Symptom 4 – Stress
Construction is one of the most at-risk industries for suicide
Despite Symptom 1 – Insufficient Human Resource, buildings go up, and the industry trudges on because the responsible individuals are making a sacrifice. They sacrifice their personal lives to try to make their professional lives tolerable. They give up their mental and physical health. They give up their time with their family; their evenings spent with their children. They give up their weekends with friends and family. They give up time for themselves either for relaxing of regenerating.
Any career or meaningful endeavor requires an investment of personal time and energy. In construction, though, the return on that investment is appalling. The personal life becomes so little it perishes, and the industry is fraught with stress.
Stress Has Become Normal In Construction
Stress is evident, to some degree, on every project and in every role from trainee to director. It exists because of the culture of construction accepts it.
The culture we’ve created expects the construction employee to work long hours over and above those for which you are paid; it’s even written into employment contracts. The industry is dominated by thick-skinned men who think it’s weak to deal with their problems, so swallow them instead and allow them to fester.
People may hope the next project will be better, but all projects are likely to fall behind thanks, see Symptom 6 – Incompetence/ Ineffectiveness. Projects may start calm, but soon enough, mistakes creep in, and the long hours of stressful work come too. People put the job before themselves but get no purple heart for their sacrifice because it has sadly become the expected.
Personal Stories of Stress in Construction
A female engineer who sat next to me on my second ever project suffered an infected and swollen jaw for days before she made time to see a doctor.
I ignored tooth pain until I could barely breathe before seeing a dentist and suffered an enormous bill for the damage caused by the issue I refused to address.
On one job, a fellow engineer was becoming notably more and more stressed under the pressure of her work. Her situation became so worrying that on a morning when she didn’t show for work, people feared her life could be in danger. It turned out she just needed a break, but alarm bells should be ringing when an individual’s stress levels are allowed to reach heights where people fear a life might be at stake.
Worrying Statistics of Stress in Construction
According to this article published in 2018 by Constructible, 1-in-5 construction workers struggle with mental health issues (constructible.trimble.com, 2018). It also claims, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), that construction is one of the most at-risk industries for suicide.
This CDC report of suicide decedents in major occupational groups shows Construction and Extraction responsible for a shocking 19% in 2012 and 20% in 2015. This is 5% higher than those unpaid, the second-highest group (www.cdc.gov, 2018).
An article, published in 2018 by UK Construction Media, reports site workers in construction are three times more like to commit suicide than the average UK male (www.ukconstructionmedia.co.uk, 2018).
The construction industry has one of the highest accident and fatality rates among other major industries (Hainan Chen, 2016). Falls from height is the most common type of accident that occurs on the construction site. And yet, according to an article published by The Construction Index in 2016, suicide kills six times more construction workers than falls from height (www.theconstructionindex.co.uk, 2016). Making it by far the biggest killer in construction.
Since I began practicing civil engineering, I have lived in the UK, New Zealand, and now the USA. Construction suffers stress in all three countries, and these are countries whose attention toward health and safety is long ahead of the majority. I would bet money that this issue stretches much further around the globe than I am currently aware.
What Are We Doing About Stress in Construction?
Many organizations do great work to alleviate the severity of the issue but none, from what I can see. Few, however, try to eliminate what is bringing about so many cases of mental illness in the first place. If you want to kill a weed, don’t trim its leaves, uproot the thing!
Some want to change the culture of the industry and get people communicating their problems rather than harboring them. Which is terrific progress, but this is still not attacking the root of the weed. It’s great to throw life jackets to those trapped in floodwater, but can we stop the flooding from occurring in the first place? I believe we can do more.