How Stress Impacts the Jobsite

John F. Gravel

The daily grind on a jobsite can become overwhelming if not managed properly. Things rarely seem to go as planned. Materials are delivered late or damaged. Projects are delayed due to weather, and change orders compound complications on to the simplest of schedules.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard clients and or co-workers on job sites say, “I can’t take this stress, I need to go for a smoke.” Or “I don’t smoke at home…. only on the project site to deal with the stress.”

In general, construction workers are employed on a contract-to-contract basis, and often there is associated stress with the unknown future of one’s next job. The stress consequences of this have long been discussed. However, the implications to an employees’ mental health, such as anxiety and depression, are continually a taboo subject.

Silence is Costly

A “silent epidemic,” that’s how poor mental health was described at the first annual conference of the Institutional of Occupational Safety & Health organization (IOSH). Work-related stress, anxiety, and depression disorders top the list as the most reported workplace health issues in the construction industry.

The Construction and Extraction industry was listed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as the industry with the highest male suicide rate (53 suicides per 100,000).  Steve Mongeau, the executive director of Samaritans, a suicide prevention center in Boston, lists the specific challenges to the mental health of construction workers as:

  • A competitive, high-pressure environment
  • A higher prevalence of alcohol and substance abuse
  • Separation from families
  • Long stretches without work

Stress isn’t only costly to employees, however. There’s a significant monetary cost incurred by employers. According to HBR, “Stress makes people nearly three times as likely to leave their jobs, temporarily impairs strategic thinking, and dulls creative abilities. Burnout is a threat to a company’s bottom line, one that costs the U.S. more than $300 billion a year in absenteeism, turnover, diminished productivity, and medical, legal, and insurance costs.”

And yet, many believe the costs of presenteeism (being present at work despite having a justification, such as a mental or physical illness, to be absent), to be much higher. Although comparing the costs of presenteeism vs. absenteeism has proven difficult due to fluctuating available data, according to freelance journalist Karen Higginbottom, the cost of presenteeism can be ten times greater than the cost of absenteeism. Which really supports the old adage, “A healthy and happy employee is a productive employee.”

Steps Forward

Educate and Increase Awareness

Employees should routinely be made aware of the mental health benefits available to them, including employee assistance programs and any other mental health resources provided.

Managers and supervisors should be trained  to identify warning signs and risk factors, have open conversations with employees, and with the help of qualified HR professionals, connect employees with the proper care when required.

Untreated or poorly managed stress and mental health issues can become apparent through[1]:

  • An increase in presenteeism, absenteeism or tardiness
  • Long-term absences attributed to depression and other mental health illnesses causing family and medical leave requests
  • Distraction and cognitive slowing causing a decrease in productivity
  • A decrease in self-confidence
  • Isolation from coworkers
  • An increase in agitation and interpersonal conflict with peers, potentially leading to workplace violence
  • Increased attrition
  • Feelings of being overwhelmed
  • Decreased problem-solving abilities

Mental health issues impacted by stress may also contribute to:

  • Legal and illicit substance abuse affecting workplace performance
  • Quality defects leading to waste and rework impacting profit margins
  • Near misses, incidents, and lost time injuries

Building a Preventative Culture

To combat this continued problem, leaders must understand the importance of mental health awareness, suicide prevention, and assist in incorporating mental health services into a company’s programs, policies, and employee benefits programs.

However, impactful improvements require more than programs and policies. They require a sharp shift in culture and constant diligence, driven from the top-down. Leaders must initiate and open conversations, nurture a trusting environment, and promote preventative dialogue over reactionary discourses.

Stress at the job site goes far beyond just another bad day, and can have profound, and sometimes grave, implications to the quality of life of employees, as well as their teammates on their project.