While the construction industry is thriving financially and making a major contribution to the U.S. economy, the industry as a whole struggles to deal with workplace stressors. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in 2015, male construction and extraction workers had the highest suicide rate among American workers.
September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. As an industry, construction leaders need to take action to change this staggering statistic. Though many factors contribute to the increased risk of suicide, the high-pressure nature of schedule, budget and quality performance, coupled with potential for failure that’s tied to the employee’s livelihood, are especially anxiety-inducing. Employers and employees in the industry must know how to identify, cope with and prevent stress from consuming them – especially when the end result for many is suicide.
Employers and construction site leadership must be skilled in identifying sources of stress. Because of the stigma surrounding mental health and suicide prevention, their employees are not likely to express their feelings of stress and overwhelming depression. Though not everyone shows stress in the same way, some changes in employee behavior are more noticeable. According to The American Institute of Stress, some of the changes that may manifest include: calling out of work more frequently or unusually aggressive behavior.
Although it is important for construction industry leaders to be able to identify stress in their workers, employees must also be able to identify signs of stress internally. Construction workers may notice an influx of insomnia, headaches or a loss of appetite.
In an industry that contributes nearly $1.3 trillion in annual revenue to the U.S. economy, stress may not seem like a big deal. However, when this stress continues to add up and remains unaddressed, it can easily spiral into the suicide epidemic we are currently witnessing within the industry.
Coping with Stress
Construction employers should extend the protection of their employees beyond the requirements set in place by the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act). Instead, employers should also strive to create a space for mental wellness. Though there are limitations to the number of stressors an employer can prevent, no action is too small to make a tremendous impact on the livelihood of their employees. The most important and impactful thing an employer could do is to be understanding by noticing the changes in a worker, listening to their concerns and making meaningful changes based on these conversations.
According to Dr. Sherry Benton, a psychologist with more than 25 years of experience and chief science officer of TAO Connect – a digital health company aiming to make behavioral health therapy more accessible and efficient – there are numerous ways construction workers can cope with their own stress.
“When you’re stressed at work, it’s hard to remember your purpose. To help prevent and alleviate the impact of this stress, things like physical activity, support from friends and family, a creative outlet, or simply doing more of what you love can make a significant difference. Actively working on your life balance is key to staying healthy and recovering,” said Dr. Benton.
Investing in mental health yields a positive return on investment for construction companies when it is compared to the financial impact of ignoring the signs. As a construction company, it is important to ensure that your workplace has a culture of mental health promotion and suicide prevention. Employers could implement employee assistance programs meant to promote mental health awareness in the workplace. If a construction company already has a relevant employee assistance program in place, it is a good practice to openly promote it to employees, because many are not aware of the benefits available to them.
Stress is not 100% preventable but learning to deal with it in a healthy way can be the difference between life and death for many in the industry. According to Dr. Benton, these are some of the ways to reduce stress:
- Exercise is not only beneficial in reducing disease, it has been proven to reduce stress. Participating in aerobic exercise helps with stress, moodiness, sleep and self-confidence.
- Find balance by engaging in activities outside of work that give your life a sense of meaning. It can be difficult to prioritize these activities at first, but its effect on mental health is incredibly beneficial.
- Lean on your support system and let them in on your struggles and stressors. Simply being heard makes a difference.
Instead of dealing with work-induced stress through toxic behaviors like addiction, mood swings and suicide, the construction industry should work to find healthy coping mechanisms. As the demand for new developments and renovations increase, so does the importance of these healthy coping mechanisms.
About the Author:
Michael Wright is CEO of RedTeam Software. With a background as a commercial general contractor with hands-on experience in all aspects of commercial construction, Wright developed RedTeam as a comprehensive cloud-based solution for construction project and accounting management built by contractors for contractors.