Construction work is becoming increasingly stressful. As a result, mental health issues connected to job-related stress are on the rise for workers in the industry.
In fact, according to a 2020 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, working men in the construction industry have the second highest rate of suicide of all workplace industries, with 45 out of every 100,000 male workers taking their own lives.
Additionally, a 2022 study by the Center for Construction Research and Training found that 30 percent of male construction workers report psychological distress.
Considering there are nearly eight million people employed in the construction industry in the U.S., about 90 percent of whom are men, that’s a lot of workers who are confronting stress and the mental health struggles that come with it. It’s become a crisis that industry employers cannot afford to ignore.
Job-Related Stress Factors Contributing to the Mental Health Crisis in Construction
Worker health and safety must always be a top concern for employers, especially in an industry where hazardous conditions are the norm.
Construction sites are unique and challenging working environments, and the mental and physical tolls of the job contribute to mental health issues. Trade contractors must be conscious of all of those hazards in order to mitigate employee stress.
To that end, what are the most common stressors affecting workers in the field?
- The risk of physical injury and death. Construction work is dangerous, and field teams put their bodies and lives at risk every day they are on the job. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 18 percent of all fatal occupational injuries in 2021 were in the construction industry. From having to use heavy machinery to the risk of falls and overexertion, as well as working in extreme weather, these highly-skilled workers are constantly combatting health and safety hazards in challenging work environments, so their stress levels are high.
- Irregular work hours. Construction isn’t an 8-to-5 industry. Job sites often open up before sunrise and close after sunset. If you compound those long hours with mandated overtime plus travel time to and from the work site, days can get really long for workers. They often miss out on family time and suffer from a lack of sleep which stresses them out and leads to exhaustion and depression.
- Job insecurity. “The construction sector is very sensitive to the economic situation,” writes Dr. Laurent Vogel, an associate researcher at the European Trade Union Institute (ETUI). As such, it’s not uncommon for business to slow down periodically which can lead to periods of unemployment for trade contractors. According to The Conference Board’s Job Loss Index, the construction industry has the third-highest risk for job losses this year. That uncertainty is a major contributor to stress for construction workers.
- Delays and unforeseen circumstances. Everybody knows to expect delays in construction, but constant delays cause timeline pressures that are hard on workers. That stress is compounded when contractors set ambitious (or nearly impossible) deadlines. “It is well known that construction projects often have very tight deadlines,” write the authors of a Frontiers in Public Health article. This puts the “teams of people who carry out the work” under a lot of pressure, the authors emphasize.
- Lack of communication. Another major stressor for trade contractors is uncertainty surrounding job tasks for work responsibilities which is a direct result of a lack of communication from construction project managers or job site directors. When roles aren’t clearly defined and assigned, the confusion over who should handle what adds to workers’ stress.
Field construction teams need help addressing these issues and overcoming the mental health struggles that result from them. But they often won’t ask for it. According to research by Westfield Health, only one-third of the nearly 60 percent of construction workers who struggle with mental health communicate it to their employers.
That’s largely because there is a stigma around discussing mental health problems, particularly among men, who happen to make up the majority of workers in the construction industry.
“As a male-dominated industry, construction is built on a culture of stoicism and self-reliance,” explains the National Center for Construction Education & Research. “People, men, in particular, don’t often ask for help because they don’t want to appear to be weak or incapable of performing their assigned tasks.”
It’s up to management to help eliminate that stigma and encourage employees to talk about the issues that are stressing them out.
Employers Must Get Involved in Employee Mental Health
It’s not just your workers individually who are impacted by extreme levels of stress. “The mental health of your employees can affect your entire organization,” writes Jill Fleming, human resources director at contract management services provider ISN.
Untreated mental health issues can lead to physical issues that can cause workers to miss work due to illness and injury. Those absences have a direct negative impact on job site productivity and finances.
Stressed out workers are also more prone to making mistakes which can also have financial consequences. Lost time, injury, and even death as a result of worker error can cost your business big money. That’s why you can’t afford to ignore this very real issue impacting your business.
How Construction Business Employers Can Help Their Workers
Employers, while not solely responsible for their employees’ mental health, do have a role to play in supporting it. Here are some ways you can help alleviate your employees’ stress on the job.
Talk About Mental Health Awareness at Work
One of the most critical ways to address stress and mental health is to talk about it. Start the conversation and encourage your employees to participate. Doing so will help your company build a culture that prioritizes the mental health of workers and creates a safe space for them to discuss their mental health struggles.
“A caring culture is…one in which leaders reinforce the importance of workers taking care of their mental health and well-being and reaching out for help when it’s needed,” write the authors of a 2021 Pulse survey of mental health in the construction industry. “This includes leaders modeling and communicating that ‘it’s ok to not be ok’ and reminding people to get help when it’s needed as you would for physical health conditions.”
How do you do that?
Business advisor Robert Vecchiotti, Ph.D., emphasizes the importance of building trust. He suggests employers hold workshops and host group discussions to open the doors of communication around mental health. He also suggests giving employees books to read to help them learn more about what they are going through. You may want to consider bringing in guest speakers to those workshops and discussions, people who have stories to share that your employees can relate to.
Offer Resources for Mental Health Assistance
Once you get the conversations going, offer tangible resources for employees to address their stresses at work. That may include access to counselors and regularly scheduled support groups where workers can open up about their experiences with stress at work and connect with others going through the same things.
Also consider setting up employee health portals where employees take assessments about their physical and mental health as well as search out resources for addressing their issues and concerns.
Nicola Hodkinson, director of business services at Seddon Construction in the U.K., says her company created an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) to give workers access to counseling support and other mental health resources. Through the EAP, the company conducts regular occupational health assessments to assess employee wellbeing. This puts all health information in one location so employees can easily find help.
The goal of such tools is to make it as easy as possible for employees to improve their mental health at work.
Attempt to Mitigate the Most Common Stressors
It’s impossible to eliminate all of the hazards and stressors on a construction job site but you can help employees manage their stress levels by reducing the most common ones. That includes:
- Ensuring workloads are manageable. Try not to overload employees. Don’t set impossible deadlines and keep overtime reasonable. When workers have flexibility to manage their time to meet realistic deadlines, they are most likely to do things right because they are less stressed.
- Prioritize safety. Provide proper training and personal protective equipment for every employee on a job site. By protecting your employees’ bodies, you are also protecting their mental health.
- Communicate. Encourage open door policies so all employees can bring their concerns to managers and discuss their stressors without fear of judgment or retaliation. Also solicit constructive feedback from employees about the shortcomings they may be experiencing when it comes to their health and safety on the job.
- Reward good work. It’s easy to forget to celebrate successes. Positive reinforcement goes a long way to keeping employees motivated and alleviating tension and stress.
If you can do all of these things, your employees will be happier at work and more productive.
Use Technology to Streamline Workflows
The more you can streamline tasks and workflows, the less stressed your employees will be. Having to manually complete paperwork for things such as field reports and change orders in addition to managing binders of paperwork in the field can get overwhelming and stressful.
A digital tool that enables employees both in the office and in the field to easily share information and provide updates in real-time is an essential tool for all trade contractors. Such a platform creates process efficiencies that save employees time on reporting and allows them to adapt more quickly in the field. Such flexibility eases some of the stress they experience while on the job.
For example, Van Huynh, project manager at DTA Electric, says using eSUB Cloud helped him streamline the company’s operations and find relief from the stress associated with inefficient processes and too much paperwork.
In his case study, Huynh explains that the software helped him move from reactive positions with general contractors to being more proactive. So, instead of waiting for update calls or emails from general contractors and then having to track down information through a paper trail, he can now look at the data all in one place and make those calls himself.
Additionally, Huynh was able to track materials accurately through eSUB, eliminating double orders and reducing material waste. “eSUB lets me see all my work in one place and stay on top of things,” Huynh says. “I feel relief everywhere.”
To see how eSUB Cloud can help mitigate employee stress by streamlining processes at your workplace, schedule a demo today.
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