With long hours, demanding workloads and projects that are often short-term and far from home, it’s no surprise that construction is a high-risk industry for workplace stress
When stress and associated mental health struggles aren’t handled effectively, they can spiral out of control – with tragic consequences in the worst cases. Sadly, suicide rates for construction workers are up to three times higher than average. More than half of the people working in the industry reported experiencing mental health issues. Due to the stigma that still surrounds mental health, a large proportion felt unable to tell their employer that they were struggling. For those who take time away from work for mental health reasons, it can sometimes be tempting to blame the time away on another problem and avoid the conversation entirely.
Clearly, the scale of the problem is huge. Tackling it will require action from all levels of the industry, and in many ways, the conversation on this issue has only recently begun. However, there are some concrete steps that employers and individual workers alike can take to mitigate stress and encourage better mental health.
Ending the stigma
It’s vital to create a culture where employees feel comfortable discussing their mental health and accessing help if they need it.
Letting workers know where they can go for support is key. This can be communicated through company emails, individual conversations with line managers, meetings, and flyers with the relevant information being left in communal areas on site. Employers should take into account the fact that not all workers will feel comfortable raising the alarm with their direct manager, whereas for others this will be the best avenue to getting help. Listening to your workers and addressing their specific needs is very important.
Many people would feel comfortable discussing physical injuries with their colleagues but would shy away from discussing stress, anxiety or depression. Social support is an important step in recovery from mental health struggles and maintaining good mental health, so simply creating an environment where this is discussed as openly as a cold or a broken leg is supportive in itself. Work colleagues will generally be keen to support their friends when they’re struggling, and even asking “how are you?” or inviting a new colleague to join them at lunch can make a difference.
Providing support and knowing the signs
Training workers and managers in stress management is a good way of helping them to spot the early signs of mental health problems in themselves and their colleagues. Because of the stigma surrounding mental health, people sometimes feel ashamed of what they’re going through or assume they can just “snap out of it” and handle it themselves. Unfortunately, these attitudes can often lead to their conditions worsening.
Some of the early signs of work-related stress are:
- Sleep issues, leading to problems with functioning the next day.
- Frequent health problems such as stomach upsets, chest pains or headaches.
- More time off sick than usual.
- Changes in personality, such as social withdrawal or loss of interest in enjoyable activities.
One practical way that employers in construction can help is by providing pleasant designated areas for breaks, and encouraging people to take all of the breaks they’re entitled to. If space allows, there should be a mixture of highly social areas for workers to mingle in, and quiet areas away from site noise so people have places to relax and “switch off” from their jobs. Regular breaks have a striking effect on productivity so it’s a positive choice for both employees and their employers.
The physical environment can have a surprisingly powerful effect on mental health. Small changes such as putting plants in the break rooms, allowing more natural light in or redecorating in “calming colours” such as green and blue can all help create a positive atmosphere at minimal cost to the employer.
For people suffering with stress and mental health problems, it can often feel overwhelming, as if they have no control over what’s happening to them. Asking for help from the right channels is the most important step. However, there are actions people can take that might ease their symptoms or give them something to focus on while they wait for access to the best treatment and services. Though none of these will magically cure severe stress-related disorders or clinical depression – and they are not a substitute for required medical care – many people have found them helpful for coping with their conditions.
For stress that is caused by a particular aspect of their job, employees can look at ways to minimise it or avoid it. Knowing what triggers high stress levels is helpful. It might be that it’s possible to work on projects that don’t have such a detrimental effect, at least for some of the time. Employers should be willing to make accommodations where possible.
Work stress can often spill over into leisure time as well, affecting family time and friendships. For that reason, free time is especially important during periods of high stress. Unfortunately, more than half of construction workers report doing “little to nothing” to manage their stress, citing a lack of time to pursue stress-relieving activities; neglecting to find space in people’s lives for relaxation can lead to illness and burnout, however, so they should be prioritised as highly as possible. Quality time with loved ones can be extremely helpful, as can spending time in natural surroundings by taking long walks, jogging or camping. Taking up a hobby can be a great way to distract from work pressures. Whether it’s joining a sports team, learning a new language or playing an instrument, new activities are great for recharging from day to day pressures and meeting new people.
The “safety” side of health and safety has seen some excellent advances in the construction sector in recent decades. The health and wellbeing side of the picture has sometimes been ignored in comparison, and changing this requires major, ongoing change. There are plenty of ways employers can protect their workers from the dangers of high stress, anxiety and depression, and many steps workers can take to protect themselves and their colleagues.