The Invisible Crisis in Construction: Contractors Respond to the Challenge

This is a two-part article. The first part described the scope and magnitude of the mental/behavioral health problem in construction, while this article focuses on strategies and solutions to address these topics in your companies. 

Introduction

The Invisible Crisis in Construction is a real threat to the construction workforce and our families, and refers to the challenges posed by mental health, substance misuse and overdose, and suicide risk that leaves many workers and their families suffering in silence. Increasingly, contractors are tackling these topics within their companies.

A major challenge companies must overcome is the prevailing stigma associated with mental health in the organization and throughout society. Perry Silvey, Safety Manager for BT Construction, Inc., in Henderson, CO, summarizes this challenge well: “The mental health topic is much more difficult to address since it is usually suppressed and invisible. Men are typically embarrassed to talk about these kinds of topics, and this makes it more difficult to help them out.”

Silvey is demonstrating the same bold and passionate leadership for mental health and suicide prevention as he does for operational safety as the national leader of Trenching and Excavation Safety Task Force (TEST) with the website Think Inside the Box.

What Contractors Are Doing to Address the Invisible Crisis in Construction

Destigmatizing, Normalizing & Personalizing Mental Wellbeing

Michael Bennett is Vice President of The Cianbro Companies in Pittsfield, ME. Cianbro has adopted an effective approach to personalize conversations about mental health and wellbeing. To hear Bennett describe this approach makes it sounds like a parable, which he said resonates well with employees. In storytelling fashion, Bennett shares the lessons of “How Heavy is Your Backpack?”:

“When you get to work, as an employer, we place items in your backpack called work. This weight can vary day to day. However, before one ever gets to work, that backpack goes on as soon as we rise out of bed and that weight you sometimes feel is called life. It is this weight we need to pay attention to.

Depending on its makeup, the weight can come and go quickly. Other times, the weight can be overwhelming. When the weight in our backpacks begins to mentally wear you down it can create many issues, just one of which is placing you at risk on the jobsite as your ability to focus on the task at hand is compromised. When you cannot focus on the task at hand, you put yourself and others at risk.”

There is profound simplicity in this message. It may be the best example of campaigns to destigmatize, normalize, and personalize conversations about mental wellbeing. The approach works well one-on-one, for crews, and in group meetings.

Weaving Mental Health & Suicide Prevention in Safety Culture & New Hire Orientations

Michelle Walker, CCIFP, SPHR is Vice President of Finance and Administration for SSC Underground in Phoenix, AZ, and was an early adopter of CFMA’s mental health and suicide prevention initiative. Walker served as the inaugural Chairperson of the Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention. Walker’s company reach extends well beyond finance to include human resources, safety, and operational support.

SSC Underground successfully incorporated mental health and suicide prevention into the company’s safety culture and employment processes. For example, Walker shares how the company “starts talking about mental health and suicide prevention from the first step of employment – orientation.” Walker highlights how the new hire orientation “includes a statement of care prioritizing mental health” which is “reinforced with toolbox talks, posters, wallet cards, and hardhat stickers.”

According to Walker, the company “provides information on warning signs, what to do if someone is struggling with mental health, as well as how to access behavioral health care during the employee benefits overview.” The messages are not a one and done conversation but continue with some level of discussion or a presentation in every monthly crew meeting.

Educating Employees & Sharing Resources

BT Construction is embarking on a formal educational campaign emphasizing mental health and suicide prevention. An important step taken by BT Construction is how the Safety Manager and Human Resources Manager are collaborating to combine efforts. This integrated approach demonstrates a unified tactic within the company and provides clarity for employees. In many construction companies, safety leaders are responsible for messaging about mental health and suicide prevention, but are not always fully aware of the available resources the company can share with employees.

Silvey invited the human resources manager “to introduce our employees to the tough topic of suicide awareness and mental health in the most recent quarterly safety training as a part of the company’s ongoing activities.” Silvey highlighted that “hardhat stickers and flyers were handed out along with information about our company-sponsored Employee Assistance Program (EAP).” Silvey asserted that “the EAP is always available, but sometimes is overlooked as an employee benefit. The EAP has free counseling sessions available if needed and we encourage our folks to utilize the services if they need.”

How Employees Are Responding to the Actions Companies Are Taking

A frequent barrier companies report in not addressing mental health and wellbeing in the workplace is that they do not know how employees will respond. Time and again, employers share positive news on this front and encourage other contractors to take the leap of faith and simply begin addressing these lifesaving topics. BT Construction’s Silvey shared “our employees have been receptive to our latest campaign regarding suicide awareness and mental health in construction.”

SSC Underground’s Walker echoed this sentiment as well. “The more we talk about it, the more comfortable they get. Peer to peer support is still strained, but attention is there. They will come to me to share concerns about coworkers!” Walker continued by sharing “when employees are experiencing something themselves, they are much more willing to name it – struggling with alcohol use, experiencing depression or anxiety, or unable to sleep due to worry.” Walker shares her sense of relief, “they’re now asking for help from me and one of our male managers without fear or concern.”

Cianbro’s Bennett credits “How Heavy is Your Backpack?” with “enabling open communications among all team members in all departments and on all jobsites to discuss ‘It’s ok to not be ok’ and how the EAP can help.” Bennett said there is growing recognition that “strength, determination, and grit are character traits of our team members who get the hard work done, but these same traits can also be a barrier to asking for help.”

Conclusion

Bennett highlights that “employees are embracing wellbeing when it includes both physical and mental health.” He said Cianbro is “emphasizing ‘Know Your Numbers’ to teach how many chronic health conditions are preventable and reversible.” Cianbro is teaching employees to “be proactive about our health and how getting timely preventive care screenings can help us gain the insight we need to make informed, healthy lifestyle choices, and, become healthier versions of ourselves.” The stories highlighted by three heavy/highway contractors working across the country provide hope for greater acceptance of mental health and wellbeing throughout the construction industry.

Resources:

Beyer, Cal, and Squires, Ross. (March 2021). Building Profits Content Hub. The Invisible Crisis in Construction: Part 1. https://cfma.org/articles/the-invisible-crisis-in-construction

CSDZ. Worker Wellbeing and Suicide Prevention Webpage. https://www.csdz.com/service/worker-wellbeing-and-suicide-prevention/

Editor’s Note: Terri Olson, Vice President and co-owner of OE Construction in Golden, CO, shared a very personal account of how she addressed metal health, substance misuse, and suicide prevention at her company in The Heart of a Leader: Sharing Hope to Help Others.

About the Authors

Cal Beyer

Cal Beyer, CWP, SCTPP, is Vice President of Workforce Risk and Worker Wellbeing for CSDZ, a Holmes Murphy Company.

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Don Appleby

Don Appleby, AFSB is surety director and shareholder for Holmes Murphy & Associates.

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