It’s a familiar sight: Men and women clustered at a job site, hard hats and safety vests clearly visible. This standard image showcases a laudable commitment to the physical safety of its workforce, a necessary aspect of any construction company.
Contractors wear Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) daily, but protecting mental health is equally important. Sadly, male construction workers have among the highest suicide rates by population.
While the CDC has acknowledged it needs more research to examine the links between suicide and the workplace, it’s clear that improving working conditions and reducing stress is critical. Similarly, early detection and enhanced support and resources can help with suicide prevention. Some companies may wonder where their responsibility lies in these instances; however, supporting workers and enhancing mental health services accessible through the company can go a long way.
In an industry known for its stoicism and a reluctance to ask for help, it’s essential for construction leaders to actively work to remove the stigma around mental illness and champion their employees’ psychological and physical well-being.
The construction industry is one of enormous physical labor, including significant physical stress. However, mental stress has just as much of an impact on the safety of construction workers at all levels. And just as construction companies invest in safety measures protecting employees from physical harm and accidents, introducing mental health support techniques and policies can help save lives.
The Work of Industry Leaders
“More than 80% of people are suffering from some level of mental stress on our job sites,” according to Shaun Carvalho, Chief Safety Officer at Shawmut Construction. “We have to take the time to actively listen.”
The fact that such a high percentage of individuals within the construction industry are struggling with their mental health indicates the need for a widespread push toward greater daily support.
As Carvalho points out, part of this response must be listening to employees and identifying those high-level sources of stress. By acknowledging employee concerns and creating adaptive programs, leaders can encourage a more inclusive and supportive work environment.
One of the biggest tasks surrounding mental health and well-being (across all industries) is in reducing the stigma surrounding mental illness. Thankfully, modern construction leaders have begun recognizing the urgency surrounding the topic.
For Rabih Zahan, president and COO at Sorenson Gross, “the biggest danger in the construction industry has to do with the stigma around mental health.”
Social stigma too often labels mental illness as a weakness or a character flaw. And ultimately, this stigma incorrectly asserts that mental illness or periods of depression are limited to just a few people when the truth is that nearly everyone struggles with stress.
For industry and business leaders, it’s crucial to lead by example and promote a culture of inclusion and acceptance. Reducing the stigma around mental health means actively reflecting on the language used to discuss these issues and senior leadership’s response to them.
“We have to be more accepting and understanding of different points of view that we’re not perfect,” says Carvalho. “If we can, the stigma goes away when we recognize that we’re all in this together.”
Creating a supportive work environment for workers involves more than standard physical safety practices. And while combating negative attitudes towards mental illness may seem daunting, conscientious leaders have the power to influence positive change in their industry.
Here are three strategies for cultivating a workplace dedicated to safety and wellness.
1. Active listening
Increasing communication and visibility around mental health issues can go a long way to reducing stigma and creating an inclusive environment. For leaders looking to address the issue of mental well-being, actively listening to employees is crucial. Companies must initiate discussions and include mental health policies in safety and training meetings.
2. Being of Service
There are many ways to be a leader, but for Carvalho, the best form of leadership focuses on serving.
“You’re never going to get anywhere by telling people what to do. You have to go out, and you have to support where you’re asking others.”
Thoughtful, caring leaders need to be vocal in their support for health and safety and visible in their actions to support it.
3. Reducing Distractions
As daily life becomes increasingly distracting, the average attention span seems shorter than ever. This decrease in focus can increase the human propensity for mistakes or, at times, accidents. As leaders working in a potentially dangerous industry, it’s vital to encourage mindfulness in employees through a healthy mental well-being practice.
“If we’re truly present, not distracted and really using our brains…we can have a more positive, more favorable outcome,” adds Carvalho.
Keeping people safe is more than just the right protection and equipment; it’s also about workers’ well-being. As business leaders and companies enact positive changes for employee mental health, the construction industry will become safer and more inclusive.