On Monday, May 15th at 7PM CT, MenLiving will host its first Construction Full House. The Construction Full House is one small way MenLiving is supporting the effort to address the mental health crisis in the industry. Community Member Jim Schneider, LEEP, AP, the Executive Director of the PCI (Precast/Prestressed Concrete Institute) Mountain States chapter, which covers Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Utah, and Wyoming has penned today’s post to give his thoughts on the issue. Jim has been working with architects, engineers and building professionals for nearly two decades and feels this issue deeply.
The construction industry is one of the largest employers and most lucrative sectors globally, and thus a major contributor to the global economy. The construction of buildings and infrastructure contributes to the growth of communities and raises quality of life for people everywhere.
Behind all the cranes and economic activity are a lot of people and enormous amounts of hard work. Buildings are expensive, complex things. Those who design and construct them are often under immense amount of pressure to make miracles happen in the face of schedule and budget constraints, limited labor and disrupted supply chains.
It’s perhaps no wonder that the construction industry is suffering from a mental health crisis. What is perhaps surprising is the severity of the problem. According to the CDC, men working in construction have one of the highest suicide rates when compared to other industries. The agency reports suicides of 49.4 out of 100,000 workers, or twice the total suicide rate for working men in other professions. We may talk a lot about safety in construction, but the sad fact is that more construction workers die from suicide each year than every other workplace-related fatality combined.
“I was completely surprised and no idea when I first heard that statistic,” says Dan Parker, vice president of sales for Wells, a nationwide precast concrete producer. “I believe the same demographic has the highest divorce rate. I think we were not paying enough attention to this issue until recently.”
According to data from CIRP, a production engineering research firm, 83 percent of construction workers have struggled with mental health issues. Of course, struggling with mental health concerns is nothing to be ashamed of and many of us do at some point. However, what has become untenable in the construction industry is a toxic combination of rising stress levels combined with a culture that hasn’t traditionally been very open to recognizing issues surrounding mental health.
Construction remains a male-dominated industry. While more women are joining the ranks and greater diversity is paying great dividends in the sector, many companies and workers within the industry do continue to embody a more old-school mentality. The image of the “tough guy” construction worker who is a rugged individualist and doesn’t talk about their feelings is still persistent in the culture.
This becomes even more difficult on individuals as the job has undeniably become harder over time. As with many industries, those in construction are faced with constantly changing systems and methodologies, and as also was the case with other industries, COVID left its mark.
“During the pandemic, many folks left the industry,” Parker recalls. “Those of us that stayed are having to work more hours to keep up with the workload. Also, over time, our industry has become more focused on project schedules. Drive by any jobsite on the weekend and you will see people working. This has become an industry standard. Six-day work weeks, little downtime and long hours adds to the stress of all the everyday things we all deal with like money, relationships, bills, etc. This all builds up and can become very overwhelming.”
So, what can we do about it? For those of us working in the construction industry, the first and possibly most important step is to normalize talking about mental health. No matter who you are and what your job is, you shouldn’t have to feel alone and isolated when dealing with stress, depression or other issues.
It is also important to normalize the value of getting help, whether that is through therapy or other avenues of support. For too long there has been a perceived stigma around the idea of mental health care. It takes courage and strength to get the help you need. And by helping yourself, you also help your family and colleagues who all benefit by your being your best self.
“Just having a discussion about mental health is important. It is OK to talk about!” Parker says. “The more discussions about mental health we have, the more normal it will become.”
This is part of a larger shift in our culture at large that is more accepting of mental health care and recognizes its importance. For many male dominated industries like construction, that shift may lag behind the society, but there is progress being made. According to Parker, companies like his are taking an active role in generating conversations with its employees and advocating for more attention and discussion throughout the industry.
“Wells had a brain expert named Lisa Marini come in and talk to employees about how the brain works. She went over what is happening physically in the brain and body when we are feeling stress,” Parker explains. “She gave real-life examples that everyone could relate to and provided some techniques to recognize and cope with stress.”
For those of us in the industry, whether at a corporate or individual level, it’s important to foster an environment where our co-workers and colleagues understand it is OK and even noble to seek help when needed. Speaking for myself, I have long dealt with anxiety and depression. I credit friends of mine many years ago for helping to encourage me to seek therapy and support, and it has been life changing for me. It is my hope that more of us talking about our positive experiences will help to encourage others to seek support.
I will write more in future posts about available resources, actions we can take as an industry and things to consider around mental health. For starters, let’s begin by opening the conversation and looking out for those around you. Sometimes a few simple questions or indication of care can make all the difference for someone.
“If there is one thing to take away, know that it is OK to talk about mental health with your employees,” Parker says. “Don’t be afraid to start a conversation if you notice someone is hurting. As an industry, our people are our most important asset, and we need to invest in them at a personal level.”