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Construction leaders striving to address high employee suicide rates in their industry may wonder what more they can do beyond sharing information and resources to raise awareness. The industry’s efforts are commendable and an example to other businesses who may have become aware of mental health concerns due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

A next step is to better understand what a distressed employee is going through and what actions can help to lessen feelings of isolation and desperation. Insights from clinical psychology and research can help with that. The quickening pace of enriched understanding and more willingness to talk about mental health make it clear that there is hope. 

Findings from researchers at Johns Hopkins University, the University of North Texas and Hannover, Germany may be a valuable beacon to the construction industry. The researchers focused on the economic disruption caused by the pandemic and how certain “secondary effects” may accelerate anxiety, depression and suicide. They found that fear of job loss and income loss create substantial economic uncertainty. When economic uncertainty is combined with a sense of feeling trapped and lacking control, the burdened individual can feel helpless and hopeless, as if suicide is the only way out.

These secondary effects can be like what some construction employees, particularly laborers, experience. For them, construction work can feel like an economic roller coaster.  

In times of societal calm and pervasive economic well-being, the seasonality of construction work and moving from job to job was not a big problem for most workers. But 2020 brought enormous disruption, with more employees at risk of losing their job after the project was completed or at the end of the season. That fostered more anxiety than freedom in these recent times of societal disruption. Even when workers are physically and mentally exhausted and worried about being paid, the culture says they have to act strong. 

The insecurity of certain construction jobs, high prevalence of temporary and casual labor, and high mobility within the workforce leave construction employees with limited job control and make them a “vulnerable” employee population—not just in the United States but in the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Denmark and Italy, where high mortality due to suicide has been documented for construction employees. 

Hope in Cultural Shift and Connection

The situation is not hopeless but it will take a shift in organizational culture, involving construction executives, site superintendents and supervisors, along with all construction employees. 

To understand what is meant by a cultural shift, construction executives can look to occupational health for an example. Industry leaders tired of the vicious cycle of only reacting to injury. As occupational health research gave insights into injury prevention, a perfect marriage was born that fostered a cultural shift from reacting to work injuries to greater emphasis on preventing work injury. This shift began decades ago and still has not permeated every company in every industry, but evidence supporting the value of injury prevention continues to mount—and save lives. 

The same can be expected for a shift in construction organizational culture to embrace mental health as powerfully as physical health. 

Idealization of Strength Must Evolve With the Times

McKinsey & Company, a global management consulting firm, calls the construction industry “the world’s largest ecosystem” and praises how construction executives have responded to the call to evolve their businesses amid the disruption wrought by the pandemic.

Such a vital ecosystem and force in national economic strength functions with an idealization of physical strength at the workforce level. It attracts and hires employees from diverse backgrounds that tend to embrace physical challenges. They earn high pay if they perform with physical strength. What happens when physical strength is overwhelmed by mental stress?

From the employee’s perspective, the walls begin to close in. The ability to provide for family is strained. Mental distraction may lead to more injuries – and with that, the employee may suffer complications from prescription of high-powered opioid painkillers. The national opioid epidemic in construction specifically is a factor in construction employee suicides. Employees may take refuge in substance use and addiction. The costs of not seeing how mental stress affects these icons of physical strength is high for employers and highest for employees who are lost to life. 

Will the construction industry confront the business disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic and make a major shift in organizational culture to promote mental health care without stigma? 

Employers Need Support to Address Mental Health

A common fear employers have in promoting mental health in the workplace is that employees could misappropriate company policy considerations. They point to COVID-19 stay-at-home advice as an example. During the pandemic, employees were told to stay home if they felt sick or believed they had the virus. Some employees took advantage of the policy. Other employees, who legitimately used the stay-at-home option, complained their supervisor harassed them for taking time off.  

To ensure correct and appropriate usage of mental health initiatives, there need to be well-developed internal processes to educate management on mental health and ways to identify mental health issues so they can differentiate a true concern from a faked one. Employees who are suffering are not recognized because they are being lumped with those who are exaggerating their problems. 

Supervisors need to be trained to look for the signs of serious anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts that can be observed on the construction site:

  • decreased productivity;
  • increased conflict among coworkers;
  • near hits, incidents and injuries;
  • decreased problem-solving ability; and
  • increased tardiness and absenteeism.
Tailor Mental Health Initiatives to Blue-Collar Men

The reason a culture change is needed becomes clear from research that shows the “Mental health services commonly fail to engage men – both in terms of initiating contact and in retaining engagement when contact is made—and it is, therefore, vital that investment is made in mental health approaches that are tailored to men’s needs in general, but particularly to blue-collar men’s needs in the construction and related sectors.”

The Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention is an excellent starting point and Construction Financial Management Association has compiled a list of suicide prevention partners specifically designed to serve construction workers.

A Final Word to the Wise

Discussing mental health openly in meetings or even privately may be uncomfortable at first. It may be difficult to get employees to share mental health issues. However, by fostering a safe environment and a culture of understanding, on and off the jobsite, construction leaders can help employees who need help to open up.  

Construction is a more physically demanding occupation than most. Employees’ dedication is seen daily in their sweat and muscle aches. By helping them when times are tough, good mental health in a stressful world can be achieved. 

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