Chronic Stress Can Kill Construction Workers

Construction has the second-highest suicide rate of any industry. Here’s why as well as what employers can do to quell mental health issues and prevent deaths.

Jean Dimeo, Editorial Director, ConstructioNext, WOC360, IRE360

May 31, 2024

3 Min Read

Construction companies need to do more to address chronic stress and mental health issues among their workers because there still are too many suicides in the industry, according to one professional who provided many proven supports and advice during a recent webinar.

Erin Craw, account director at Youturn Health, which provides virtual support for persons struggling with stress and suicidal ideation, said research shows that:

  1. One in five Americans will experience a mental health challenge during their lives.

  2. Men account for more than three times the number of suicides compared to women.

  3. The male-dominated construction industry has one of the highest rates of suicide.

  4. Construction workers are four times more likely to die by suicide compared to the public.

  5. 90% of people who die by suicide have experienced a mental health concern or condition (depression, anxiety, substance use, PTSD).

  6. Most people who have mental health issues are not in counseling.

“We are not seeing the progress, we might want to” in construction, Craw said during a recent Associated General Contractors webinar. “We are not seeing the suicide numbers decrease; we are seeing the numbers increase.”

Construction workers are prone to mental health issues, Craw said, because of:

  • Deadline-driven work.

  • Workers’ limited control over projects.

  • The financial strain of seasonal or inconsistent work.

  • An emphasis on being tough and strong.

  • Long hours.

  • Chronic pain.

Craw said many construction organizations “do not have an emphasis on healthy (work-life) balance” so stress builds in workers.

“In an industry where hard work and being tough are valued, (companies) have to think about the messaging,” she added.There are other factors that create mental health challenges among construction workers, Craw said, including financial problems, substance use, a history of violence, adverse childhood experiences, isolation, relationship conflicts, limited or lack of access to resources, and perceptions about their organization’s support

Stress at home and work that keeps “piling on and piling on” leads to chronic stress, she said, adding, “When it’s chronic, our body cannot handle it.”

Signs of chronic stress include difficulty sleeping and concentrating, withdrawal from one’s social network, headaches, stomach issues and other physical ailments, exhaustion, irritability, frustration and lack of emotion.

Unaddressed chronic stress puts people at heightened risk of many health issues, Craw told webinar attendees, including an impaired immune system, Alzheimer’s and cardiovascular disease, gastrointestinal issues, hypertension, diabetes, addiction, rumination, social isolation, anxiety and depression.

Stress can lead to all kinds of problems in the workplace, Craw added, including lost productivity; mistakes; lack of focus, dedication and comradery; and retention issues.

She said construction companies need to recognize their workers’ diverse mental health needs and conduct assessments when possible. Employers also should offer more than one wellness resource to their staff.

Employer Support is Critical

Construction company managers can help ease workers’ stress and mental health challenges, Craw said, by:

  • Modeling and discussing self care.

  • Sharing their stress triggers.

Nevertheless, there are reasons why construction workers don’t seek support even when resources are available and managers are supportive, she said. They may be concerned about the stigma surrounding mental health issues, fear being judged or believe there will be negative consequences for getting treatment. They also may not understand how the company can help or how to access care.

Managers should know what resources the company offers, and the steps needed to access them, Craw said. Plus, they should tell workers it’s OK to seek support. An example: “I want to remind you of the peer coaching services that are available. I just connected with a coach last week because I was feeling overwhelmed and stressed due to the upcoming deadline and family issues.”

Finally, managers and the company should consistently tell staff about these resources in a variety of ways such as through toolbox talks, emails, flyers and stickers.

When supervisors have conversations with employees about their mental health, they should:

  • Find a private place for the meeting.

  • Be engaged, patient and present in the conversation.

  • Signal genuine interest and care.

  • Ask open-ended, probing questions that elicit details and demonstrate that they want to hear more.

  • Determine what type of support might be needed.

  • Know what resources are available and how to access them.

But sometimes the best resources are coworkers. “It’s just nice to have relationships at work,” Craw said. “They can literally be lifesaving.”

About the Author(s)

Jean Dimeo

Editorial Director, ConstructioNext, WOC360, IRE360, Informa Markets

Jean Dimeo is an award-winning editor, writer and publication manager who has worked in construction publishing for 30 years. Dimeo was managing editor of Construction Dive, our sister publication about commercial construction, and the editor in chief of Builder, EcoHome and Building Products, all about residential building and remodeling. She also worked as an editor for a Spanish-language construction publication and as a building products expert for consumer magazines including Better Homes & Gardens SIPs.

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