Construction work can place considerable strain on the body, and it can also exhaust the mind. The industry has an alarmingly high suicide rate, about four times higher than the general population, according to OSHA.
This week is Construction Safety Week, a time when builders call for vigilance in day-to-day practices on the jobsite. Many also bring up mental health as a key part of safety.
Here, Construction Dive convenes a “round table" of sorts, asking several industry experts to answer questions about mental health in construction.
The following responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.
CONSTRUCTION DIVE: Why is mental health an issue in construction? Why must it be addressed?
Cindy DePrater, senior vice president, chief EH&S officer, Turner: Construction is a great job. We take pride in what we do. There is a lot of satisfaction working as a team to build places that people appreciate and use. But there is also a lot of stress in our job.
If we attend to our individual and team’s health and well-being, we can thrive in our personal lives, bring the best version of ourselves to work and improve safety on the jobsite. Taking time to really reflect on our mental health, being aware of the signs of stress and anxiety, and knowing you have someone to turn to that will support you or a loved one I think makes a huge difference in the lives of our workers. It’s simply the right thing to do.
Stephanie Schmidt, president, Poole Anderson Construction: Some of the things that make construction such a challenging and rewarding career, when taken too far, can elevate risk factors for suicide. When schedules, workflow, commute times and pay are predictable, it’s fantastic. But unexpected schedule changes, materials shortages, delays, injuries, callouts and gaps between finishing a project and starting the next one all contribute to increased risk if systems are not resilient enough to manage the extra stress.
Keith McCoy, senior vice president of safety, Balfour Beatty U.S.: Every day, construction workers show up to a jobsite that is ever-changing, presenting potential exposures to high-risk safety situations. Having to deal with this very unique work environment internally, in addition to workers’ own personal worries and stresses outside of the job, can have a significant impact on their mental health and well-being.
Kris Manning, head of safety, Clark Construction: The early hours, late-night activities and weekend work that is sometimes needed to reach critical construction milestones on site can produce both physical and mental fatigue. As an industry, we have not openly talked about mental fatigue (and mental health) like we do more traditional safety hazards. This must change. We need to break the taboo of discussing personal issues at work so workers are comfortable seeking treatment for mental health conditions.
Jennifer Sproul, president, Maryland Center for Construction Education & Innovation: Mental health isn’t just an issue in construction, we are in a crisis. Suicide rates in the construction industry are higher than any other industry in the nation, and more people die by suicide in construction than all other workplace fatalities combined.
We cannot say that we care about worker safety if we do not care about their whole selves. It is not only the morally right thing to do, but it makes good business sense. Depression alone causes an estimated 200 million lost workdays each year at the cost of $17 billion to $44 billion to employers.
Keyan Zandy, CEO, Skiles Group: Our industry’s culture has certainly contributed to this crisis. When you think about construction workers in the field, you’re probably not envisioning these as people who easily share their feelings, and there’s a reason for that. The construction industry is traditionally perceived as hypermasculine – tough, manly, competitive. It also consistently ranks at the top of all sectors for heavy alcohol and substance use or abuse.
But even with all these stressors, many construction firms have been slow to engage in conversations with their employees about mental health. There’s no reason for anyone to suffer in silence.
CONSTRUCTION DIVE: How can it be addressed?
Paul Haining, chief environmental health and safety officer at Skanska USA: Implementing initiatives that target protecting the mental health of employees as well as their overall morale is paramount, as well as having specially trained team members that have undertaken and completed a mental health training course to ensure the ability to aid their colleagues when a need arises on the internal level.
Partnerships with outside organizations and foundations are another avenue that companies can take to provide ample resources.
Greg Sizemore, vice president of health, safety, environment and workforce development, Associated Builders and Contractors: Putting a focus on total human health is imperative, because safety is not just about recordable incidents. There are four facets of total human health to focus on: Body — ensuring workers are physically able and capable of doing the work by preventing skeletal/muscular injury; Mind — focus on mental, financial and occupational well-being; Heart — prioritizing emotional and social health; and Spirit — aligning the wellness of the spirit and the soul. It is our responsibility to know the warning signs and educate others.
Carley Hill, CEO and founder, CAHill Tech: Workers need to know that they are not alone. Creating a more supportive work culture from the start will help individuals — or a team — significantly. If you are a leader or supervisor, you need to let your workers know that you are open for them to voice their concerns freely about their mental health, just as they would if they had a physical ailment.
Cindy DePrater: Socializing and normalizing behavioral health conversations at work will help. Most working adults spend more time working than any other activity apart from sleeping.
Research shows when employers initiate and support treatment for mental health disorders and substance misuse, it is more effective in the long term than at the urging of family or friends. When we take care of ourselves, we are safer. When we take care of ourselves, it also becomes easier to support others.
CONSTRUCTION DIVE: What are the benefits of considering mental health a part of safety?
Stephen Sandherr, CEO, Associated General Contractors of America: We are beginning to appreciate the significant connections between mental health and overall construction safety. Workers that are in a better mental place are more likely to remain focused and aware on the job site – helping reduce safety incidents and better protect fellow workers. And we also believe, strongly, that address the mental health of our workforce is key to reducing suicide rates within the industry. We have to get this right.
Steven Sommer, executive general manager and president of New York construction, Lendlease: First and foremost, we want our employees to live happy, healthy lives – both at work and at home – and considering their mental wellness as part of overall well-being and job satisfaction is a big part of that.
We also believe everyone has the right to go home safely, so we think about mental health in terms of its impact on job performance and focus – something that is especially important on construction sites where small mistakes can lead to serious accidents and injuries.
Cindy DePrater: Research shows that 60% to 70% of all safety "incidents" have some type of health or wellness issue as an underlying factor. When we show up on the job, we are bringing all parts of our personal lives – our relationships, home life, health issues, financial struggles or even a reliance on substances. And all these factors may impact our ability to do our work safely.
Jennifer Sproul: A mentally-well workforce is a safe workforce. By providing our employees access to mental health resources, by talking about the issues surrounding mental health, we will create a safer work environment with less injuries and less lost time.
Greg Sizemore: Everyone in the contracting community benefits from a safe and fully healthy workforce. Mental illness creates $193 billion in lost earnings per year. This issue goes beyond the worker showing up and putting on their PPE to making sure their mental and emotional needs are met.
Carley Hill: Mental health and fatigue are just as dangerous to workforce safety as a more tangible jobsite threat. But it can also be much more personal. For that reason, it is essential to take a holistic approach to safety that encompasses both workers' physical and mental well-being.
Keith McCoy: To continue to safely deliver the vital buildings and infrastructure our communities rely on, the industry must continue to raise awareness and normalize open and transparent conversations on mental health. In so doing, we can help change perceptions, empower our workforce as advocates for mental health and reduce suicide rates in construction.