Mental health: A major risk factor in the construction industry

Tania Bailey
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“I would be better off dead”.

That’s a thought that’s crossed the mind of 10% of construction workers at least monthly, according to a survey by Mates in Construction NZ. And the awful reality is that many follow through on this thought. According to Mates

  • construction workers are six times more likely to die from suicide than in a work accident
  • the construction industry is losing nearly one person a week to suicide
  • young men in the industry are twice as likely to die by suicide compared to young men
  • working outside construction
  • the highest suicide rates were among labourers, technicians and trades workers, painting
  • trades workers, carpenters, electricians, carpenters and joiners, and plumbers.

Naturally, the construction sector is hyper-aware of health and safety – they pride themselves on it. Their workers are decked out in the best protective gear, their equipment is always fully maintained, and their systems are excellent. It’s inherent within the sector to look after people’s physical wellbeing primarily because of the risks involved to personal safety, and legislated requirements with severe financial penalties for non-compliance. 

But now is the time the sector must start focussing on mental health. There’s increasing evidence of the mental health challenges being faced by construction workers; the statistics are alarming from a human wellbeing point of view, and lives are being put at risk. And, although they might be indirect, there are also severe financial penalties for companies that ignore the mental health of their workers; these can include workers not turning up or resigning, which drives up recruitment and training costs, and distracted workers who make mistakes creating project completion delays or overruns. 

A vicious cycle of overwork and burnout  

For the past year or two, there has been a sense of desperation in the industry when it comes to finding people. With too few people to work (especially qualified transport drivers) - and massive demand, businesses must try to deliver with the people they have. 

You have three or four days of bad weather, and suddenly you’re behind on a contract? Well, tough as you still have to find a way to deliver. The people on site often end up working longer hours, under more pressure, with more responsibility than they’re ready for. Challenging and risk-based decisions often have to be made. 

This creates a vicious cycle of overwork and burnout. People simply stop turning up on site, or turn up, and then go home, because they can’t face the pressure today - or anymore. 

Poor mental wellbeing can also lead to preventable accidents – if people are distracted and tired, it’s easy for something to go wrong and for somebody to get badly injured. 

Mental wellbeing might not be legislated, but it has as much of an impact as physical wellbeing – arguably more.

For older generations that have driven and grown up in this industry, there’s a temptation to feel that younger people should just harden up, but this just makes it tougher for people in the industry to start talking about what worries them, scares them, or challenges them – both the systemic problems and their own personal issues. 

5 ways to invest in mental wellbeing

Grant Thornton’s biannual business survey revealed nearly half (47%) of respondents plan to invest in upskilling their staff this year. Choosing to invest in mental wellbeing could help your businesses retain staff, reduce absences, and keep everyone on site safer, happier and more productive. With a forecast shortage of 120,000 construction workers by 2024, taking care of your people so they stay with your business is absolutely essential. 

Most of the construction businesses I work with are acutely aware of the mental health crisis in their industry - it’s almost always a topic of conversation when I meet with them, but it’s hard to know where to start tackling the problem. If you’re not sure how to get started, here’s some recommendations: 

1. Make your team aware of the resources available to them

Two excellent places to start are: 

  • Mates in Construction, an organisation with one simple but ambitious aim to reduce the number of lives lost to suicide in the construction industry.  It provides training, helpline services and research. You can become a partner and get training for your team to help them develop coping strategies, and improve their resilience and metal wellbeing.
  • For All the Brothers, a Facebook community that aims to change the view on men’s mental health. It posts daily, encouraging conversations and providing support.

2. Invite people into your business who can relate to your team

Reach out to experts who can come in and speak specifically about mental wellbeing in the construction industry and start a conversation with your team – people your workers will relate to. A team event with a focus on mental health will connect them and get them talking. Explore the programmes on offer with organisations like Mates in Construction.

3. Keep the conversation going

Build deeper relationships between management and the wider team through more collaborative communication – strong relationships support mental wellbeing and resilience. Talk about your own mental wellbeing journey, what you do to keep yourself well and resilient, and encourage everyone in the organisation to do it, as well as team solution-based thinking.

4. Challenge your own thinking 

If you’ve found yourself wondering why the younger generation can’t just get on with it, you might need to rethink your own approach to mental wellbeing. The ‘harden up’ approach wasn’t necessarily good for our generation, and today’s young people are under more pressure than we were at the same point in our careers. 

Lead by example 

Finally, lead by example. Ask people how they are – and listen to the answer! Let go of the old-school culture in the industry, start sharing and truly listen – open up those conversations and make it known it’s OK to talk . It’s not going to be easy to start these conversations, and people might feel uncomfortable at first. But it’s time to start giving your team’s mental wellbeing the same amount of care and consideration you give their physical wellbeing, and when you invest in this, everyone wins.