[INTERVIEW] The silent catastrophe — Mental health in construction
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Laura: Hello, Alex. Thank you for sitting down with me today, to talk about the silent catastrophe, that is Mental Health in construction, as you call it in one of your latest articles. To set the scene, could you share the amplitude of the issue at hand?
Alex: Hello Laura, thank you for having me! The topic of Mental Health is very in vogue these last years across many sectors, but the state of things in construction specifically is frightening. I am regularly in touch with field workers, innovators, and decision-makers of construction companies and it is crazy to hear the different perceptions of the gravity of this problem across organizations and even within its own ranks. And this problem does not just touch the people directly affected by it, but also other others – from spouses to friends, to governmental bodies. It is safe to say that we need to make sure that society is not just aware of this frequently overlooked issue, but that those who have direct leverage are taking the right actions to reduce it as much as possible.
Laura: You are talking about the employers, right?
Alex: They are the most obvious suspects. It’s easy to condemn them for something that is out of their control, but some things are actually within their reach to change. There are some strategies that could yield significant results in the short- and long-term.
Laura: Could you elaborate on those that you believe to be the most effective in the short term?
Alex: Something that can happen within a month or so is the setup of a new policy or entering into some relevant partnerships on a corporate level. One such policy could target to establish a safe zone to share vulnerabilities, e.g. by introducing site stand-down talks as a part of the daily routine. Another policy could be to promote work-life balance. Partnerships could be formed to provide employees the possibility to exchange with specialized non-profit organizations, and medical professionals or even be as simple as paying for a gym membership.
Don’t take me wrong, it might still take a long time for these steps to become truly effective (i.e. not just accepted across all levels within the organization, but truly lived by), however, they are easy to put in place in a fairly short period of time.
Laura: What would be the strategies that you’d consider “long term” then?
Alex: Some changes are more difficult to implement as they address behaviors (and fears) that are almost engrained in our DNA. One such thing is the urge to appear busy at all times. Of course, it is preferred to have workers actually doing something useful instead of being idle, but one – sometimes even a short break (for body and mind) increases subsequent productivity and, two – in case of doubt, most of the time it’s better not to do anything on a construction site than doing something based on limited information and then running the risk of having to correct something down the line. The loss from a potential future setback almost always is not worth saving a few minutes or even hours of “progress”. Another such long-term strategy is related to attracting new talent. With 50% of the workforce retiring in the next decade, many of today’s professionals are looking with fear toward their long-term future in construction. If the workload is already crushing you today, how will it be when there are only half of the workers down the road while the demand for construction grows unfailingly alongside the growing economies?
Laura: Are there that many young people choosing the path of construction?
Alex: It is a big concern in the industry, and who can blame them? It is not a sector known to offer a good work-life balance, be innovative, or offer many possibilities for career progression, right? And that’s actually a misperception that warrants a whole other discussion: construction is not only about digging in the dirt and laying bricks until one’s back breaks. We are moving ever more into the direction of tech-enablement and analytics. I am talking drones, robots, IoT, AI, and augmented reality. The construction professionals today are leveraging an incredible wealth of technology that most office workers in other industries can only dream of. And given the ever-increasing gap between the number of skilled workers and the market demand, salaries are getting pretty competitive.
Laura: You also mention technology as a focus area in the article, but more linking them to the strategies of fighting mental health issues. Will cool gadgets really solve such problems?
Alex: No single strategy will solve these issues. It’s a collective effort across a large board that will potentially bring significant relief. And I am convinced that while technology as such might be an amazing means to lure new generations into the field, it is an absolute necessity when it comes to already working professionals. I am in particular talking about skilled people who are very thinly stretched over many tasks, fighting one fire after another being stuffed every minute of every day. This is already a very stressful state, which might be difficult to handle. Margins are thin in this industry, so there is no room for mistakes and the clock is always ticking. So if such a situation they are told to carve out additional time to jump back on already completed tasks to correct whatever mistakes might have meanwhile been discovered by subsequent workstreams, it doesn’t only impose on them a few hours of overtime – it is a big cognitive dissonance to re-do something you considered done. With 9% of all construction costs being attributable to rework, you can imagine how frequently this happens. So yes, if technology can provide relief through efficiency on existing projects and help prevent this additional stress of rework – I genuinely believe that it will make many people quite happy.
Laura: You are talking about solutions like GAMMA AR?
Alex: Well, of course, I might be biased in this regard, but the benefits of a solution like GAMMA AR are obvious: it reduces ambiguity and the burden of interpretation, which naturally reduces the anxiety and stress stemming from uncertainties and potential rework, thereby having a positive impact on mental well-being.
Laura: Absolutely. Any other points you would like to highlight?
Alex: Yes, the importance of forging in a way one own’s future. Many times, we are trapped in a situation where we feel small, powerless, stressed, and overwhelmed. This is true for construction projects as it is true for many other situations in life. There are techniques that are in everyone’s toolbox and it is a matter of training to make them readily accessible in moments of anxiety and stress. There is a variety of techniques out there, but the BAMO (breath and move on) as well as the physiological sigh (a double inhale followed by a long exhale) are really surprisingly effective as instant relief enablers. I would recommend to anybody tuning in now to take 10 minutes and just read about this and try it out. It might be just the thing that will be your safety net when you need it the most.
Laura: Thank you so much for sharing your insights and emphasizing the importance of both acknowledging mental health struggles and integrating innovative solutions to build a resilient and inclusive construction industry.
Alex: Thank you, Laura. It was a pleasure exchanging on this. Hopefully, there will be soon less and less reason to do so.