Exposing the Construction Industry's Largest Challenge
Owners Perspective Magazine | Winter 2021
by: Amy Powell, Well Works
In true construction fashion, I am going to get straight to the point. The construction industry has the 2nd highest suicide rates of any other occupational group in the U.S. (Peterson et al., 2020). If this isn’t shocking enough, it isn’t only the U.S that has this massive challenge to address. “A quarter of the construction employees in the UK have considered taking their own lives” (CIOB, 2020, p.4). The lack of awareness around these statistics is not limited to those working outside the industry. In discussions with individuals within the industry, it is not the stress and suicidal thoughts that are surprising as much as it is the realization that there are so many others who struggle with similar personal challenges.
I have had the opportunity to experience multiple facets of the construction industry that include not only working as a Project Manager, but then pioneering a new role with the catchy title of Director of Training and Outreach. This position included advocating construction as a wonderful career opportunity while concurrently identifying areas of improvement in which to provide support and training to those within the industry. It was the unique combination of these roles, along with my experience that lead me to uncover and discover this shockingly high statistic a few years ago.
Candidly, at first, I felt betrayed. Like it was being hidden from me and everyone else in the industry. I then felt like a fraud in that I was encouraging individuals to join our seemingly blissful industry while hiding this massive issue that was not only not being addressed but was not even being acknowledged. Lastly, I felt anger that I was deprived of this knowledge and information earlier in my career. I lost a colleague to suicide and had personally seen, felt and fully experienced the amount of stress this career could bestow. This information was heavy, and at first, I wanted to relieve that weight by placing blame, assuming a victim role, and denying that I held any responsibility or contributed to these statistics. But, after wallowing a bit and snapping out of my own self-pity, I realized that I was guilty of contributing to and going along with the behaviors and actions that very likely contribute to this problem.
I would like to introduce you to the construction industry. We are indeed an amazing industry with an immense amount of potential. We take a lot of pride in tackling problems and challenges on projects as well as within our industry as a whole. We enjoy camaraderie and thrive on staying busy to avoid boredom at all costs, which inherently breeds a culture of competition both within and outside of our respective companies. Our learning style is sinking or swimming with a hands-on approach that leans heavily towards logic and technical knowledge to ensure that we keep emotions “out of it”. We are composed mainly of prideful, hardworking, Type A personalities that are more than willing to tackle anyone else’s problems but our own.
I am very proud to be part of this industry and work alongside the individuals described above. I thrive in this environment because I assume the majority of the traits listed above as well. Unfortunately, I have come to realize, that some of these same behaviors that we assume and are so proud of, can frequently and unintentionally be overemphasized to the point of fueling the very problem we need to be addressing. For example, our industries fast-paced nature provides the perfect justification to apply our focus towards the task at hand while avoiding having to slow down and “deal with” our own mental and physical health. On top of this, accepting or admitting that we have any type of fault when we are supposed to "know it all" and be the "master of all trades" would surely discredit our reputation wouldn't it? But in creating the expectation to be competently stoic, we have hidden and suppressed these instinctual emotions and challenges which are now surfacing as major communication challenges, lack of teamwork, and personal stress and suicide which create unintentional aftershocks that also affect our projects and associated project teams.
This is indeed a gargantuan challenge to tackle. And while our industry is chock-full of enterprising individuals who have a proven track record of an immense amount of grit, please know that these statistics are still very heavy and very difficult to accept. While this challenge is not insurmountable, it will require more than just those within the construction industry to allow the opportunity for this wound to heal. Where those of us within the industry need to start with awareness and acceptance; patience, compassion and awareness from those who work alongside our industry will be crucial. It is the combined effort of those who work in the construction industry with those who work alongside us, that will eventually and ultimately overcome this cancerous challenge.
The Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB) (2020). Understanding Mental Health in the Built Environment. https://ciobpolicy1.wpengine.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/Understanding-Mental-Health-in-the-Built-Environment-May-2020.pdf
Peterson, C., Sussell, A., Li, A, Schumacher, P., Yeoman, K. & Stone, D. (2020). Suicide Rates by Industry and Occupation – National Violent Death Reporting System, 32 States, 2016. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/mm6903a1.htm