How Companies Can Support Workers and Alleviate the Stress of Construction
On the jobsite, “risk” is a heavily discussed topic. Whether it’s assessing financial, environmental, safety and other common jobsite uncertainties, there’s one risk that gets commonly overlooked; the mental well-being of your employees.
While a career in construction is incredibly rewarding and fulfilling path for many around the world, workers are also experiencing severe issues like stress, depression and anxiety. As a result, too many workers turn to substance abuse or even suicide to cope with their day-to-day pain.
According to a study by Construction News, 55% experience mental health issues at some point in their life. Even today, some 42% of construction workers currently suffer from mental health issues at their workplace.
Despite the many positive benefits of working in construction, jobs in the industry are far from easy, and workers bear a lot of weight on their shoulders – both physically and mentally. But with the right programs and processes, construction companies can help support and relieve employees vulnerable to mental health issues.
In light of World Mental Health Day, here, we’ll discuss a few of the contributing factors that could lead to an unhealthy environment for the mental state of construction workers. The good news is, there are plenty of ways companies can improve the mental health of their employees in both the short and long term. Below, we’ll also share more about the specific steps companies can take to benefit the well-being of all their staff.
The Dangers of Mental Health Issues in the Workplace
There’s a clear business case for investing in the well-being of employees. At the basic level, workers who are unhappy are less likely to work productively.
The Journal of the American Medical Association found that the loss of productivity due to depression costs U.S. employers $31 billion a year.
But way more importantly, construction’s success is heavily dependent on people. Amidst a nearly crippling labor shortage, it’s never been more important for construction companies to support and retain their workers. According to Paul Cossell, Chief Executive of construction service firm, ISG, the building industry needs to address mental illness as part of a strategy to overcome the labor shortage. He commented,
“If we want to attract and retain the best people, then promoting greater awareness, ensuring a healthy work-life balance and removing the stigma of mental health issues is a pledge we should all sign up to.”
Furthermore, employees suffering from issues like sleep deprivation could also potentially contribute to project safety – a major concern for all construction companies. Some evidence suggests that workers who are in a crisis or a period of distress are more at risk to make poor decisions in a moment that could impact jobsite safety.
The Equations that Makes Construction Stressful
While some people thrive in a challenging environment like construction, some aspects innate to the job add unnecessary stress on employees.
Today, more research is highlighting a correlation between stress at work and mental health issues. According to L. Casey Chosewood, director of the Office for Total Worker Health at NIOSH,
“More research needs to be done in this area, but there is a clear connection between the hazards and stressors that come from the high demands of work and chronic mental health conditions.”
Below, we’ll discuss some of the most common aspects of the industry that contribute to high stress for employees.
Long Commutes + Long Working Hours
Many construction workers are used to traveling to remote locations, often far from their homes. As a result, the industry has the longest average commute of all occupations which can add up to hours each day. Coupled with the fact that construction workers are used to working long and sometimes unusual hours, it’s no surprise that a lack of work-life balance and sleep deprivation can lead to stress and other more serious mental issues.
High Demands + Low Profits
On a day to day basis, construction teams are generally in a highly stressful work environment. There are pressures to meet nearly impossible deadlines and high criteria from the owner. Also, consider how narrow profits margins are for builders, creating very little room for mistakes and error. For subcontractors, the additional cash flow pressure can add an additional burden to daily work.
An Environment of Distrust + Uncertainty
In a traditional project delivery model, separate contracts are used to offset risk. As project stakeholders vie to protect their self-interests, one-sided contracts can create an environment of distrust. Additionally, the lack of information sharing between teams creates a significant degree of uncertainty, further creating stress in the workplace.
How to Support Employees’ Mental Health in Construction
Addressing the mental health of employees is complicated no matter how you look at it. Beyond a company level commitment, it’s vital that the construction industry as a whole dedicates time and resources to address the issue head-on.
With that being said, there are definite measures that companies can take to improve the well-being of their employees both in the short and long term.
Prioritize Mental Health Programs and Awareness in an Organizational Culture
Is your work environment fostering a healthy state of mind? It’s essential to evaluate your company from all levels – from junior employees to executives. A few critical questions for human resources and management to consider include:
- Does your company have a policy around addressing mental health problems and issues?
- Do your workers have access to therapy and counseling if needed? If so, is it well-known that they have that access?
- Do employees have clear leadership and expectations to evaluate their performance?
- Do you have a culture where communication and respect are key values?
- Is recognition given to employees when deserved?
Taking these questions in mind and developing a full program around employee mental health are important foundational steps to creating a healthier work environment.
Create an Open Dialogue
It’s critical that employees don’t suffer in silence from mental health issues because they are ashamed or afraid of repercussions if they voice their concerns. Setting up open discussions and training, as well as establishing open-door policies, is critical to building a supportive environment that employees feel safe in.
Invest in the Tools to Get Them Home Safely – And on Time
A direct correlation between injury and mental health has been found on a job. In fact, according to a study from the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, workers who were injured are 45% more likely to be treated for depression than non-injured workers. Considering that 40% of construction workers over 50 suffer from chronic back pain, it’s imperative that companies focus on creating safer workplaces. In addition to providing workers with the right personal protective equipment (PPE), ensure ample training and tech is available to reinforce safe behaviors and processes.
The high demands of construction are unlikely to go away soon. Nonetheless, providing your workers with the right tools to reasonably manage these demands can relieve a vast amount of pressure. Collaboration software that provides better access to data and creates a culture of transparency in a company and lets workers accomplish their tasks more efficiently.
Check-In with Staff
While workers going through a mental crisis might not be exhibiting dramatic signs outright, there are certain small patterns and changes that are red flags. Some of the indicators include:
- An increase in absenteeism
- A performance drop
- A change in daily behavior or activity
- A change in appearance
If you’re a manager and notice the above signs in an employee, it might be wise to check in with them and make it known that you’re there to help if needed. Similarly, if your colleague appears to be struggling, try extending an olive branch to let them know you’re there to talk. Just reaching out to employees who are struggling can go a long way in a moment of need.
Focus on Team Building
Staff who feel supported internally are less likely to experience psychological distress as they feel like they have people they can rely on in times of distress. Therefore, focusing on team collaboration and respect is critical to making your staff feel like they belong. Building this culture through positive communications and meetings is beneficial, but even making it possible for teams to collaborate better with the help of technology can take an enormous weight off of distressed employees shoulders.
Furthermore, project delivery is essential for establishing a project’s culture from the start. Whereas traditional methods like design-bid-build can create an environment of protectionism and distrust, more progressive models like design-build and integrated project delivery (IPD) are emerging as clear winners for improving teamwork and collaboration.
Construction Companies Leading the Pack on Mental Health Awareness
As mental health issues are being magnified on a global scale, many construction companies are stepping up and leading the pack to address this serious issue within the industry. For instance, Chief Executive of Skanska U.K., Gregor Craig, has been a major champion for removing the stigma of mental health in construction. His goal is to get mental health training for all of his employees over the next coming years. By 2020, he anticipates that 75% of supervisors and managers will undergo training.
To relieve the financial pressures needed to solve mental health issues on a personal basis, Colorado-based contractor, GE Johnson Construction Company, started a program called Face It Together. The program is a benefit for both the company’s employees and their families and offers resources, counseling and flexibility with work at no cost to the employee.
It’s Time to Get Serious About Mental Health in Construction
As more companies like Skanska and GE Johnson Construction Company step up to raise both awareness and provide support for construction workers, the industry has a growing opportunity to address mental health issues on an industry-wide basis. Investing in the well-being of employees is essential for moving the industry forward. By taking care of employees’ mental health today, construction companies will build better employees and businesses for tomorrow.