Mental Health and the Construction Industry | Improving Conversations and Resources
The construction industry is well known to be high-risk, with one of the highest rates of worksite safety incidents. However, bodily injury is not the only concern. Construction workers are also disproportionately more likely to die by suicide, often due to mental illness. This indicates that poor mental health is an unfortunate risk of construction work. If left untreated — as it sadly tends to be in the United States — it may eventually lead to death by suicide.
Especially due to the pandemic and economic uncertainty throughout the nation, these risk factors are even more serious. The construction industry now ranks second-highest in suicide rates, and construction workers are six times more likely to die by suicide than from a fall — which is the most common type of deadly worksite incident.
But how can we address the silent killer, suicide? It starts with improving mental health in the construction industry, and that requires a cultural shift and more accessible mental health resources.
Construction Work's Impact on Mental Health
Mental illness stems from a wide variety of genetic, lifestyle, and situational factors. Anyone can develop mental health issues, even the "tough guys" in the construction industry. In fact, construction workers are more susceptible to mental illness and therefore suicidal ideation.
Most deaths by suicide occur after someone has a period of severe depression. This may be triggered by a single event, such as a worksite injury, layoff, or traumatic experience, or it may emerge with no clear reason. Either way, depression is a major risk factor for suicide. The volatile, high-pressure construction industry can lead to depression as workers navigate rapid job turnover, stressful work environments, and chronic pain and strain.
Also, construction culture is highly macho, stoic, motivational, and gritty. Negative emotions, worries, and stress are often perceived as signs of weakness. This often results in construction workers declining to seek help for their mental health, whether they're nervous about being shamed or reluctant to admit their symptoms to themselves.
Misuse or abuse of drugs and alcohol is also higher among construction workers, who often experience chronic pain and have limited access to healthcare. Therefore, they self-medicate with substances, creating a dependency that can be hard to cope with. Also, many of these drugs increase the risk of depression, anxiety, paranoia, and suicidal ideation.
How to Open the Dialogue About Mental Health
Suicide is a difficult subject for many people — especially those who may be experiencing suicidal ideation. It's crucial to keep the focus on wellness while destigmatizing mental illness. When people feel safe coming forward, they're more likely to seek help before ideation turns into action.
To start the conversation, lead by example. Have all your site supervisors and safety managers share their worries and demonstrate that there's no shame in negative emotions.
Dispel myths about mental illness. Anyone can develop mental health issues, and they affect everyone differently. Not every case of depression or PTSD will result in suicidal ideation, and some people may experience suicidal ideation without any classical depressive symptoms.
Educate everyone on how to identify the warning signs of suicide in themselves or others. Most people who die by suicide display red flags, such as erratic behavior, talking or "joking" about self-harm, indulging in substance use, or saying things such as "I can't do this anymore" and "what's the point?" In those cases, a simple check-in can save a life as many people experiencing suicidal thoughts start to feel better when they realize they're heard and supported.
Indeed, the construction industry's isolating tendency is one major reason why workers are more at risk for suicide. It's often "every man for himself," and people may only work together for a short time. That's why it's critical to build strong teams and create a supportive culture. Construction firm leaders should offer an Employee Assistance Program, host psychological safety talks, and avoid penalizing workers who need a day off or other mental health support.
Mental health is vital to workers' overall health, especially in an energy-intensive, fast-paced environment such as the construction industry. When suicide is alarmingly high in a given industry, it's a sign that it's time to correct those cultural issues. Having the right conversations and providing helpful resources go a long way toward supporting a compassionate, supportive workplace culture.
As construction workers often believe that depression, anxiety, and trauma are signs of weakness, it's up to leadership to destigmatize mental illness and encourage everyone to seek help when they need it. There is no situation too small to call for support. Together, we can improve the overall health of construction workers and protect them from suicidal risk.