We’re going to examine how the construction industry can successfully incorporate mental health into workplace health and safety policies and processes. In part one of our two-part series, we’re looking at why the construction industry sees high rates of mental health issues and how the sector can start addressing the problem.
If the past two years of pandemic life have taught us anything, it’s that mental health care is just as important as physical health care. The two are inextricably linked. While construction workplaces have robust policies and procedures in place for physical safety, the idea of protecting mental health and safety is still in its infancy. There are some policies in place for stress leave and plenty of talk about mental health, but that is not near enough to fully deal with the issues that mental health presents.
How can the construction industry take concrete steps to address and protect employees in a meaningful manner, especially with the mental health concerns that are unique to the sector?
Statistics Canada identified in 2007 that 33 per cent of trades helpers and labourers reported poor mental health.1 WorkSafe BC reported a jump in the number of work-related mental health claims in construction, seeing an increase of 25 per cent from 2017 to 2019.2 In the United States, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention found in a recent study that the profession with the highest suicide rate is construction and extraction, reporting with 52.1 deaths by suicide per 100,000 professionals.3 That rate is over 200 per cent higher than the average profession.4
Closer to home, WorkSafe Saskatchewan reports that the construction industry has one of the highest rates of suicide, with 20 per cent of worker reporting suicidal ideation in the last six months.5 Plus, 41 per cent of those working in construction don’t seek help when they have “substantial mental distress.”6 Male construction workers also see more mental health concerns than their general population counterparts.7
Clearly, there is an issue with mental health in construction. But why?
The Reasons Why
The Center for Workplace Mental Health in the United States released data in 2021 that dove into the reasons why the construction industry struggles with mental health issues.8 First, the work environment can be more stressful than in other sectors because:
- It is often cyclical or seasonal which can contribute to financial stress;
- The work can be highly stressful with deadlines and more dangerous duties;
- There are often longer working hours that are fatiguing; and
- There is often separation from family and loved ones when working away from home.9
Plus, the industry deals with other factors that are driving higher rates of suicide and mental health concerns. These include:
- Construction is a male-dominated industry, and men experience higher overall suicide rates;
- Projecting strength and toughness are valued and mental health conditions and seeking help for issues are seen as “weakness”;
- There is stigma and fear of workplace or social consequences when revealing mental health concerns; and
- Shame and fear of judgment when it comes to mental health.10
These factors have created a perfect storm of issues for the construction industry to manage. However, there is hope.
Where to start
As an organization, you have a responsibility to ensure that employees are safe in the workplace. While workplace regulations are in place for physical safety, now is the time to address policies and procedures for mental health safety.
Prior to setting policies and procedures, you have to start by analyzing the issues specific to your company. Take a look at where you might be seeing problems. Examine things such as rates of:
- Injury Claims,
- Sick days and absenteeism,
Equipment and property damage,
- Employee assistance program usage,
- Turnover, and
Once you have this data, you can better assess what your organization’s issues are, and where you need to improve.
In our next article, we will discuss how to set up mental health policies and procedures that can take the action needed to address mental health issues in the workplace successfully.
1Addiction and Mental Health in the Construction Industry, Alberta Health Services, https://www.albertahealthservices.ca/assets/info/res/mhr/if-res-mhr-construction-industry-technical.pdf
2Mental Disorder Claims, WorkSafeBC, https://www.worksafebc.com/en/resources/about-us/news-and-events/backgrounders/mental-disorder-ptsd-claims?lang=en&direct
3,4Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Suicide Rates by Major Occupational Group, https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/67/wr/mm6745a1.htm?s_cid=mm6745a1_w
5,6,7Construction Workers’ Mental Health, WorkSafe Saskatchewan, https://www.worksafesask.ca/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/Construction-Workers_-Mental-Health.pdf
8, 9, 10Mental Health and Well-being in the Construction Industry: 2021 Pulse Survey, Center for Workplace Mental Health, https://www.workplacementalhealth.org/getmedia/f59c14bc-684c-40bf-8c05-ea958c321bbc/Mental-Health-and-Well-being-in-the-Construction-Industry
11Mental Health and Construction, Canadian Construction Association, https://www.cca-acc.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/Mental-Healthand-Construction-June.25.2020.pdf