On the average construction site, safety is at the forefront of everyone’s mind. Rules, OSHA regulations, and standard operating procedures control how crews go about their days. While physical safety is essential, what is often overlooked in heavy industries is the weight of mental health challenges.

Workers in the construction industry are at a higher risk for suicide than any other industry in the world. But why is mental health so challenging in the construction industry, and how can comprehensive mental health training help construction workers?

 Mental health stigmas and challenges

The idea of facing a mental health challenge is surrounded by a negative stigma, thanks to generations of disinformation and conditioning. While an estimated 26% of Americans suffer from a diagnosable mental health challenge each year, many adults are ashamed to talk about their mental health and are hesitant to reach out if they find themselves in need of help.

Workplace policies have often discouraged communication around these issues. Instead, people find themselves afraid of losing their jobs or alienating their friends and families if they speak up. People internalize this stigma and may surround themselves with negative self-talk instead of seeking help for mental health concerns that affect their safety and wellbeing in and outside of work.

This struggle is more prevalent than ever today. The COVID-19 pandemic was even more challenging for many, as families suffered from the loss of loved ones and individuals struggled with health challenges. Construction job sites shut down and people left to fight with local unemployment offices or scrambling to find work. Manufacturing plants shut down all over the globe and supplies stopped coming in, making even essential construction work stressful for crews.

Until recent years, most construction companies didn’t offer any mental health support. Fortunately, changing discussions surrounding mental health stigmas and the prevalence of stress and isolation in the aftermath of a sweeping pandemic has brought these issues to light. Many organizations are exploring ways to educate and support workers with mental health initiatives.

 Benefits of mental health training

Heavy industries have many variables that can contribute to poor mental health, from the seasonality of the work to work cultures that discourage vulnerability. Therefore, every construction company can benefit from establishing a mental health training program. The benefits can include but aren’t limited to:

Combat substance abuse

Substance abuse disorder is endemic in the construction industry. Nearly 15% of construction workers have been diagnosed with substance abuse disorder. That’s almost 8% higher than the general population.

While there isn’t a lot of information about how many of these cases result from mental health challenges, the two often go hand in hand. Comorbidities between mental illness and substance abuse disorder are common. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, roughly 38% of adults diagnosed with substance abuse disorder also have a mental illness.

Mental health training can help workers identify sources of distress and find resources to manage them. This can prevent vulnerable people from turning to unhealthy coping mechanisms and work to combat an industry-wide health concern.

 Reduced stigma

While society has made significant strides in recent years, negative portrayals in popular media have perpetuated the negative stigma surrounding mental health. Offering mental health training brings these concerns out of the shadows and helps reduce that negative stigma.

 Improved communication

One of the biggest challenges when dealing with mental health in the construction industry is the fact that organizations don’t talk about it. Offering training helps open that door so, hopefully, workers will be more comfortable talking about their challenges and concerns with their employer.

 Better understanding

It’s often hard to understand and empathize with someone who is experiencing mental health challenges if you don’t live with the same symptoms. Mental health training can help foster understanding among your entire team, regardless of their mental health status.

 Empowering employees to help others

Sometimes, all someone needs is another person who’s willing to offer a shoulder to cry on or an ear to listen — but who is going to offer if no one recognizes the signs of struggle? Even for those who don’t experience struggles with their mental health, a training program can help everyone recognize the signs and symptoms of common mental illnesses.

 Happier, healthier employees

As simple as it sounds, a mental health training program can help create happier and healthier employees in the long run. This helps any organization maintain their labor force, keep projects running smoothly and retain employees for longer periods of time.

 Building a mental health training program in construction

Building a mental health training program can sound intimidating for companies that are in the beginning stages of the process. Fortunately, it does not need to be a complicated initiative to have a positive impact on workplace safety.

Start by beginning the conversation. Organization leaders need to talk about mental health and the workplace to create a space for workers who are experiencing distress. In many cases, all leaders need to do is open the door and give people the opportunity to walk through it. This can be implemented with an introductory mental health course, open-door policy for mental health concerns and/or confidential resources set up with an HR department.

Take the time to educate both leaders and workers as well. Many people have grown up in a generation where mental health education is ignored or even frowned upon. Teams have to shed those ingrained biases and stigmas before changing the way we look at mental health in the construction industry.

If companies are not sure where to start, they can consider reaching out to a mental health professional. Industry professionals will need to create a program that suits their company’s needs. But, to use a construction allegory, they’ll all have the same foundations that individual companies can build from.

 Supporting construction crews and their mental health

Taking the time to build a mental health training program can help construction teams thrive, both on the job and off, despite harsh conditions or the seasonality of working in construction. If the idea of starting a mental health training program is intimidating, professionals should consider tapping into the myriad of resources available to help them begin.