State and labor officials seek ‘culture change’ to improve mental health in construction industry

With decades of experience in the trades, DeShon Leek understands firsthand the dark side that comes with working in the construction industry.

Leek, who is the Southeast Region representative for the Michigan Building and Construction Trades Councilhas seen many cases of workers struggling with mental health issues, even in boom times like the one the industry is currently experiencing.

“I believe it’s the competitive nature, high pressure work environments, alcohol and drug abuse, late season layoffs, separation from families, physical exhaustion from hard work and long hours. work burdening the construction. workers,” Leek told MiBiz.

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

“Everything seemed perfect,” Leek said.

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

“My best friend moved in with his dad and his dad came home from work to find him dead on the basement steps from an overdose,” he said.

Leek’s friend has become a tragic statistic that is unfortunately all too common in the construction industry.

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

For Leek, the problem goes back “to mental health awareness”.

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

Change the story

A host of partners across the state — including unions, management, and various state agencies — aim to help change the narrative unfolding in the industry. They gathered earlier this month in Lansing to mark Construction Suicide Prevention Week and highlight a series of efforts to support mental health awareness in the workplace.

Sean Egan, deputy director of labor in the state Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity, explained how the industry raises awareness and emphasizes the protection and support of construction workers.

“As we looked at the data at our Workplace Mental Health Task Force this spring, it’s really striking how out of step, so to speak, construction is compared to other industries” , Egan said, also citing the high concentration of men in the industry. workers.

“You see over 90% of workers are male and probably 85% of them are white males, and that’s a population that’s less likely to ask for help, and males are much more likely than women to commit suicide,” he said. .

Egan is calling for a “culture shift” within the industry to better support people struggling with mental health issues.

“We’re trying… not just to tackle the stigma certainly among the ranks of management and employers, but with the ranks of workers to recognize that it’s OK to not be OK,” he said.

While some may attribute the problem as a side effect of the current busy pace of the construction industry, Egan said data shows that suicide rates have increased “from the early 2000s to the mid-2000s, and it continues to climb in this particular industry. ”

Additionally, the data also demonstrates that employers need to take steps to support the mental health of their employees.

“Employers have an important role to play. It’s where we spend most of our time when we’re awake as adults and it’s a great point of intervention and a great place to be more supportive,” Egan said.

Warning signs, prevention tips

Evonne Edwards, PhD, Licensed Clinical Psychologist, Clinical Director of Ambulatory and Recovery Services at Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Servicesstated that workers with mental disorders may display various warning signs.

“Some of those major warning signs that we look for are suicidal threats and statements,” Edwards said.

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

“Nearly 20% – or one and five – construction industry employees reported heavy drinking in the past month and about 12% reported drug use in the past month,” she said. “These are concerning, but also huge risk factors for suicide. Especially if you see this increasing and combining with other risk factors, it becomes a warning sign.

On the prevention side, Edwards said employers — especially during peak seasons — can encourage work-life balance for their employees. This includes promoting vacation and recovery days or providing coaching or financial planning.

“A lot of times construction workers can do very well financially during the summer or peak seasons and then experience those periods of underemployment,” she said. “Planning ahead to try to prevent some of that debt or risk of financial insecurity during those times of underemployment can help.”

Edwards added that communicating with friends and family during times of underemployment can help promote 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 thought about not wanting to live or have you thought about wanting to kill yourself?” did she say. “Create an opportunity where they could admit that without it being seen as a negative thing and continue that conversation, and then stay with the person, helping them connect to help them.”

‘Talk about it’

Edwards said employee assistance programs (EAPs) are helpful options, especially for construction workers. The Question, Persuader, Refer (QPR) gatekeeper training teaches employers, workers and team leaders how to ask the right questions while learning more about warning signs and what they can do to help. generally.

“There are many different options, Pine Rest has done a lot of work with all kinds of different industries, including resources to help balance some of these financial and other stressors, as well as direct mental health care” , she said.

Speaking during Construction Suicide Prevention Week, Leek also highlighted the warning signs employers should watch for in their employees.

Leek’s top three warning indicators include reductions in worker labor productivity as well as an increase in co-worker conflict.

Overall, however, Leek sees great value in maintaining communication.

“You want them to be able to talk about it – don’t suffer in silence,” he said.

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

  • Suicide hotlines: Text “HELLO” to 741741
  • National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline: 988
  • Benice by the Mental Health Foundation of West Michigan: a corporate mental health and suicide prevention program that can be a useful tool for improving workplace culture, improving employee engagement, and supporting prevention efforts of suicide.

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