Mental Ill-Health in Construction – Why is it Such a Problem?

mental health in construction

Those in the construction sector are three times more likely to take their lives than those working in other fields, according to research. They are also six times more likely to die from suicide than a fall from height.

A range of factors have led to these unsettling statistics, including pressures on the industry and stress of the work itself. However, while awareness of the situation has grown, more needs to be done. While many leaders now recognise worker safety as a priority, effecting a real change in work culture and encouraging people to get the help they need is a slow process.

Why is Mental Health a Problem in Construction?

The construction industry is one of the most challenging fields to work in, especially for labourers working on site. The nature of the work can further exacerbate a mental health problem, making construction workers more likely to burn out.

Nature of the Work

Construction industry stress is a widespread problem, caused by a variety of factors. First are the hazards involved. The dangerous work environment includes significant risks of accident or injury such as a fall from height or being struck by a vehicle, as well as physical ailments that can develop over time such as back pain or hearing loss.

Accidents or illnesses can result in lost hours, pain and loss wages, which put significant pressure on mental health.

Organisational hazards, such as isolation or pressure to perform to deadline also increase the risk. Construction workers are often separated from their social networks or families for extended or irregular lengths of time, which can then result in loneliness or depression.

Poor Job Security

Construction industry stress also stems from the self-employed nature of most of the jobs in the field. Contractors may face difficulty securing payment from clients. In addition, when one contract expires, finding another may be a struggle. Even when a new contract is found, the change in routine can be unsettling. Moreover, seasonal and end-of-season layoffs in the industry are another significant contributor to poor mental health in construction.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also had an impact. An 11.2% fall in the employment of self-employed construction workers put many families in financial stress.  Similarly, many construction employers, alike those in other fields, have reduced their staff or crew size due to the risk of contracting COVID-19.

Culture

The culture on most construction sites is not one that encourages workers to discuss the problems they face or look for help. According to a study, only a third of construction workers struggling with a mental health issue would let their employers know. This means that the vast majority of mental health issues in the construction industry remain hidden.

Many fail to seek help because they fear embarrassment, along with possibly holding beliefs that their employer could not help them or that such an admission might affect their career.

Male dominance of the industry also plays a factor. Statistically, men are more likely to seek out unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as drinking or risk taking behaviour.

Suicide was the leading cause of death in men from 2001 to 2018 in the UK, and this number is significantly higher in the construction industry.

How to Support Better Mental Health in Construction

Prevention of and support for poor mental health in construction is in the hands of leaders and managers, who must build a caring culture to combat the fear of speaking up and address worker well-being.

Construction industry stress can be alleviated by systemic changes, such as normalisation of talking about mental health struggles, and providing training and support.

Create of a Safe Space

Fostering a culture of understanding and openness will bring considerable construction worker stress to light. This can be accomplished by employers sharing moments of personal weakness or failure with employees, and in turn being sincere and understanding about employee problems.

From the first employee orientation, workers should be encouraged to share mental health issues. Combined with regular mental health check-ins, a work culture that promotes open discussion of mental health is likely to improve mental health outcomes.

Increased Awareness

Poor mental health in the construction industry is a problem often left undiscussed, owing to the stigma attached. Increasing employee access to adequate education and resources regarding mental health, substance abuse, and suicide prevention will encourage employees to speak up before it is too late.

This discourse can be initiated by sharing information through newsletters, regularly hosting safety and health orientations, and hosting company retreats or seminars conducted by mental health experts with experience that directly addresses the problem.

Providing information to those who wish to seek outside help about resources like mental health centres and the UK National Suicide Prevention Helpline, Samaritans, and Mind Infoline is crucial.

Systemic Changes

Having properly defined job roles and clearly communicating expectations can also help to alleviate construction worker stress. Workers should be encouraged to take regular breaks from work for their mental and physical well-being. This behaviour should be modeled by the superiors.

If possible, counseling services should be included in employee benefits. However, given the high costs of doing so, facilitating access to these resources is still a step in the right direction. A survey by Health Shield concluded that 57% of workers would be more loyal and productive if their employers helped to ensure their mental well-being.

Mental Health Training

Alongside essentials such as training to handle the risks of working at height, line managers and supervisors must be provided with knowledge of how to tackle mental health in construction. This includes learning how to talk about mental health as well as how to identify tell-tale signs of a mental health struggle.

The Need for Action

Mental health in construction is a vital issue. It leads to a lower quality of life for workers and their families, as well as puts lives at risk. Construction staff with mental health issues are also twice as likely to be distracted in their tasks, which means that this poor psychological well-being can also threaten workers’ physical safety. Impaired focus and increased risk-taking behaviour both increase the likelihood of life-threatening injuries or accidents.

As prevention of poor mental health in construction is better than the alternative, the industry must collaborate to improve mental health outreach and support by increasing awareness, establishing safe spaces, implementing positive cultural changes, and investing in mental health awareness training.

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Joe Vickers
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