In May of each year, health workers and other professionals look to raise the bar for mental health awareness, but a survey of nearly 1,200 workers shows construction-related industries have a long way to go—especially when it comes to getting employees to open up.

A 2021 study led by The American Psychiatric Association Foundation’s (APAF) Center for Workplace Mental Health found that just 17% of construction workers feel comfortable enough to discuss mental health issues with managers. Only 18% would confide in coworkers.

Those numbers are more alarming considering 83% of construction workers have experienced a mental health issue, per a Construction Industry Rehabilitation Plan (CIRP) study. CIRP executive director Vicky Waldron explains that mental illness is now the leading cause of disability in the workplace. She says this is due to various factors, ranging from high rates of childhood trauma, undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorders and the workplace itself. According to the APAF study, construction workers highlighted various factors regarding their reluctance to discuss mental health issues, including:

Forty-six percent of the workers stated they would not know how to access care even if they wanted to talk with someone.

Mental health experts say that one overlooked factor impacting workers is the psychosocial aspects of construction work. A team of researchers led by Aurora Le, assistant professor of environmental health sciences at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, published an analysis of psychosocial hazards in the construction industry for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The team reports that psychosocial factors are a job’s social, organizational and managerial features that affect a worker’s feelings, attitudes, behaviors and physiology. Examples include low control over work tasks, lack of support from a supervisor or coworkers and job dissatisfaction.

“The health effects can include heightened stress, poor safety outcomes, greater risk for cardiovascular disease and higher susceptibility to musculoskeletal disorders, sleep disorders and gastrointestinal issues,” the authors write.

They add that research focused on psychosocial factors and the construction industry has found evidence that “low job satisfaction, high perceived job stress and unrealistic job goals or expectations, and perceived lack of control over the work environment resulted in greater lower back and neck or shoulder pain among construction workers.”

There is also growing evidence that workplace psychosocial factors contribute to mental health disorders, suicidal ideation and harmful substance use among construction workers. Per a study titled “Advances in Dual Diagnosis, Young Construction Workers: Substance Use, Mental Health and Workplace Psychosocial Factors,” job stress, workplace bullying and perceived lack of social support contributed to workers’ increased levels of psychological stress, which was linked to drug use.

These issues have contributed to a rise in suicides throughout the construction industry despite efforts to tackle mental health. The APAF survey found that while 63% of construction-related companies have an employee assistance program and toolbox talks, many respondents do not believe workers feel comfortable openly discussing mental health with supervisors. Even less with co-workers.

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