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Construction workers in Australia are six times more likely to lose their lives to suicide than to workplace accidents. The data is particularly grim for young construction workers: according to the charity MATES, they are over twice as likely to die from suicide compared to their age group among the general population.
This isn’t an issue specific to Australia. In the US, the construction industry has a higher suicide rate among male staff than all other professions. Globally, construction workers report stress at work and are more vulnerable to burnout.
Long hours, job insecurity and a male-dominated environment in which workers often do not feel able to talk about their feelings: it’s not surprising that mental health is an issue on construction sites.
Project-based work contracts are a major contributor to poor mental health within the construction industry. Transient work exacerbates people’s financial stress and makes it harder to build strong relationships at work. With some projects lasting just weeks, workers can feel like they don’t know their teammates well enough to confide in them about mental health struggles.
Harmful ideas around masculinity are another significant factor. While women work in construction and can also struggle with poor mental health, the industry skews male. This can lead workers to feel that they have to be traditionally masculine and strong.
Worldwide, there’s a growing movement towards “healthy masculinity” in which men are considered stronger when they discuss their emotions. In particular, the Movember charity has made great progress in drawing attention to men’s mental health and suicide prevention, as well as prostate and testicular cancer. Yet there is still a lot of work that needs to be done.
Poor mental health can feel like an insurmountable challenge. However, there are concrete steps you can take to foster a better on-site culture and support your team’s mental health.
1. Tackle the Stigma by Talking About Mental Health
For many construction workers, mental health struggles are a taboo topic. They don’t feel able to talk about them for fear of appearing “weak”, unstable or unreliable. As a result, they don’t receive support from their team members or direct managers.
By starting conversations about mental health, you can demonstrate that it’s an appropriate workplace conversation. Your staff will know that they can talk about it without being judged or criticised.
2. Educate Your Team
Workplace training will provide your staff with a better understanding of mental health problems and how to respond to them. They should walk away from this training with useful techniques for improving their own mental health, as well as reasonable ways to support their coworkers.
Ideally, you’ll provide additional mental health training to site managers and supervisors. This would include how to recognise that someone may be struggling with their mental health and what to do.
There are many resources and organisations that you can turn to for mental health training. MATES, which specialises in mental health within the construction industry, offers a wide range of training options. It also has a 24-hour helpline that you can share with your team members.
3. Create On-Site Welfare
Do your construction workers know who to talk to, or where to go, if they’re struggling with their mental health?
You have a first aider and kit on site in case of physical injuries, and depending on your site size, you might have a medical office. You can create similar on-site welfare to support your team’s mental health.
Establish one of your office containers as a mental health zone where workers can go for support or to simply take a break in a safe, tranquil environment. Appoint mental health first responders. Make sure your construction workers know they can take mental health breaks when they need to.
4. Build a More Comfortable Work Environment
A positive work environment can improve workers’ well-being. Stress and high noise levels are associated with poor mental health, and both are common on construction sites. As such, it’s even more important that your team members have a relaxing place to take their lunch breaks or do paperwork.
Well-designed office shipping containers can provide your workers with respite. Having a calm and comfortable space means they’ll feel more at ease there. Make sure your office container is high quality and leak-free, as well as at an appropriate temperature. Equip it with comfy chairs and tables. Add an electric kettle and microwave so staff can have hot drinks and food.
5. Review Your Work Contracts
Job insecurity and workplace conditions can contribute to poor mental health. By revising the contracts you offer workers, you may be able to better support them.
How long are workers’ contracts for? Is it clear in the contract that staff can take mental health sick days? Do you offer full sick pay for these days? Are workers contractually entitled to regular breaks? Do you put a limit on weekly overtime?
A positive workspace is one in which staff can talk about their mental health and receive the support they need. It’s one in which mental health is given as much importance as physical health. And it’s one in which workers feel comfortable.
Training, work contracts and appropriate on-site office space are valuable tools for improving mental health in the construction industry. They can help shift the trend and improve staff well-being.