Fostering Good Mental Health: The Construction Industry Moves to Resolve a Growing Personnel Issue
A growing number of employees in the construction industry are experiencing mental health issues that negatively affect workplace performance. Psychological stress can lead to job disengagement, absenteeism, resignations, a greater number of disability claims, and higher health insurance premiums. Employers can address the problem by creating supportive work environments.
Every employer wants a healthy and happy workforce. Robust levels of productivity, after all, contribute mightily to the bottom line. Recent times, however, have seen the rise of a threat to efficient operations: a growing incidence of employee mental health issues. “Nearly one in five adults is battling a mental health condition today,” said Lynn Merritt, Senior Vice President for the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association (bcbs.com). “And only about half are receiving adequate treatment.”
The workplace is being hit especially hard. Some 76% of full-time employees reported experiencing at least one mental health symptom in the past year, according to a survey from Mind Share Partners, a workplace wellness consulting firm (mindsharepartners.org). Moreover, more than half the Gen Zers who make up a growing percentage of the nation’s workforce reported symptoms of anxiety and depression.
The problem is especially acute in the construction industry. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, construction occupations have some of the highest rates of suicide. Of the variety of causes for this phenomenon, one of the most common is the
preponderance of injuries that accompany any occupation utilizing heavy equipment. “When people are injured, they end up getting opioids to get rid of the pain and get back to work,” said Bernie Dyme, President of Perspectives Ltd, a workplace wellness consulting firm. “And substance abuse can very often lead to depression and suicide.”
The industry’s seasonal nature can also create psychological stress. “Work can be sporadic in the construction sector,” noted Dyme. “And whenever the economy slows down, there is less work to be had. That can also cause mental issues.” Also, the industry often requires workers to be mobile, which can lead to disconnection from families, sleep deprivation, and mental and physical exhaustion. It can be difficult to gauge how employees are feeling when teams are dispersed across different locations and have little face time with managers.
Another contributor is the male-dominated nature of the profession, which can often discourage the sharing of psychological problems. “The macho mentality doesn’t want to talk about mental health issues, and the stigma surrounding them is much, much greater than in many other industries,” said Dyme. “When people keep their internal stresses bottled up, of course, the result is very often a worsening of their conditions.”
Unresolved mental health issues can lead to burnout, anxiety, and depression—common causes of absenteeism and poor performance. Employers also incur direct costs in the form of spikes in disability claims and health insurance premiums. Finally, high stress levels can result in an increase in resignations at a time when employers can ill afford to lose personnel. “50% of survey respondents reported leaving their jobs due to mental health reasons,” said Michael Davis, Principal of Mind Share Partners. Notably, the comparable figures were 68% for Millennials and 80% for Gen Zers.
The aftereffects of COVID-19 are the most immediate cause of the public’s increasing stress levels. But while the pandemic has disrupted lives and created anxiety about the future, psychologists say other factors are also in play. “Shootings and other violence in the news, social justice issues, economic uncertainty, and a sense of political polarity have all made people keenly frightened,” said Dyme. “They feel the world is not comfortable, safe, and secure.”
Moreover, these societal pressures are hitting employees as they struggle to handle the growing workloads and longer hours resulting from the business world’s continuing drive for greater productivity. Such workplace-specific pressures are only made worse by the tight labor conditions that have been the legacy of the great resignation. When job positions go unfilled, already overworked personnel must handle additional responsibilities.
In the fall of 2022, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, a panel of medical experts appointed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, recommended that all adult patients under the age of 65 be screened for anxiety during their physical exams. Anxiety is described as excessive fear or worry that interferes with an individual’s normal daily activities. Left unaddressed, anxiety can lead to depressive disorders.
While screening for anxiety is a good start, businesses can also take steps to enhance the mental health of their employees. The most important one is to create a healthy work environment. “To hold onto people, companies need to build good corporate cultures where people feel connected,” said Patrick J. Kennedy, Co-Founder and Director of One Mind at Work, a global coalition of organizations committed to the development of a standard for workplace mental health (onemindatwork.org). That means creating cultures of psychological safety where people feel respected by a company that cares about them.
Opening up about mental health issues is critical. Supervisors need to eliminate any of their own lingering resistance to discussing the topic, and workers need to feel free to communicate when something is amiss. “People have always been very reticent to say they have hidden disabilities because they are afraid of the reaction at work, of putting their job in jeopardy if they ask for accommodations,” said Maureen Hotchner, a Workplace Wellness Consultant. “We need to erase the stigma of speaking about mental health and provide a way for people to get help.”
This is one area where Gen Zers are leading the way: Psychologists say people in their twenties are more comfortable talking about mental health issues than their older colleagues. Of course, not everyone will speak up when something is wrong, which is why employers must know how to spot employee behavior that might signify problems. Maybe Andrew has started to show up late for work, or has been calling in sick more often. Or Lisa has been going through the motions of her assigned duties without any real engagement. Or Mark has become argumentative with co-workers.
The ability to spot signs of trouble presupposes a knowledge of the employee, and here is where supervisors and managers can be proactive. “One of the things that employers can do is build relationships with their people,” said Davis. “It’s really hard to have a conversation with someone about their behavior when you haven’t checked in with them on a regular basis.”
Mid-level management also must be brought aboard. “A lot of training needs to be done at the higher levels of construction companies, especially with supervisors, in order to make it safer and okay for workers to come forward with depression or pain problems or addiction,” said Dyme.
Spotting changes in employee behavior is one thing. Responding appropriately is another. Rather than mentioning stress or mental health when approaching the individual, psychologists advise supervisors to only discuss observed behaviors. “Erratic or different behavior might be related to a mental health issue, or it might not,” said Davis. “Maybe the person has just not been getting enough sleep because a family member is sick, or they were up late playing video games or watching TV.” Help the employee open up by asking what can be done to provide the resources required to improve performance. Would some adaptations help the person be at their best?
Given the human and business cost of workplace stress, it is little wonder a growing number of businesses are reaching out for help. Consider the experience of the Center for Workplace Mental Health, a division of the American Psychiatric Association that maintains a website for employers seeking assistance (workplacementalhealth.org). “Over the last 5 years, the volume of requests that we’ve received has grown fourfold,” said Director Darcy Gruttadaro. Visits to the organization’s website doubled during the pandemic.
Insurance companies also can provide assistance, and more employers are helping workers get the services they need by ensuring the company insurance program covers the requisite care. “Part of the challenge is that the healthcare system has never been equitable in terms of providing services for, or paying claims of, mental or behavioral healthcare,” said Dyme. “Certainly not in the same way as they have the physical or medical side of things.”
While signing up for an appropriate plan is important, the fact remains that ensuring adequate care can still be elusive. “You may have robust mental health coverage, but if you don’t have enough therapists and psychiatrists in the health network, it amounts to a
plan without a promise of care,” said Gruttadaro. “Furthermore, many psychiatrists and therapists do not accept insurance because they have experienced administrative burdens and low reimbursement rates in health plan networks.”
Another problem is a lack of sufficient personnel. “Even if patients are lucky enough to find a practitioner in their network who takes new patients, they often must wait 3 to 6 months for an appointment,” said Gruttadaro. Blue Cross Blue Shield has estimated that 77% of U.S. counties are underserved by therapists. Scarce resources are an especially common problem in rural communities.
Here is where technology has come to the rescue, at least to some extent. The work-from-home trend sparked by the pandemic has opened the door to telemedicine, expanding the pool of potential medical personnel to include practitioners far from a patient’s place of residence. “Being able to connect to a psychiatrist or therapist through a computer has been a real plus,” said Gruttadaro.
Remote treatment also can help resolve the special challenges experienced by the growing number of remote workers. There is evidence that isolation from colleagues can lead to mental health issues. “We typically get in the 16,000 range in terms of requests for our employer guides,” said Gruttadaro. “But our title about working remotely on mental health has received more than 300,000 requests.”
Quiz: How Well Do You Address Mental Health Issues?
Does your workplace encourage good employee mental health? Find out by taking this quiz. Score 10 points for each “yes” answer to these questions. Then, total your score and check your rating at the bottom of the quiz.
Has your business taken the following steps?
- Created a work environment that encourages employees to communicate openly about stressors and mental health issues?
- Ensured that supervisors build healthy relationships with workers through regular check-ins?
- Developed appropriate procedures for approaching employees who exhibit behavioral problems?
- Encouraged autonomy, fairness, and enhanced employee self-worth with rewards and recognition?
- Given special attention to the psychological well-being of remote workers?
- Informed employees about available mental health resources, including clear instructions on where to go for help?
- Modified policies and procedures around paid time off, flexible hours, and mental health days?
- Reframed performance reviews as opportunities for feedback and learning?
- Conducted pulse surveys to better understand ongoing stressors affecting employees?
- Ensured the company health insurance program covers mental and psychological issues, and looked into telemedicine as a way to assist employees who need counseling?
What is your score?
- 80 or more: Congratulations! You have gone a long way toward ensuring good mental health for your employees.
- Between 60 and 80: It is time to fine-tune your policies.
- Below 60: Your business is at risk. Take action on the suggestions in the accompanying story.
Bonus question: Would your employees or even coworkers answer and score this quiz the same way you do?
This quiz is intended to get you thinking about your corporation’s policies on mental health, but your company should always consult experts when creating policies
Traditionally, businesses have put the burden on individual employees to deal with the burnout and stress that can lead to mental health issues. “Employers have always expected people to show up at the workplace and leave their problems at the door,” said Hotchner. “Today, we know a lot more about human behavior, and we know that’s often not possible. People will put on a social face and avoid asking for any accommodations that might jeopardize their jobs. But because they have a hidden disability, they are not able to give 100%.”
Times are changing, and today’s workers expect their employers to join in the mental health effort by providing a supportive workplace. That means taking steps such as adjusting workloads, encouraging autonomy, ensuring fairness, and enhancing self-worth through reward and recognition.
Construction companies are stepping up to the plate. Consider the initiatives underway at Gardner Builders, a commercial construction contractor based in Minneapolis. “We have introduced Wellness Pods, mobile private accommodations that allow anyone working on a construction site to take a personal timeout, as needed,” said Brett Smith, the company’s Safety Director. “They might place a telehealth call with their doctor, pump breast milk for their baby, meditate or pray, or just take some time to decompress.”
Gardner Builders is piloting several different models of these Wellness Pods, with plans to roll them out to job sites nationwide. “We also intend to make the plans publicly available, so every worker on every construction site can have the space and dignity they need and deserve.” said Smith. “We believe this initiative is in the interest of both the individual worker and the construction industry at large.”
Some other initiatives are underway, such as a communications platform called Beekeeper, which gives construction workers the capability to report safety incidents more efficiently and employers to address them more effectively. “We know that when construction workers feel safe at their jobs, it has a positive impact on their mental health,” said Cris Grossmann, CEO and Co-Founder of the company. In contrast with traditional, paper-based reporting processes, the Beekeeper platform digitizes the entire process, providing construction workers a way to easily report safety incidents that managers can quickly and efficiently address. “The platform also optimizes a safety culture by providing training for employees and metrics for managers, helping to reduce future risk,” he added. “And an environment with less risk has a positive impact on workers’ mental health.” (For a selection of resources and technologies available to the construction industry, see the sidebar, “Mental Health Resources.”)
Mental Health Resources
Employers will find additional information about effective mental health programs at the following organizations:
- The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline can be shared by employers so workers learn about this nationwide network of crisis centers. Available at 988lifeline.org
- Beekeeper provides software that encourages reporting of psychological problems in the construction industry and enhances communication between employees and supervisors. Available at www.beekeeper.io
- The Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention (CIASP) provides a variety of resources for the industry. Available at preventconstructionsuicide.com
- Center for Workplace Mental Health maintains an array of resources for employers, including a popular series of guides on mental health issues. Available at workplacementalhealth.org
- Mind Share Partners publishes reports with insights into causes of, and solutions for, burnout, anxiety, and depression. Available at mindsharepartners.org
- Perspectives Ltd. offers an Employee Assistance Program and provides mental health resource guides and case studies for managers and employees. Available at perspectivesltd.com
- Procore Technologies, creator of a construction industry software platform, has created a video on how mental health can be better addressed in the workplace. Get Construction Talking is a video series aimed at bringing to light the real challenges faced by those in construction, and how to create real change and offer effective resources. Available at
The mental health community applauds such efforts. “We encourage organizations to look
critically internally and make the required changes to ensure that people are not getting burned out, because that’s the fastest move toward the exit when it comes to people’s work experiences,” said Gruttadaro. “It is really important that we build cultures in which people want to be part of the organization when they go to work in the morning, whether they’re walking through an office door or firing up their home computer.”