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Mental Health in the Construction Industry

Last modified: 2022-07-05 | Approximate reading time 6 mins

Cynthia Pigeon

Despite efforts in recent years to dispel stigmas and raise awareness regarding mental health issues amongst the general population, of the five assessed work sectors, the construction industry has one of the highest suicide rates. What could possibly explain the alarming results shown by these studies?

Construction Industry: Mental Health Status

Day-to-day life in the construction industry exposes contractors and construction workers to elevated risk factors of developing mental health issues. Long, demanding work hours combined with short deadlines, injuries coupled with financial uncertainty, navigating a male-dominated industry where prejudice does not improve stress nor recovery…

Without generalizing, several studies have shown that men, especially men of another generation, feel more ashamed, powerless, and even unaware of the issues that affect them psychologically or physically. Moreover, it is often difficult to talk openly with trusted friends and family members. However, without a medical diagnosis, it is impossible to go forward or file a claim with the CNESST. The downward spiral of work-related exhaustion only perpetuates itself, thus reducing productivity and self-esteem, increasing absences and the likelihood of injury.

In fact, every year in Canada, mental health issues result in over 50 billion dollars in expenditures, not including the costs associated with insurance benefits and administered care. Furthermore, as soon as a person suffers from a problem affecting their mental well-being, it goes without saying, that those around them are also affected: anxiety, feelings of powerlessness, financial insecurity, the behaviour of children, etc. For these reasons, it is important to collectively establish solutions or, at the very least, to set up qualified support resources.

Problems Faced in the Construction Industry 

Naturally, anyone is at risk of developing symptoms of mental health issues, but more so people with long-term exposure to stressors deemed detrimental to one’s well-being and mental equilibrium.

mental health_mental health in the construction industry

Image: Flickr

Dependencies

First and foremost, note that construction workers are more likely to experience falls, injuries, and chronic pain, which can lead to diminished productivity and even permanent loss of work. Just the mere fact of being in any way disabled can set off a vicious cycle. On top of financial losses, another consequence that is sometimes overlooked is substance abuse.

On the one hand, repressed negative feelings, stress in the face of uncertainty, and unexpected physical disability can lead to increased alcohol and/or drug use and compensatory behavioural habits. On the other hand, opioids are often prescribed as part of the course of treatment to reduce pain. However, for many people, these painkillers are highly addictive, especially if one returns to work before the injury has fully healed or if the after-effects persist permanently.

On a different note, situations that subscribe to the famous saying: "Do more with less," are all too often encountered in the field; unfortunately, to the detriment of workers' health. Mental and physical exhaustion lurk. Work overload is sometimes caused by extremely tight deadlines, a lack of resources or manpower, a need to build an impeccable reputation in the industry, and uncontrollable factors such as the weather, etc. Some believe that they need incentives to get through back-breaking contracts and to survive over time. This leads to an addiction to a different kind of substance.

Deficiency Needs

The next factors relate to a lack of; lack of autonomy, recognition, support, and security.

The first of these applies mainly to novice or assembly-line workers. It has been proven that working in conditions where one is not involved in any decision-making role, where one does not control time or tasks, and where one is only minimally intellectually stimulated, is detrimental to self-esteem and motivation.

The next two involve almost all workers, both factory and field workers, managers and subcontractors. Teamwork is essential to a healthy work environment and to productivity in general. Without the support of family and colleagues, in addition to repercussions on performance and quality of final results, it is not always rewarding to confide in others. Similarly, feeling that your supervisor is withholding positive feedback to avoid jealousy, knowing that no one but you will financially support a project, or that your successes will not be celebrated, can be demoralizing. Do what you have to do, but give credit where credit is due.

Lastly, in regard to security, the focus here is on job security rather than safety standards. The construction industry is a field in which hiring is often based on current, ongoing projects and where many shifts are left vacant during the wintertime.

Toxic Work Environment

Lingering conflicts and harassment of any kind are obviously among the issues. Plants and factories with an HR department and unions will often have clear zero-tolerance policies for both verbal and physical abuse.

As a result, workers are more likely to speak out against such inappropriate behaviour and its effects can be gauged. On work sites where there is a high turnover of workers from different backgrounds, the boundaries of what is acceptable and what is not are less established, particularly as women move into the workplace alongside their male colleagues.

Overview of Psychological Distress Triggers:

  • Conditions that lead to dependency;
  • Overbearing workload;
  • Unfulfilled needs;
  • Male-dominated industry with fewer health care needs;
  • Job insecurity (contracts, seasonal lay-offs, and lack of funding).

Possible Solutions to the Industry

In many developed countries, employers are technically required by law to protect their employees’ physical and mental health. While they have a legal responsibility to intervene in problematic situations and to provide the necessary resources, concrete ways to do so remain somewhat murky.

This is especially true when considering that mental health problems are often overlooked and kept under wraps. Since worrying about the physical and mental health of workers involves dealing with the people directly responsible for a company's success, why not try to find some solutions?

mental health_mental health in the construction industry

Image: Tumisu - Pixabay

Dialogue

Improving internal communications will foster a more positive work environment: one that is open and transparent. Communicate to your employees that you are supportive and understanding. On one hand, conflicts will be settled sooner since it will be much easier to determine the root of the problem and the appropriate actions to take. On the other hand, not denying the symptoms of depression or any other form of the disorder, and not placing blame on the person affected will encourage any affected worker to seek professional help.

Another option is organizing support groups among co-workers from the same sector to share and support each other with common concerns. With the dialogue process, it is essential to feel heard, supported, and to receive an outsider’s point of view.

Lead by example. During briefings or team meetings, from a professional perspective, share your own dilemmas, concerns, etc. Employees will perceive your approach as accessible and sympathetic to their struggles.

Education

Education is part of the process that will put an end to the stigma surrounding mental health problems and provide people with the knowledge to better manage their stress.

There are several resources that offer training modules for employees and employers. Topics may include:

  • Work-family balance;
  • Exercises to break away from habitual negative thoughts;
  • Empathy development;
  • Recognizing the warning signs of mental health problems;
  • Methods of helping and intervening;
  • Managing emotions and precarious situations;
  • Drug and alcohol awareness.

Resources

Offer your employees online or in-person therapy sessions. Clearly list mobile apps associated with learning tools and materials. Hand out related advertisements and more (compulsive gambling, domestic violence, post-traumatic stress disorder, limiting illnesses like diabetes or eating disorders, etc.).

If possible, apply for insurance plans that speak directly to your reality, and value healthy lifestyles, and mental health care. For example, MÉDIC Construction supports only members of the construction industry and is entirely financed by said industry.

Should you witness the signs of a possible mood disorder, make a referral to the appropriate professional services to avoid further consequences:

  • Slow and uncharacteristically low productivity;
  • Increased level and frequency of conflicts between co-workers;
  • Withdrawal and dejected demeanour;
  • Confused, defeated, or suicidal thoughts.

If required, call either:

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