Prioritizing mental health in construction: Strategies leaders should know

The latest Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) annual report on occupational injuries revealed a 7.7% increase in construction fatalities and a 13.1% increase in suicides in 2022 over 2021. Among men in the US, UK, and Australia, construction has one of the highest suicide rates of any sector.

This is a global issue for an industry that is prone to risk factors like physically demanding work, a stoic culture and long hours. Many are now aware of the magnitude of this issue, and as awareness increases, so do expectations for employers to take action.

With an unprecedented need to attract and retain new talent, we need more people and we need them at their best. While construction is starting to recognize the importance of prioritizing mental health, the time is now for individuals, team leaders and organizations to move from awareness to action.

Talking is the first step

Anyone can help improve mental health in construction. It starts with talking.

Leaders who share their stories and are vulnerable about their journey help to reduce the stigma around mental health challenges. Brian Murray, Chief Executive Officer of Ryan Companies US, Inc., is leading by example. He shared his experience of battling severe depression in his TEDxFargo talk, “Addressing mental health in the C-Suite.”

“Mental illness is real, common and treatable. It does not distinguish, and it even impacts executives,” Murray said. “Last year, I told my story to all the employees in my company. We have construction workers and architects who are in two of the highest industries for suicide. Shortly after, I got an email from one of our employees who said, ‘Brian, I quit my job yesterday. I needed immediate help or something was going to happen.’”

Just as important as talking is listening. We can all learn how to spot the signs in our colleagues that something may be off and lend a listening ear, ask them how they are doing or point them in the direction of support.

Get Construction Talking, launched in partnership with The B1M and Procore, is the first global campaign dedicated to raising awareness of mental health in construction. The initiative runs events worldwide, provides resources and raises funds to support construction mental health charities.

During the Sydney launch event, Chris Lockwood, national chief executive officer of Mates in Construction, said, “Think about those around you who may benefit from having a conversation. You can make a difference in the lives of the people you work with every day, without knowing all of the solutions. We all have the capacity to step forward and ask them how they’re doing.”

Tactics to get started

Leaders across our industry are beginning to take bold action to create change, such as Bechtel’s recent pledge of $7M to combat suicide in construction. This investment, coupled with mental health training being incorporated into safety programming across the industry, helps to provide the resources and tools needed to combat the mental health crisis.

However, to make tangible, sustainable change, action needs to be taken at every level across the field and office. For employers, the more they demonstrate that they’re taking this issue seriously, the more the workforce will benefit.

Here are examples of actions leaders can take:

  • Identify your workplace as a psychologically safe environment by providing physical reminders like hard hat stickers signifying a willingness to talk, poker chips with the numbers of mental health crisis hotlines and business card notes with conversation starters.
  • Use meetings with your employees to check in on workloads, stress levels and general well-being in addition to projects.
  • Watch the Get Construction Talking two-part documentary series on YouTube, that discusses the importance of focusing on mental health in construction.
  • Contact your local construction charity, such as the Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention (CIASP), about implementing a mental health training session in the workplace.
  • Organize a fundraiser with your local construction mental health nonprofit, or donate directly to Get Construction Talking.

Business impact

As we celebrate how rapidly the construction industry is now transforming, we must remember that the future of the industry comes down to protecting the mental health of its most precious resource: people. A holistic culture of safety requires a focus on workers’ psychological well-being.

“If you look at the history of the construction industry, it’s always been cutthroat with terrible profit margins,” said Yewande Akinola MBE, award-winning engineer, during a Get Construction Talking event in London. “The pressure is always there. In this transformational period, we need to start to unpack all of these inherent challenges. We need to completely rethink what the structure of our industry looks like.”

When it comes to addressing mental health in construction, we must treat the cause, not the symptoms. Employers need to understand that the culture of construction, and the culture they create as leaders, has a direct impact on the well-being of employees.

“The risk profile in construction is broken. When contractors want unkempt liability and they liquidate their subcontractors, they’re not realizing that it puts the subcontractor in the position where he may lose his home, his marriage, his kids,” said Alison Mirams, former CEO of Roberts Co., at the Get Construction Talking event in Sydney.

“I took over a portfolio where I told all six clients that they had to pay the entire supply chain,” Mirams stated. “When we got to the end of the project, they were amazed that $250 million had been taken out of the creditor queue. I said to them, but how many lives and how many marriages did we save? And we’ll never know the answer to that question.”

Consider that when workers are stressed, anxious or struggling with their mental health, it can be difficult for them to concentrate, communicate, collaborate or show up to work at all. This impacts job site safety, project delays and costs. However, several studies indicate that investing in the mental well-being of employees can result in increased productivity, creativity and retention. A mental health cost calculator released by the National Safety Council and NORC at the University of Chicago shows that there is a direct business impact to investing in mental health. In fact, organizations that support mental health realize a return of $4 for every $1 invested.

Progress in action

Leaders who demonstrate their commitment to addressing mental health, from small to large actions, will see it reflected in all aspects of the business. To learn more from leaders who have successfully taken action, watch “Turning Conversation into Action: Mental Health in Construction.”

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