State and labor officials strive to “change the culture” to improve mental health in the construction industry

With decades of experience in the professions, DeShon Leek understands first-hand the dark side that comes with working in the construction industry.

Leek, who serves as a representative for the Southeast region in Michigan Building and Construction Trade Councilhas seen many cases of workers suffering from mental health issues, even during boom times like the industry it is currently experiencing.

“I think it’s the competitive nature, high-pressure work environments, alcohol and drug abuse, end-of-season layoffs, separation from families, physical fatigue due to hard work, and long working hours that are affecting construction workers,” said Lake Lambez.

He tells the story of his 32-year-old high school friend who struggled with mental health issues. The man was engaged in crafts, had a wife, three children and a dog, and owned a house.

“Everything seemed fine,” Lake said.

But personal problems at home eventually led to the divorce of the friend, and he lost his family and home.

“My best friend moved in with his dad and his dad came home from work, and found him passed away on the steps of his basement from an overdose,” he said.

Leek’s boyfriend has become a tragic statistic and this is unfortunately very common in the construction industry.

In Michigan, the suicide rate for construction workers was 75.4 per 100,000 people in 2019, one of the highest rates of any industry, according to Michigan Department of Health and Human Services data.

For Lake, the problem stems “all the way to mental health awareness.”

“Many construction workers are reluctant to discuss mental health because they feel ashamed or afraid of being judged by their peers and the negative consequences of the work. Some just don’t know how to get proper access to help,” he said.

Narrative change

A group of partners across the state—including business, administration, and various government agencies—aims to help change the narrative being played in the industry. They gathered earlier this month in Lansing to celebrate Construction Suicide Prevention Week and highlight a range of efforts to support mental health awareness in the workplace.

Sean Egan, deputy director of labor for the state Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity, discussed ways the industry is raising awareness and focusing on protecting and supporting construction workers.

“When we looked at the data during our workgroup on mental health in the workplace this spring, it was really amazing how far off the line, so to speak, compare this construction to other industries,” Egan said, also citing the sector’s high concentration of male workers. .

He said, “You look at over 90 percent of the workers are male and maybe 85 percent of those are white males, and this population group is less likely to seek help, and men are more likely to commit suicide than women.” .

Egan calls for a “culture change” within the industry to become more supportive of people dealing with mental health challenges.

“We’re trying…not just to attack certainly stigma in management and employer ranks, but with the realization in the working ranks that it’s okay to not be okay,” he said.

While some might attribute the problem as a side effect of the construction sector’s currently crowded pace, Egan said the data shows suicide rates have been rising “from the early 2000s to the mid-2000s, and continue to climb in the industry.” Especially.”

In addition, the data also shows that employers need to take steps to support the mental health of their employees.

“Employers have a strong role to play. This is where we spend most of our time when we are awake as adults and this is a great entry point and a great place to be more supportive,” Egan said.

Warning signs, precautionary tips

Evonne Edwards, Ph.D., licensed clinical psychologist, clinical director of recovery and outpatient services at Pine Rest Christian Mental Health ServicesMentally challenged workers can show various warning signs, he said.

“Some of the main warning signs we look for are suicidal threats and statements,” Edwards said.

Edwards added that previous suicide attempts, prior self-harm, and increased alcohol or drug use are other key indicators.

“Nearly 20 percent – or one and five – employees in the construction industry reported heavy alcohol use in the past month and nearly 12 percent reported drug use in the past month,” she said. “These are themselves, but also significant risk factors for suicide. Especially if you see that increase and combine with other risk factors, that becomes a warning sign.”

On the precautionary aspect, Edwards said employers – especially during peak seasons – can encourage work-life balance for their employees. This includes promoting vacation and recuperation days or providing financial guidance or planning.

“A lot of times, construction workers may do really well financially during the summer or peak seasons and then go through these periods of underemployment,” she said. “Planning ahead to try and prevent some of these debt or financial insecurity risks during times of underemployment can help.”

Edwards added that connecting with friends and family during periods of underemployment can help boost self-esteem and reduce risk.

For employers: “You don’t have to have the perfect words, the key is to try to ask open-ended questions. Ask directly, “Have you been thinking about not wanting to survive anymore or have you been thinking about wanting to kill yourself?” she said. Create an opportunity where they can acknowledge this without being seen as a negative thing and continue that conversation and then stay with the person, helping them call for help.”

‘Talk about it’

Edwards said employee assistance programs (EAPs) are useful options, especially for construction employees. Gatekeeper’s Question, Persuasion, and Referral (QPR) training teaches employers, employees, and team leaders how to ask the right questions while learning more about warning signs and what they can do to help in general.

“There are a lot of different options out there, and Pine Rest has done a lot of work with all kinds of different industries, including resources to help with some of those balancing financial stresses and things as well as direct mental health care,” she said.

Speaking during Construction Suicide Prevention Week, Lake also highlighted warning indicators that employers should be on the lookout for in their employees.

Leek’s top three warning indicators include a decrease in worker productivity as well as a rise in any conflicts between co-workers.

Overall, though, Lake sees great value in keeping up with communication.

“You want them to be able to talk about it — not suffer in silence,” he said.

Additional resources for employers to promote mental health in the workplace can be found here:

  • Suicide Crisis Lines: Send “HELLO” to 741741
  • The National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline: 988
  • Benice by Mental Health Foundation of West Michigan: A Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Program for Business that can be a useful tool for improving workplace culture, improving employee engagement, and supporting suicide prevention efforts.

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