Heroes are generally considered to be selfless and courageous, putting the needs of others before their own and in some cases saving lives. In the construction industry, which has one of the highest suicide rates of any industry, we can all be heroes for mental health. All it takes is a willingness to address an issue that many people would rather shy away from or pretend doesn’t exist. It may mean stepping out of your comfort zone to discuss topics that others won’t, educating coworkers that mental health is a part of our overall health or helping someone else struggling with their mental health.
Even before the pandemic, the suicide rate in construction was four times higher than the general population. During the pandemic, one in three U.S. adults have reported symptoms of anxiety or depression, up from one in ten adults in 2019. These statistics tell us that stepping up to address mental health in construction has never been more needed than it is right now.
“Workplaces have an essential role to play in maintaining workers’ well-being and mental health,” said LHSFNA Management Co-Chairman Noel C. Borck. “Especially in construction, where a fast-paced work environment and other factors can contribute to stress levels and impact mental health, we can’t afford to limit our definition of safety and health to include only physical safety.”
A recent American Psychiatric Association (APA) report of mental health and well-being in the construction industry reinforced the need for action. When asked about the culture of mental health within the construction workforce, 93 percent of construction executives and supervisors said that addressing mental health in the workplace is important and a sound business practice. However, only 17 percent believed their workers would be comfortable openly discussing mental health issues with a supervisor or coworkers.
The main takeaway is that concern for mental health is high, but willingness to discuss mental health is low. The leading reasons given to explain workers’ reluctance to discuss mental health issues were:
- Shame and stigma (78 percent)
- Fear of judgment by peers (77 percent)
- Fear of negative job consequences (55 percent)
- Don’t know how to access care (46 percent)
This has to change, as a reluctance to discuss and address mental health is contributing to the high rates of suicide among construction workers. This is where we can all be heroes by starting the conversation, creating awareness, knowing the resources and making it okay for people to come forward and get help. The APA report includes recommendations for how employers can create a workplace environment where workers feel more secure coming forward and asking for help:
- Continuously share information and resources on mental health and substance misuse using newsletters and posters.
- Share information about available EAP/MAP services, crisis hotlines and well-being resources.
- Build a workplace culture that promotes psychological safety by showing concern and empathy for workers and their families. That includes a respectful workplace culture free from harassment, discrimination and harsh judgment of peers.
- Create mentorship or peer support initiatives.
- Remove barriers to care and improve access to medical and mental health care.
Almost half of U.S. adults will experience a mental illness during their lifetime. Unlike other chronic conditions that don’t usually appear until later in life, mental health concerns typically appear in a person’s 20s or 30s and can last throughout an entire working career if nothing is done to help address them. The best outcomes occur when people seek and connect with care early. Addressing mental health helps not just workers, but their families and the community as well.
Fortunately, conversations around mental health are increasing as more organizations, employers and unions recognize its importance. The organizations below offer resources that can help start the conversation and help us all be mental health heroes.
[Jamie Becker is the LHSFNA’s Director of Health Promotion.]