The Importance of Worker Mental Health and Well-being

NAHB raises awareness about mental health in the industry.

By David Jaffe

During a recent call with some NAHB members, we heard the refrain: “I’ve had more friends and co-workers in construction die by suicide than by jobsite accident.” Their personal experience is consistent with industry data. In 2018, 1,008 construction workers died on the job; that same year, 5,432 died by suicide. Construction workers are five times more likely to die by suicide than from a jobsite safety injury.

 Construction workers are particularly susceptible to mental health issues and suicide, with 50% of all construction workers experiencing a diagnosable mental health problem. These issues have only been compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic. As with the opioid crisis, NAHB understands that the home building industry is not immune to the effects of mental health conditions impacting the construction industry.  

Recent research suggests that industry associations have been overlooked as an agent for change, and that they have a role to play in promoting the importance of worker health and wellbeing to their member organizations.  

Addressing mental health in the construction industry is a timely endeavor for NAHB.  As one construction company has observed:

“On a construction site, we wear hard hats, safety vests, harnesses, gloves and more to help ensure our safety. But health and wellness impact more than our physical bodies. If you are feeling overwhelmed, depressed or even suicidal, that pain is internal and may not be visible to your colleagues and others in your life, even to those closest to you.

“Mental health issues are more prevalent than we know, and they impact all occupations. We can’t tell what is going through our coworkers’ heads and what is happening in their personal lives that may affect their work. Starting a conversation about mental health isn’t easy, but your friendship and attentiveness may make the difference on the jobsite and far beyond.”

So Why the Construction Industry? 

Specific aspects of working in construction and related fields inhibit conversations about mental health and prevent help-offering or help-seeking when problems surface. These factors include job and financial instability for contract workers and the self-employed, culture of stoicism and an emphasis on self-reliance and toughness or lack of community due to short term transient jobs that make it hard to build connections. The demographic of white men ages 45-64 are the highest risk for suicide. 

Barriers to Real Understanding Stigma

Misinformation and stereotypes have long contributed to inaction by perpetuating stigma. Stigma perpetuates the silence surrounding mental health issues. It thrives on myths and fear, creates silence and deepens the sense that what we are not talking about should be hidden. 

It is more accurate to think of mental health akin to physical health – it exists on a continuum ranging from healthy and fit, to experiencing acute or chronic illness. 

Because of stigma, many construction companies have yet to incorporate mental health, substance abuse, addiction recovery and suicide prevention into their safety, health, and wellness culture and programs.   

What can Employers do?

Workplace wellbeing is good for employee health and retention, may reduce the cost of insurance, sick time and employee turnover and increase productivity. Addressing mental wellbeing as part of overall safety – both physical and psychological.  

Raising awareness by encouraging open and honest conversations about mental health is a first step in improving overall worker safety and health. Construction firms utilize safety training to help workers identify safety hazards and understand safety practices and expectations. Why not add a mental health component? 

Educating workers about common mental health conditions can help reduce the stigma surrounding mental health and substance abuse issues and help them spot warning signs so they can seek help they may need.

Taking some simple steps, construction companies can work to create safer and healthier workplaces and address both the physical and mental needs of workers.  NAHB has developed resources to help in this endeavor, which can be accessed at NAHB.

David Jaffe is Vice President, Legal Advocacy for the National Association of Home Builders.