Mental Health in the Construction Industry | What We Can Do Better

Photo by Christopher Burns

“Rub some dirt on it.” 

That’s often the phrase you hear to describe the tough-guy mentality for handling pain. 

But what about the pain that dirt doesn’t quite reach? The kind that stems from stress, anxiety, and depression?

In the blue-collar world, this grit-and-bear-it attitude stretches outside the physical demands of the job.

According to the Center For Disease Control, suicide rates in blue-collar industries are up 40 percent in 17 years. 

This is on top of the sobering fact that the construction industry has the highest rate of suicides of any profession on a global scale. 

So what can we do?

First is understanding the problem.

Industry Factors That Can Cause Depression

According to Steve Mongeau in his interview with Boston 25 News, the factors that contribute to industry-related depression include “working in a high-pressure environment, a higher prevalence of alcohol and substance abuse, separation from families, and long stretches without work.” 

Photo by Silvia Brazzoduro

Along with a physically demanding job, construction workers often deal with short-term employment that requires long hours, tight deadlines, and irregular sleep schedules. 

“It’s a high-pressure environment,” Mark Carrington, the managing director of Worksafe Partnership, told The Guardian. “A lot of guys are away from family all week. When every night you might be on the booze, you’re in a room by yourself. Loneliness, the drink, the pressure – the banter when it goes too far and becomes bullying.”

These factors have been ingrained in the industry for years, and with unemployment skyrocketing across the country and fieldwork being shut down in some states, these factors are even more worrisome today.

Warning Signs

Now that we know the factors that contribute to the problem, the next step is understanding the warning signs of someone who is at risk.

The following warning signs from the National Institute of Mental Health are important for employers to recognize in the field:

  • Talking about wanting to die or wanting to kill themselves
  • Talking about feeling empty, hopeless, or having no reason to live
  • Talking about great guilt or shame
  • Talking about feeling trapped or feeling that there are no solutions
  • Talking about unbearable pain, both physical or emotional
  • Talking about being a burden to others
  • Using alcohol or drugs more often
  • Acting anxious or agitated
  • Withdrawing from family and friends
  • Changing eating and/or sleeping habits
  • Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
  • Taking risks that could lead to death, such as reckless driving
  • Displaying extreme mood swings, suddenly changing from very sad to very calm or happy
  • Giving away important possessions
  • Changes in work performance like increased tardiness or absenteeism

Prevention

What can we do to improve mental health in the construction industry?

One way is to spread awareness. The Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention is working to spread information and resources for how to combat this industry crisis.

CFMA is asking industry professionals to take the pledge to create “safe cultures, provide training to identify and help those at risk, raise awareness about the suicide crisis in construction, normalize conversations around suicide and mental health, and ultimately decrease the risks associated with suicide in construction.”

Employers should also consider taking progressive steps to increase workplace mental health by offering benefits like access to on-site counselors, funds for sites like BetterHelp and Talkspace, and providing training sessions on how to cope with the stress and anxiety on and off the job.

This rough-and-tumble industry breeds tough, hardworking people, but that doesn’t have to come at a price. For those who truly understand the daily grind of construction work, lets spread awareness and overcome the stigma behind asking for help.

For more information on industry-related tools and resources visit The Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention website.

If you or someone you know is at a point of crisis, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

For help with alcohol or substance abuse, contact Drugfree.org by calling 855-378-4373 or texting 55753. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration can also assist with referrals to treatment facilities, counselors, support groups, and more. Call 1-800-662-4357 to speak with a counselor 24/7.

Oman’s Stone and FDR’s Pool

Did you know there is an indoor swimming pool in the White House?

While you might not find this question on a U.S. history test, it does provide an interesting anecdote. 

Throughout his adult life, Franklin D. Roosevelt used swimming as a means to exercise and ease the side effects of polio. In 1933, he decided to bring his physical therapy to the White House by requesting the construction of an indoor swimming pool. 

FDR's swimming pool (credit: 
National Archives).

The pool is located in the West Wing, and for years was only accessible through a trapped door in the press briefing room. 

Now, you might be thinking: what does this have to do with Oman Systems?

FDR's Thank You Letter to John Oman

John Oman Senior started his career as a stonemason and founded Crab Orchard Stone to operate alongside Oman Construction in 1929. 

In 1933, Crab Orchard Stone was used to provide the non-slip material for Roosevelt’s swimming pool. This stone, found only in the Cumberland Plateau of Tennessee, allowed the president to move around the pool with ease and eliminated the need for mats.

Roosevelt was so please with the floors, he wrote a personal thank you letter to John Oman. The letter still hangs in the Oman Systems office today.

An outdoor pool was later built at the request of Gerald R. Ford in 1975. However, FDR’s “grand old tub” will always hold a special place in our hearts. 

White House Envelope Addressed to John Oman.

What does the decrease in fuel prices mean for the construction industry?

Shell gas station. Photo by Zakaria Zayane.
Photo by Zakaria Zayane.

In light of the current Covid-19 pandemic and nationwide stay-at-home mandates, fuel prices have plummeted as driving has come to a screeching halt.

In most states, construction remains an essential business and crews continue their work out in the field

That got me thinking: despite the economic turmoil facing the United States (and the entire world), could there be some silver lining in it for our industry? Namely in the form of extremely low fuel prices?

After all, as I’ve heard our owner, John Oman, say repeatedly: fuel prices are the most volatile cost in estimating.

So, with this in mind, I asked: “Will the current low fuel prices be beneficial to the construction industry?”

The answer: “Sort of.”

In 2008, the recession hit our industry hard when fuel prices soared so high that many companies found it difficult to complete projects within budget.

The Great Recession and the Construction Industry.
The Great Recession and the Construction Industry.

This, along with residential construction coming to a standstill, left the industry in need of a major stimulus.

Today, we have the opposite situation with the national price per gallon average falling under $2 for the first time in years.

On the plus side, low fuel prices can decrease project costs and cause a boost in profitability. As Construction Monitor stated when fuel costs dropped in 2015: “Lower oil and gas prices have reduced transportation costs for construction companies, making it cheaper and easier to move supplies and other necessary materials to construction sites and transport dirt, stone, and waste.”

On the other hand, industry experts know this bump in profits may be temporary and remain cautious. 

The answer lies in the infrastructure package that has been proposed as the next phase of economic stimulus measures. 

Governors' Video Teleconference on Partnership for the COVID-19 Response  (Official White House Photo by Andrea Hanks).
Governors’ Video Teleconference on Partnership for the COVID-19 Response  (Official White House Photo by Andrea Hanks).

Also, in states like Tennessee, fuel taxes are used to fund infrastructure projects. While this may ease my mind the next time I fill up in Nashville, it doesn’t stir much reassurance in the current economic situation. 

All in all, fuel prices continue to be a double edge sword. So, where’s the silver lining I was looking for?

Industry experts hope that the government takes a more tailored approach to the infrastructure stimulus bill and build a foundation for more long term results than we saw following 2008.

President Obama signs the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act as Vice President Biden watches in Denver, Colo. on Feb. 17, 2009 (White House photo by Pete Souza).
President Obama signs the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act as Vice President Biden watches in Denver, Colo. on Feb. 17, 2009 (White House photo by Pete Souza).

As Peter Ruane, the former president of ARTBA, stated when the bill was first brought to Congress in 2018, “Congress should ensure any federal resources provided in the 2018 infrastructure package are supplemental to the current level of funding being dedicated to transportation or other infrastructure capital improvement projects by the receiving state. Although the 2009 “stimulus” included a “maintenance of effort” requirement to prevent such substitutions, it lacked the teeth to make it enforceable.”

Ruane’s words still stand true in 2020: “Following tax reform with a wisely-targeted and robust infrastructure package this year will deliver a powerful “one-two” punch that can drive U.S. economic growth for decades. Let’s get it right.”

Amid a global pandemic and looming possibility of a recession, getting it right will be pivotal for the economic future of the United States and the silver lining the construction industry needs. 

Written by Kelsey Bixler with Oman Systems, Inc.