantly higher levels of depression, anxiety, and stress severity.”
The pressure and chronic pain contribute to sleep deprivation, which is common among construction workers. A 2021 study of the impacts of sleep on construction workers shows “the majority of construction workers perceived poor quality of sleep” which, the researchers note, can lead to “negative psychological symptoms such as depression and anxiety.”
Compounding the problem is the fact that workers in the construction trades typically suffer in silence.
Construction Workers Don’t Discuss Mental Health Problems
Though millions of workers throughout the construction industry are dealing with mental health issues, very few are actually talking about it. There’s a pervasive mentality in construction that workers are strong and tough who deal with their problems instead of seeking help. This stereotype is contributing to the construction industry mental health crisis.
A joint 2021 study led by The American Psychiatric Association Foundation’s Center for Workplace Mental Health finds that only 17 percent of industry workers would comfortably and openly discuss mental health issues with a supervisor, and only 18 percent would confide in coworkers. The primary reasons for that reluctance, according to the study, are shame and stigma, fear of judgment and job repercussions, and a lack of knowledge about how to access help.
This acceptance of suffering in silence is leading to an increase in substance abuse among industry workers which only exacerbates their mental health struggles.
Mental Health Struggles Compounded by Substance Abuse
Substance abuse is a very real and concerning problem in the construction industry, especially given the nature of the work.
“Construction workers are at an increased risk for drug use, which makes them vulnerable to work-related injuries or even overdose deaths,” says Danielle Ompad, professor of epidemiology at NYU College of Global Public Health and deputy director of the Center for Drug Use and HIV Research.
The American Addiction Centers analyzed data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) and Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and found the construction industry is:
- Ranked first in pain reliever abuse among all industries (22 percent).
- Ranked first in marijuana use (60 percent).
- Ranked first in heroin use (4.5 percent).
- Ranked second for substance abuse disorders (16 percent).
- Ranked second for heavy drinking (16 percent).
- Ranked third for illicit drug use by industry (13 percent).
These are striking numbers that illustrate the prevalence of substance abuse in the industry. The same factors that play a role in increasing stress, anxiety, depression and burnout often push workers to self-medicate with alcohol and drugs.
The fact that it is a male-dominated industry also plays a part in the substance abuse statistics. Research by the National Institute on Drug Abuse shows men are more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol than women. Since 90 percent of construction workers are men, it follows that there would be a tendency towards substance abuse in the industry.
Of particular concern right now is the opioid overdose epidemic sweeping through construction. The physical demands of working in construction often lead to injuries for which doctors prescribe prescription pain medications. It’s becoming all too common for workers to become addicted to those painkillers and die from overdose.
“Construction workers have been shown in many studies to have high rates of death from overdose compared to workers in other occupations,” notes the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
And that’s not where it ends. Construction workers also have a higher rate of death from suicide than most other industries.
Suicide Rates Among Construction Workers Is One of the Highest of Any Industry
The suicide statistics in the construction industry are staggering. According to the most recent job-specific suicide data from the CDC, both male and female construction workers die by suicide at a higher rate than the national average (45 out of every 100,000 for male construction workers and nine out of 100,000 women compared to 14 and eight, respectively). These rates are second only to the mining, quarrying, and oil and gas extraction industries.
As with the other mental health struggles, the nature of the work plays a big role in the higher rates of suicide.
“The culture of risk-taking, stoicism and self-reliance in the construction industry certainly makes for courageous and hearty workers, but it also increases risk for suicide in that this occupational group is least likely to reach out when there’s a problem,” says psychologist Sally Spencer-Thomas, co-chair of the Workplace Special Interest Group at International Association of Suicide Prevention and president of United Suicide Survivors International.
While that suffer-in-silence mentality contributes to the high suicide rates, so does the isolation many construction workers contend with on the job.
“If you’re working on the road in a town where you don’t know anyone, and you lack the support system you have in place at home, alcohol and drug abuse can become a problem which makes the troubles you’re going through even worse,” says Bob Swanson, a suicide prevention advocate and retired construction worker.
To combat these struggles, workers need to know who to turn to and where to get help. That falls to construction companies and trade contractors to prioritize the mental well-being of their workers and to create cultures of openness and support around mental health. Leaders should start mental health conversations and regularly check in with employees to assess their mental well-being.
Simply asking someone how they are doing can make a big difference, says Dave Rible, executive director of the Utility and Transportation Contractors Association of New Jersey. Everyone also needs to be “vigilant for signs of depression or suicidal tendencies,” notes Rible.
Anything companies can do to make things a little easier for workers will go a long way to alleviating the job-related stress, anxiety, depression and burnout that lead to bigger struggles. That includes adopting a digital platform that automates mundane, time-consuming and frustrating tasks and streamlines processes that complicate workers’ days.
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