Prioritising Mental Wellbeing in the Construction Industry During COVID-19

The construction industry across Asia and in Singapore has risen to the challenge of managing the physical health challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic–from safe distancing measures and quarantining of suspected infections to disinfections of work sites. The Singapore Government even co-funded salaries for Safety Management Officers (SMOs) to drive up public health safety compliance among construction firms.

But public health has two components–the first is physical health, which has received much attention in this pandemic, while the second is mental health, which has often been overlooked within the construction industry. Rampant mental health issues can stymie worker productivity and affect workplace safety. It is a COVID-19 risk in and of itself.

According to A*STAR, COVID-19 is capable of endangering the mental and emotional wellbeing of workers in two ways. First, by depriving people of necessary social connections which may cause hostility and depression. Second, by forcing people to be stuck together in cramped conditions which would make them seek personal space. Migrant workers are unfortunate since they suffer both–long periods of isolation as well as having to share their space with several other workers. As such, they are at risk of developing mental health issues which may affect their work or even cause accidents and hospitalisations.

The construction industry in Singapore had the highest incidence of hospitalised sick leave in the country even before the pandemic, with government statistics from 2017 revealing that the average lost days amounted to 20.6 per absentee. With labour shortages already being borne by the industry owing to the pandemic, any risk that may worsen the shortage must be mitigated. These risks must be properly studied and assessed using relevant frameworks, and all members of the construction industry must remain constantly aware of this hidden but significant public health hazard.

Beyond migrant workers, other workers in the industry are also at risk. Working at home has been stressful for all professionals of all industries but is especially frustrating for construction professionals who are usually accustomed to work that is on-site, client-facing, or physical in nature. Having to deal with the stress of this adjustment, especially as work now begins to pick up steam once more in Phase III, could lead to errors, miscommunications, and accidents. Ensuring workplace wellbeing is therefore crucial.

Companies can take many steps to mitigate this risk as supported by this joint advisory of the Ministry of Manpower (MOM), the Singapore National Employers Federation (SNEF), and the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC).  Steps include training managers to spot signs of mental distress, creating social support systems at work, and having a well-defined return-to-work plan for those who have taken sick leaves for mental health reasons. These can be implemented using a best practice process like the one proposed in this note by Marsh, a leading consulting and research firm.

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