- Brian M Winningham
The Mental Health Crisis in Construction
Updated: Sep 6, 2022
If you are considering harming yourself, please call 988 to talk to someone right away.
(For Brian S. - I miss you, Buddy!)
Per the 2021 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report, in 2019 the veteran suicide rate was 31.6 per 100,000 veterans. The adjusted suicide rate for the same year for all US adults is 16.8 per 100,000. Everyone says both these numbers are way too high and that it is a national tragedy. As a veteran who has lost brothers to suicide, I couldn’t agree more. It’s a terrible number that is hard to comprehend.
In my own healing journey, I was researching and found some data that is extremely shocking and upsetting. Per the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the construction industry suicide rate is 53.2 per 100,000 . That data tells me it is easier on a person’s mental state to be asked to prepare for and propagate war than to work in construction, by far! These numbers completely stunned me when I first saw them. They also break my heart. It doesn’t have to be this way.
According to Zippia, there are approximately 7,500,000 construction workers in the US, and those numbers coupled with the suicide rates mean another 4,000-5,000 people will die on top of the approximate 1,000 people who are killed in construction accidents each year. The last time I checked, construction still had about 450,000 unfilled positions, Even if we fill those positions, it just means more people are likely to die by their own hand. There are also roughly 150,000 construction site injuries each year, which means 150,000 instances where people have been subjected to varying degrees of trauma. All of this tells me that we, the construction industry, have a very serious problem on our hands. And we must, as an industry, make every effort to change or things will only get worse.
When we begin to look at the culture of our industry, it becomes easy to see how and, more importantly, why we got to this point. Let’s start with the scale and logistics of the work. In the construction industry, we must produce a factory from scratch and turn between $2-10M in revenue in three to four months. A typical commercial project at peak may employ between 100-400 people on-site during a workday. The typical management group for that project will be between three to twelve people. Another unique aspect in construction is that the customer owns the factory and decides where it is advantageous to them for it to be built. Many times, this leads to workers having to commit to temporarily relocating away from their family and friends. This lack of a consistent support system is a big factor for increased bad mental outcomes.
The complexity and how physically hard the work is to complete also play a large role in creating the construction culture. We are often creating something new that won’t be fully structurally sound until all the parts are in place—including the furniture and people—and we are often creating this something new by holding and joining heavy things at height or in confined spaces, or hunched over, or on your knees, or on your back. There are times during construction when the safety plan requires more in time, resources, and money than the production plan for a specific task. This is a hard dichotomy for some people to understand for whatever reason, and sometimes even for those who are performing the work. Working in our typical manner has ruined people’s bodies at much younger ages than necessary. The aches, pains, and injuries associated with construction work often lead to substance use and abuse. Constant physical pain and substance abuse are both linked to increased mental health issues.
Let’s also consider the environment where the value is created. A majority of the work is outside. For about 60-75% of a project life, the only air conditioning or heat that exists is in the project site office or in someone’s vehicle. Shade is often rare unless specifically provided by the General Contractor or brought by the workers themselves. The lunch choices consist of whatever you bring—often unheated—or eating some sort of fried food from a food truck, and probably not the same truck that serves the chicken salad and truffle fries at the wine festival. The toilets, even on the cleanest jobs, are plastic boxes that are freezing in the winter and broiling in the summer. They almost always have lewd and hateful images and words inside. The work is often physically demanding, and it is really easy to get simple injuries, like a splinter or a small, shallow cut on your hand. Failure to properly document these types of injuries can mean you lose your job. I remember when I worked at a cabinet shop while I was in college and helped make wooden architectural molding, I would go home and remove about fifteen to twenty splinters from my hands at the end of each workday. The glove technology wasn’t as advanced back then, so we were advised not to wear them because they could get caught in the moving parts of the machinery. They rightly predicted that our hands would toughen up to the point where we rarely felt the splinters. This was my reality almost thirty years ago when I did this work, and I really didn’t think much about it then. The way we treat people proves their value to us, no matter what platitudes we ring. When people don’t feel valued on a systematic level, we have created systems that don’t produce good mental health outcomes for the people in those systems.
This is the type of reality most construction workers live with every day. Their work is dirty, heavy, hard, hot, cold, and a lot of the people they work with are really cranky for some reason. The work is often dangerous, and the pay is good but not great. Everybody is expected to work overtime, even—especially—if you are salaried. Everybody! Stress is a very big part of construction. Many times, workers are forced to work away from their families—I was, several times. And with the number of hours required for the work, they may only get to see their families once a month or in some cases even less, especially when we talk about migrant workers from other states and even other countries. Life on the road can consist of two to four people or more sharing a hotel room. That was my reality very early in my construction career, but it got better with time. By the end of my operations career, I rated having my own private spaces when traveling. When we add all this up, we can begin to see how difficult it can be to maintain balance, especially if things don’t go well. It starts to feel as if there is no escape. Your family is complaining about your absence. When you do get home, there is so much to catch up on that it becomes overwhelming. If work is going bad, you feel like you might be fired, but telling your spouse just means there would be two people worrying. And it goes on. You can easily see where this can lead down some very mentally dark roads.
Our suicide recipe for disaster becomes even clearer when you look at the demographics of construction. Construction workers are about 90% male, fall into the 38-64 age range that is most susceptible to suicide and include, as well, a large segment of people who are also veterans. When you add in the complexities of the pandemic with the “essential” tag added to construction workers and the supply chain issues and everything after, it’s no wonder we are at a higher risk for suicide than the general public.
This feels huge, almost bigger than I can wrap my head around. I don’t understand why there isn’t a larger outcry. Why isn’t this getting more attention? Some of this information has been around for years. At this moment, it’s just a whisper. But people are starting to notice and ask: Why is Construction this way? What must we do to change this? Why isn’t this a more important topic? I have a feeling it soon will be.
The construction industry, my industry, needs fundamental, cultural change. We need to change the way we deliver projects and the burden that delivery puts on the people building our world. We need to stop pretending three people can run a fourteen to eighteen month, $50M project without the workload potentially damaging their physical, mental, and spiritual health. We need to stop expecting everyone in this industry to work fifty and sixty hours or more every week and then pretending it won’t take a physical, mental, and spiritual toll on the “essential” people building our capital projects. When we create and design our projects, we must see through the lens of not just the people who will occupy and use the building but also the people who build it. The construction industry needs to stop saying yes to every customer request, especially about schedule. It isn’t always a matter of “can you” but more “should you,” and we need to frame it that way when we think about the people we lead.
Trade partners, the same statement goes for you, only more so. The people you employ are the value creators, and the rest of us are support for their creative talents. Exercise the power you have, because you hold more than you could imagine. Stop saying yes to every request when your people are already burned out. Be honest and have those hard conversations with the owner, construction manager, and general contractor. Put your people first and they will move mountains for you. Put them anywhere else but first and they will move on down the road from you! Start a suicide prevention program at your company. Make sure everyone can recognize the basic signs that someone may be contemplating self-harm. Help your people grow physically, mentally, and spiritually as you follow your own personal growth journey. You have already bravely taken on building the infrastructure of our world, so now you need to take that brave next step to invest in the mental health of yourself and your people.
This leads us to the individuals who work in this industry. Each of us needs to take stock of our actions. Do we allow the boss, or the customer, to dictate our life only to hold bitterness inside while outwardly we say nothing? Do we join in hazing the new guy because that is also how we were treated? Are we afraid to speak up for fear of getting ridiculed or worse? We each need to be responsible for ourselves. It must start there. Right now, we are getting the results out of the system we have designed and allow. Our current design means that tomorrow as many as ten of our co-workers and friends in the United States are going to die by their own hand because they have lost hope.
I don’t believe hope is lost, but it has certainly been hard to find lately. We will all have to work together to bring hope back into our industry. To do this, we must find new ways of working together that are equitable, not only for the final customer but for all the customers in the system, especially those building our future. We must do everything in our power to extend the working lives of our people by making the work easier on them. We must chase personal development and growth and promote continuous learning for ourselves and the people who work under us. We must also find ways to promote diversity or else, because no one progresses in an echo chamber. Our industry desperately needs new and different voices promoting new and different ways of work. We need to speed the pace of technology adoption to take the load off people, both in the field and the office. We need to find new and better ways to use prefabrication and construction manufacturing to make the work safer and better. Most of all, we must adopt a new mindset in our industry, a mindset that places value above cost and people above everything else. We can develop that mindset only when we listen and pay attention to ourselves and to each other. We seem to have forgotten that the goal of construction isn’t to make money; it is to design and build and sustain the world we live in. Those of us lucky enough to work in construction get to touch thousands and thousands of lives with the projects we build. That is really special and not something most other occupations can claim. If we lose sight of that, it will disappear.
I love the construction industry and its people. Construction has been my life’s work almost exclusively since I was ten years old. It has given me and my family a great life. It has come at a price, though. My body is broken and hurts most of the time. I had to live away from my family for about five years in the past twenty, and we almost didn’t make it through some of those hard times. I have been bullied by employers and owners and trade partners and felt powerless to do anything about it. I have been cheated and lied to more times than I can count. I have personally fallen short and failed again and again and again. I have even broken my own moral code at times. Sometimes, I even feel like I don’t know what to do next or how I will get through this thing I’m going through. But I haven’t given up, and I believe I can do better tomorrow than I did today. That is how mental healing works, and it is also how continuous improvement works. That’s really cool!
One thing I am certain of with zero doubts is that the price I paid/am paying is not worth taking my life. Nothing you are going through is worth taking your life either. I don’t have the answers, that is best left to professionals, but I am willing to listen if you need someone to talk to. Before you make a permanent decision about a temporary problem, please reach out to me and let’s talk.
bmw@fielddrivenlean and 210-383-4979.
If you are considering harming yourself, please call 988 to talk to someone right away.
#suicideprevention #constructionmentalhealth #leanconstruction #letstalk
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