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Prioritizing Psychological Health: Creating a caring culture in construction

By Tom O'Connor | May 15, 2023
988lifeline.org

Mental health concerns are at an all-time high in the united states. In fact, the construction industry has the second-highest suicide rate of any profession. There are resources available to address and improve mental health to reduce this figure.

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Mental health concerns are at an all-time high in the united states. In fact, the construction industry has the second-highest suicide rate of any profession. There are resources available to address and improve mental health to reduce this figure.

Suicide in construction

Many factors contribute to mental health issues among construction workers. First is that it is a male-dominated industry. Stereotypically, men tend to value toughness and stoicism, and may feel too much shame, stigma or fear of judgment to come forward and ask for help. As a result, their troubles may snowball and become more serious. In recent years, the stigma associated with mental health issues has lessened and record numbers of individuals are seeking help. 

Construction work can be stressful with long hours and some jobs are far from employees’ homes and families. This can lead to fatigue, loneliness, anxiety and depression. Construction is also frequently cyclical or seasonal, leaving workers with limited or no job security. This can result in additional stress, mental strain or worry about financial circumstances.

The physically demanding nature of construction work can lead to chronic pain, which can adversely affect mental health and may result in usage of—and in some cases, addiction to—pain killers, opioids and alcohol. Although these substances are often used as a coping mechanism, chemical dependence can worsen mental health issues.

Additionally, many Americans may experience the loss of a co-worker, a traumatic incident or near-miss on the job during their lifetime. Construction and electrical industry workers are more likely to have that experience. The aftermath can have an immense mental and emotional effect that individuals carry long after the incident, and can result in anxiety, depression and PTSD. 

PTSD

According to the American Psychiatric Association: “PTSD is a psychiatric disorder that may occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event, series of events or set of circumstances. An individual may experience this as emotionally or physically harmful or life-threatening and may affect mental, physical, social, and/or spiritual well-being.” People experience PTSD in four ways: 

  • Intrusion, such as flashbacks, involuntary memories of the incident or reliving it in dreams
  • Avoidance of people, places, activities, objects and situations that may trigger memories of the trauma
  • Alterations in cognition and mood that can result in an inability to remember the traumatic event or portions of it, a distorted view of the incident, detachment and persistent fear, horror, anger, guilt or shame
  • Arousal and reactivity, such as anger, irritability and reckless or self-destructive behavior

PTSD can exacerbate or lead to additional mental health conditions. It may cause trouble with concentrating or sleeping. Treatments that can help with most, if not all, of these issues include therapy, coping mechanisms and medication. 

According to the Center for Workplace Mental Health: “Organizations across industries increasingly identify addressing mental health and well-being as a top priority given the impact on safety, quality performance, productivity, employee recruitment and retention, and the bottom line. There is growing recognition that people will care about an organization’s strategy when they believe that the organization cares for their well-being.”

What employers can do

The best thing employers can do is to create a “caring culture” that values workers’ well-being so they feel comfortable to speak up when experiencing mental health challenges. Additionally, employers may provide mental health training for supervisors and other employees and offer an Employee Assistance Program. 

Communicate the importance of mental health to staff by addressing it in toolbox talks, posters, fact sheets, wallet cards, newsletters and hardhat stickers. 

Several warning signs to look for that may indicate employees are struggling with mental health issues include fatigue, low morale, inability to concentrate, expressing anger, high turnover, lack of motivation or persistent sadness. Employers or colleagues who observe these symptoms should encourage their co-workers to  seek help.

If you or someone you know is in crisis and would like emotional support, call or text the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988 to speak to a trained counselor. 

Header image: 988lifeline.org

About The Author

O’CONNOR is safety and regulatory affairs manager for Intec, a safety consulting, training and publishing firm. Reach him at [email protected].

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