Digital Builder Ep 79: Construction’s Mental Health Crisis

Content warning – this episode and blog post has some heavy conversation topics, including a discussion on suicidal feelings and mental health struggles.

Real talk: construction can sometimes be a demanding sector to work in. While we as an industry have many things going for us—including cool technology, resilient teams, and the unique ability to influence how our communities are built—construction also has its challenges. 

The pressure in our field can be high. Margins are slim, and deadlines are tighter than ever. The stress can be considerable from the leadership downward, so it's not surprising to see many construction pros feeling burnt out. 

Burnout is extremely common, but that doesn't mean it's ok to constantly feel exhausted and overwhelmed. Left unchecked, burnout can lead to mental health struggles, decreased productivity, safety incidents, and a higher employee turnover rate.

To further shed light on the issue of burnout in construction and how to address it, we invited Mark Dyke, a tenured professor of Construction Technology & Management at Ferris State University and to join me on the Digital Builder podcast. 

Mark has a unique and impressive background—a Bachelor's in Construction Management and a Master's in Counseling, so he's perfectly positioned to discuss mental health in construction. 

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On this episode

We discuss:

  • How to identify internal and external symptoms of burnout
  • How the leadership culture sets the tone for organization-wide mental health
  • How managers at all levels of an organization can support their team members
  • How Millennials have changed the way we talk about mental health
  • Why mental health and emotional wellbeing need to be top priorities to convince the upcoming generation to join construction.

The top signs of burnout

If we want to address burnout, we must first recognize the signs. According to Mark, burnout is characterized by exhaustion, along with a lack of drive and motivation. 

"We're feeling exhausted and tired, almost like, 'I just don't have the energy anymore to go through this' or 'What is the point of this?'"

Feelings of hopelessness and helplessness are also internal signs of burnout. 

In addition, burnout can manifest in external behaviors.

Mark states, "External signs that people will notice in themselves is if they start getting late for work or being less attentive."

These things can be dangerous because they not only affect the individual's health and well-being but also compromise job safety and efficiency.

"We start running into safety issues on the job site where people are not quite as sharp as they used to be. And now we have increased accidents or near misses," adds Mark.

This makes it all the more important to address burnout. While it's an issue that primarily affects the individual, burnout can seriously impact a person's colleagues, family, and, ultimately, the industry. 

Why burnout is prevalent in construction

Several factors contribute to burnout among construction pros. 

There's the labor shortage, which puts extra pressure on existing workers to pick up the slack, leading to longer hours and increased workloads.

"We have fewer people, and we have a lot of work that needs to get done. Many baby boomers are retired, so by and large, a significant labor group is now out of the workforce. There are still a lot of projects, and not a lot of people are entering construction. All of that contributes to stress among workers."

In addition, some construction professionals may find themselves in less-than-ideal working conditions. 

As Mark puts it, "Construction lends itself to some very difficult situations. Projects aren't always 10 minutes from home. They might be in another city or another state. And so you're away from family, you're away from friends, you're away from your support system for long periods of time."

Adding to these pressures are issues out of the worker's control—e.g., supply chain problems or unexpected delays that throw schedules into chaos.

It's a challenging environment out there, so it's crucial to recognize the signs of burnout and take steps to get on the right track. 

How to prevent burnout 

What exactly are those steps? Mark shares a few actions individuals and organizations should take to reduce burnout. 

Recognize when you're burning out

According to Mark, the first step is to recognize burnout and "have an honest conversation with yourself." 

Resist the temptation to push through it, and instead acknowledge that you're feeling stressed or overwhelmed and that those feelings are entirely valid. 

Make changes to your day-to-day

The next step is to make a change. "I tell this to clients and students: if nothing changes, nothing changes. So you have to change something because what you're doing is burning you out," remarks Mark.

A change can be as simple as getting more physical exercise and movement in your day. Sometimes, you may need to talk to someone to shift your perspective and gain clarity into what you need to do. 

From there, Mark recommends monitoring your well-being and checking in with yourself regularly. 

"We give oil changes and tire rotations. Are we doing that with our minds? Are we checking in and saying, 'How am I doing? How am I feeling career-wise? Am I on the right track, or is this going nowhere? Well then, it might be time to make a change.'"

Workplace leaders must get involved

Preventing and addressing burnout should be an organization-wide effort, and firms will be much more successful if the initiative comes from the top. Mark encourages executives and managers to connect more with employees and cultivate better relationships. 

"Take an interest in your people, ask them how they're doing, and be sincere about that. Be authentic. Be a good human,” he says.

"Look, you don't have to be a therapist. You just have to be a good person. So, check in with someone when you see those signs and ask them and say, 'Hey, I'm noticing you're coming in late a little bit more. Is everything okay?'"

"Don't get on them about being late. Figure out why they're being late. They want to know that you care. So you start asking those questions.”

Now, not everyone wants to open up—and that’s ok. In these instances, it may be better to point them to resources that can help. 

"Your job is to provide, and if someone isn't comfortable talking to you as a manager about what's going on in their lives, let them know the resources. One of the most staggering statistics is that 46% of people don't seek help because they don't know what's available."

Normalize mental health conversations

We can drastically improve our mental health simply by talking about it and removing the stigma that comes with these conversations. 

"Normalize talking about mental health. We talk about safety. We talk about stretching exercises before the job every day. What about mental health exercises—for example, checking in?" 

Mark continues, "I encourage business owners to have the conversations because the more we start talking about this, the more we normalize the discussion.

What happens if we fail to address these issues?

One of the biggest mistakes we can make is to ignore burnout—in ourselves and others. It's not hyperbolic to say this is a matter of life and death. 

"Suicide in the construction and extraction industries is the highest of any industry. And it doesn't matter whether the stats are from the US, the UK, or Australia—the theme is there. If you take all of the deaths in construction due to falls and hits… suicide is still five times higher than that," voices Mark. 

"We're talking about OSHA and safety, and tie-offs and harnesses, but we're not talking about mental health. At least we weren't. That's now starting to change."

If you or someone you know are having trouble coping with work-related stress, talk with someone who can help: In the United States, call 988 to reach the Suicide & Crisis Hotline or visit https://988lifeline.org/.

For those living outside the United States, you can find local resources here: https://blog.opencounseling.com/suicide-hotlines/.

The good news: conversations are shifting

As far as burnout prevention, some of the positive changes Mark sees include increased awareness and proactive measures within companies to address mental health concerns.

"We're seeing a national and international push to address this issue. So I believe we are at the beginning of changing the tide," he shares. 

Mark observes the same trend in his counseling work. "I'm getting more and more requests now for corporate training. Organizations come to me and say, 'Hey, can you talk to us about stress and burnout? Can you talk to us about conflict resolution?'"

These are all good signs that the construction industry is beginning to prioritize the well-being of its workforce, recognizing that mental health is just as important as physical safety on the job.

New podcast episode every week

Digital Builder is hosted by me, Eric Thomas. Remember, new episodes of Digital Builder go live every week. Looking for ways to overcome burnout in construction? Be sure to catch this entire episode. 

Eric Thomas

Eric is a Sr. Multimedia Content Marketing Manager at Autodesk and hosts the Digital Builder podcast. He has worked in the construction industry for over a decade at top ENR General Contractors and AEC technology companies. Eric has worked for Autodesk for nearly 5 years and joined the company via the PlanGrid acquisition. He has held numerous marketing roles at Autodesk including managing global industry research projects and other content marketing programs. Today Eric focuses on multimedia programs with an emphasis on video.