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Why is construction suffering with mental health

Emily Cooke, business psychologist for mental health platform, Thrive, in this feature she speaks about why the construction industry has been suffering with mental health.

The impacts of COVID-19 on employees and workplaces across the globe have been significant. The construction industry in particular has perhaps been one of those most impacted by the effects of the pandemic. In response to COVID-19, many contractors were forced to close their sites and suspend work, with no clear guidance on when they could expect to resume. The impact of this abrupt change to working conditions, impending job cuts and heightened insecurity will no doubt have serious short- and long-term mental health implications for workers. It’s now crucial that whilst a primary objective for many construction firms will be to resume work and make up for lost cash-flow, employee wellbeing stays firmly on the agenda.

Why is mental health among construction workers an important topic? 

Construction workers are subject to a plethora of work stressors, making it unsurprising  that high rates of poor mental health are consistently reported. In 2019, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) reported that the rate of suicide for males working in low-skilled trades, particularly within construction, were three times that of the national average (ONS, 2017). Since then, the rate of suicide in construction and related trades has increased. Later, the report “taking down walls around mental health in construction” revealed that over a third (34% of 3400 respondents) of construction workers had experienced mental ill-health in the last year (Randstad, 2017). The construction industry is both transient and unpredictable by nature and is often accompanied by inflexible project timelines and hostile working environments, each of which can negatively impact the wellbeing of workers. Research has consistently shown that shift work, high job demands, work stress and low job control, and job insecurity are significant risk factors to employee wellbeing. Another defining characteristic of construction work which is consistently linked to the prevalence of poor mental wellbeing is the ‘macho’ culture, which can negatively impact an individual’s willingness to seek support. In the face of the inevitable demands and struggles as a result of COVID-19, employers will need to ensure they are providing sufficient resources and support for their workers to reduce knock-on effects.

How might the pandemic have impacted mental health?

Not dissimilar to other industries impacted by COVID-19, many of these existing risks to employee mental health have been exacerbated over the past few months. The furlough scheme will have caused many to feel uncertain about the security of their jobs. It will have also placed a huge amount of financial strain on those who were the sole breadwinners for their households during the pandemic. Work also provides many of us meaning and a sense of purpose, as well as structure and routine, all of which are crucial for our psychological wellbeing. Further, while it is well known that traumatic events can increase addictive behaviors such as alcohol consumption, the current pandemic is particularly concerning. The Randstad report highlighted the significance of self-medicating in response to stress among construction workers, so the huge job losses, mandatory work from home (WFH) orders and furlough scheme may trigger or exacerbate substance use disorders as vulnerabilities are heightened. Another risk for those that have been able to WFH is blurred boundaries between home and working environments, especially as many are unlikely to have dedicated home office spaces. Lack of clear boundaries can lead to overworking and reduced time for recuperation, both of which can impact wellbeing and subsequent job performance. Organisations will need to ensure that they keep all employees, including those furloughed, in the know by clearly communicating business updates on a regular basis to reduce insecurities and allow for forward-planning if redundancies are likely. Furthermore, people leaders need to be modelling healthy behaviours and promoting self-care and adequate rest time to their teams.

For those that have returned to work it will be important to recognise that, for some, the struggles will continue. Through our discussions with employers and individuals, it has become clear that many are experiencing anxieties about returning to work. Concerns about health, workplace safety measures, re-adjusting to commuting and subsequent childcare arrangements are among some of the most common worries. For many construction workers, I’m sure it comes as a relief that they can return to work. However, there will be some that have enjoyed being able to slow down and dedicate more time to their families and self-care, which the return to work directly puts under threat. The nature of construction work, particularly for those that work on site, means that phased returns and flexible working arrangements are likely to be less achievable than traditional office-work, especially as many firms have had to cut jobs and may not have the luxury of a rich workforce.

So what?

The effects of the pandemic on the construction industry, from organisational to the individual level, is likely to be felt for the foreseeable future. Whilst it will be necessary for some firms to make redundancies and salary cuts, industry leaders like Gregor Craig (CEO, Skanska) warns that these short-term solutions may not yield long-term success; people remember that you cut their salary”, he said, and he’s right. Research following the 2008 global financial crisis examined the impacts of pay freezes and reductions and found it to be negatively associated with people’s organisational commitment and job satisfaction. In other words, people that received pay cuts were generally unhappier and less committed to their jobs compared to those that didn’t, and an unhappy workforce is a far less productive one.

Construction companies also need to take stock of the wellbeing and mental health support they provide their employees. For my Masters, I examined help-seeking intentions of construction workers and a consistent theme that arose was a preference for informal peer support for mental health concerns versus other support sources like employee assistance programs and mental health first aiders (MHFA). In fact, employees reported the lowest likelihood of approaching a MHFA for support, which was a significant finding considering the investment that’s been made by the industry in training employees in MHFA, despite its patchy evidence-base. Workplace strategies focused on advocating peer support across all levels of the business may be more successful in creating an engaged and robust workforce. Furthermore, companies should be focused on fostering transformational leadership by investing in upskilling their people managers to feel confident supporting their teams’ wellbeing, communicating a collective vision and motivating employees, even during times of uncertainty.

There is certainly no one-size-fits-all solution for employee wellbeing in any workplace, however what this pandemic is demonstrating more than ever is the importance of keeping it at the forefront of the business agenda. People are, after all, a company’s biggest asset and workplaces that put their people first will no doubt be the ones we see prospering in the years to come.

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