The last couple of years have been a strain on people’s mental health. In 2022, nearly 20% of adults are experiencing a mental illness, that’s about 50 million Americans. Construction industry mental health is also a concern. The construction industry ranks second for suicide rates among all other industries. Mental illness is nothing new but national movements like Mental Health Awareness Month, which occurs every May, have helped reduce the stigma around it.
Mental health conditions are far more common than you think, mainly because people don’t like, or are scared to, talk about them. In fact:
- 1 in 5 US adults experience mental illness each year
- 1 in 20 US adults experience serious mental illness each year
- 1 in 6 US youth aged 6-17 experience a mental health disorder each year
- 50% of all lifetime mental illness begins by age 14, and 75% by age 24
Mental illness is any condition that affects a person’s thinking, feeling, behavior or mood, according to National Alliance on Mental Illness. And having a mental health condition isn’t caused by one event. The organization states that research suggests multiple, linking causes including genetics, environment and lifestyle. A stressful job or home life makes some people more susceptible, as do traumatic life events. Biochemical processes and circuits and basic brain structure may play a role, too.
Construction Work and Mental Illness
The construction industry fuels economic growth by helping people, companies and infrastructure literally grow. But by its nature, it’s also a breeding ground for worker mental health issues. There are several key factors that can contribute to construction industry mental health issues, some related specifically to the physicality of the work, including:
- Long workdays
- Difficult, tiring labor
- Pain from injury or overuse
Injury and chronic pain—which are common in construction based on the nature of the work—can actually contribute to employees’ anxiety, stress and depression, conditions that lead to distraction and lack of focus that are an antecedent to workplace injuries. So, it becomes a vicious and unrelenting circle unless both physical and psychological well-being are addressed as part of workplace safety protocols.
Recognizing Mental Health Risk Factors
It can be difficult to determine if the behavior a worker is exhibiting is expected or a sign of mental illness. For example, a worker may be sad because a family member is sick or that sadness could be a sign of depression. There’s no easy test that can determine if a behavior is typical or a result of a physical illness or if it could be something more. Every type of mental illness has its own symptoms but there are some common warning signs in adults that companies can be aware of:
- Excessive worrying or fear
- Feeling excessively sad or low
- Confused thinking or problems concentrating and learning
- Extreme mood changes, including uncontrollable “highs” or feelings of euphoria
- Prolonged or strong feelings of irritability or anger
- Avoiding friends and social activities
- Difficulties understanding or relating to other people
- Changes in sleeping habits or feeling tired and low energy
- Changes in eating habits such as increased hunger or lack of appetite
- Changes in sex drive
- Difficulty perceiving reality (delusions or hallucinations, in which a person experiences and senses things that don’t exist in objective reality)
- Inability to perceive changes in one’s own feelings, behavior or personality (”lack of insight” or anosognosia)
- Overuse of substances like alcohol or drugs
- Multiple physical ailments without obvious causes (such as headaches, stomach aches, vague and ongoing “aches and pains”)
- Thinking about suicide
- Inability to carry out daily activities or handle daily problems and stress
- An intense fear of weight gain or concern with appearance
Why Understanding Mental Health Risk Factors is Important in Construction
Understanding the risk factors in construction industry mental health is paramount to worker safety. A 2020 study found that 83% of construction workers have experienced a mental health issue. Employees who are anxious, stressed or depressed can experience distraction on the job. However, for construction workers the risks of not being mentally present are more serious than simply lost productivity. When construction workers aren’t psychologically present or are distracted, it can lead to serious safety implications for themselves and their co-workers.
Support Your Workers’ Mental Health
Below are key ways employers can help support construction industry mental health illness and awareness.
- Encourage full use of paid time off and sick days. Forbes contributor and author Bryan Robinson, PhD asserts that this is the best way to foster mental health among workers, but notes that it isn’t being done enough. Make sure your workers take the time off they need to recharge and heal.
- Break the silence surrounding mental health. A study revealed that one in ten employees said they’d been thinking of harming themselves or others, and 47% said they had received no words of support from employers in recent months. Open communication about mental health, especially from company leaders, helps remove the stigma from the topic so that workers feel less shame discussing their struggles, and are more apt to seek help.
- Include an employee assistance program (EAP) in your benefits offering. Typically costing around $20 a year per employee, EAPs are usually offered together with health insurance and provide free, confidential counseling to any employee in work-related or personal distress. With EAPs, employees can simply pick up the phone rather than researching the right therapist, making an appointment or worrying about copays. EAPs offer a limited number of sessions, but their counselors can refer employees to continued therapy if necessary.
- Ensure your benefits offerings are easily accessible to employees. Employees who must rifle through reams of paperwork to register for benefits, or seek out an HR representative with every question, may be deterred from signing up or using their health benefits—especially if they’re already feeling anxious or depressed. Benefits management software provides an employee portal where workers can log in to compare and choose healthcare plans, check on coverage details, and more.
Supporting mental health among your workers is essential to reducing absenteeism and maintaining productivity. Open and direct messaging from leadership about mental illness and the availability of help is a great way to show support. However, it’s important that employers also walk the walk by offering employees health benefits and allowing ease of access through benefits management software to ensure there are no barriers to use.