Each year, we are reminded in May that it is Mental Health Awareness Month. What is mental health, and how can it affect the construction world that many of us live in day in and day out? Mental health in construction can be stress, sleep deprivation, depression, increased tardiness, absenteeism—and can ultimately lead to suicide. More so than anything, the construction industry is lacking in overall awareness to a serious problem, and the effects are continuously growing. With COVID-19 and the social, political, and economic waves of the last year, mental health issues are gaining speed at an unprecedented pace.
The first step in tackling the problem is understanding the statistics we face and how we can bring better awareness to the issue. Last year, I was asked to join the John E. Martin Healthcare Tech Challenge. The program was sponsored by Google and hosted by UC Berkeley and the Haas School of Business. The speaker panel consisted of five of us in the construction industry and centered around mental health and what we are seeing, steps our companies are taking to help both office and field craft teams, and, most importantly, how we can bring better awareness to construction professionals at every level.
In the U.S., one in five adults experience a mental illness, and 17 percent of youth ages 6 – 17 experience a mental health disorder. In the construction industry, we are at a much greater risk due to high pressure and the high-risk environment, long hours, travel, and physical demands of our jobs. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the construction industry is seeing a suicide rate that measures 53.3 per 100,000 workers, almost 4 times the national average of 14 per 100,000 workers. Similar numbers exist when it comes to anxiety and substance abuse disorders in our industry as well. The most concerning part, the average delay between symptom and onsite treatment is 11 years. One of the key reasons? Fear they will be treated differently and judgement from coworkers.
The John E. Martin Healthcare Tech Challenge opened my eyes to how MBA students at UC Berkley focused on data collection and analysis of mental health outcomes for the construction industry at large. Basically, it is bringing more awareness to a serious problem by understanding what is driving the higher metrics - metrics that are more concerning than almost all other industries These metrics need awareness! We need to talk about what mental health and substance misuse looks like and how we take the message to our jobsites. We need to empower our co-workers to understand the signs and learn when we should jump in, offer help, and ultimately lead the conversation.
It is also okay to talk about suicide. My parents, when I was younger, told me that when someone took their life, you didn’t talk about it—that it was an embarrassing thing or something that didn’t really need to be discussed. As a society, I think we have changed a great deal since those days and more awareness to the topic is here. This is good, but we still have a long way to go. Talking about suicide WILL save a life. Did you know 90 percent of people who die by suicide had shown symptoms of a mental health condition, according to interviews with family, friends, and medical professionals. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among individuals between the ages of 10 and 34.
According to the Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention (CIASP), the following are signs of serious anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts that can be especially noticeable on a project site:
- Decreased productivity
- Increased conflict among co-workers
- Near hits, incidents, and injuries
- Decreased problem-solving ability
- Increased tardiness and absenteeism
Bottom line, it is everyone’s responsibility in our industry (receptionist, CEO, accountant, carpenter, painter, etc.) to keep each other safe. Not just from external threats, but internal ones too. Mental health awareness and suicide prevention should be focused on year-round, not just during the month of May. Mental health awareness should be ingrained in our culture. Now is the time to focus on creating that safe culture with your crew onsite, or wherever you spend your day. To achieve this, we must begin by providing training to the entire staff and raising awareness of a problem that surrounds us all. We need to normalize conversations around mental health. I am thankful my company has many resources and consistently talks about this issue. Are you talking with your team about it?