State, labor authorities seek ‘culture change’ to improve mental health in construction industry

With decades of experience in the business, DeShawn Leake understands firsthand the dark side that comes with working in the construction industry.

Lic., who serves as the representative for the Southeast region Michigan Building and Construction Trades CouncilEven in the prosperous times the industry is currently facing, he has seen many workers struggling with mental health issues.

I believe the competitive nature of construction, high-pressure environments, alcohol and drug abuse, off-season, separation from family, physical fatigue due to hard labor, and long working hours are the most damaging factors in construction. crew,” Leek told Mbiz.

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

“Everything seemed perfect,” Leek said.

But personal issues at home led his friend to divorce, he lost his family and home.

“My best friend moved in with his dad, and when he got home from work, he found him passed out in the basement from an overdose,” he said.

Lake’s friend became an all-too-common sad statistic in the construction industry.

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

For Leek, it’s all about “returning to mental health awareness.”

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

Changing the narrative

A number of partners across the state – including labor, management and various government agencies – aim to help change the narrative being played out in the industry. They gathered in Lansing earlier this month to celebrate Construction Suicide Prevention Week and highlight various efforts to support mental health awareness in the workplace.

Shane Egan, deputy director of labor at the state Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity, discussed the industry’s ongoing awareness efforts and focus on protecting and supporting construction workers.

“When we looked at the data in our workplace mental health task force this spring, it was amazing how much construction is out of line compared to other industries,” Egan said. workers.

“You’re looking at 90-plus percent of workers being male and maybe 85 percent being white males, and that population is less likely to seek help, and men are more likely to be suicidal than women,” he said. .

Egan is calling for a “cultural shift” in the industry to provide more support for people dealing with mental health challenges.

“We’re trying to … certainly not only attack the isolation between the management and employer ranks, but it’s okay to not be OK with the worker ranks,” he said.

While some may chalk it up to a side effect of the construction sector’s current boom, the data shows that suicides “increased in the early to mid-2000s and will continue to increase in this particular industry.” ”

Also, the data shows that employers should take steps to support their employees’ mental health.

“Employers have a strong role to play. That’s where we spend most of our time as adults and that’s a great intervention point and a great place to support more,” Egan said.

Warning signs, prevention tips

Yvonne Edwards, PhD, Licensed Clinical Psychologist, Clinical Director of Outpatient and Rehabilitation Services at Pine Rest Christian Mental Health ServicesHe said employees with mental health issues may show a variety of warning signs.

“Some of those key warning signs are suicidal threats and statements,” Edwards said.

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

“About 20 percent — or one in five — of workers in the construction industry reported heavy alcohol use in the past month, and about 12 percent reported drug use in the past month,” she said. “These are on their own, but they are a big risk factor for suicide. Especially if you see that increase and it’s combined with other risk factors, that’s a warning sign.”

In his defense, Edwards said employers — especially during peak seasons — can encourage work-life balance for their employees. This includes introducing vacation days and providing rehabilitation or financial training or planning.

“A lot of times construction workers can do well financially in the summer or peak seasons and then have these periods of unemployment,” she said. “Planning ahead can help prevent some of the debt or financial security risks during those down times.”

Edwards added that socializing with friends and family during downtime can help boost self-esteem and reduce risks.

To recruiters: “You don’t have to have perfect words, the key is to try to ask open-ended questions. Directly, ‘Were you thinking of not living anymore, or were you thinking of killing yourself?’ “Make it possible for them to accept it by not seeing it as a negative thing and continuing the conversation and staying with the person to help them connect,” she said.

‘Talk about it’.

Edwards says Employee Assistance Programs (EPAs) are helpful options, especially for construction workers. Question, Persuade, Refer (QPR) Gatekeeper training teaches employers, employees and team leaders how to ask the right questions, learn more about warning signs and what you can do to help in general.

“There’s a lot of different options out there, Pine Rest has done a lot of work with a lot of different industries, including resources for some of them to balance financial concerns and things, including direct mental health care.

Leek, who spoke at Construction Suicide Prevention Week, highlighted warning signs that employers should watch out for in their workers.

Lake’s top three warning indicators include a decrease in employee productivity as well as an increase in conflicts between coworkers.

Overall, however, Leek is of great importance in maintaining a relationship.

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

Additional resources for employers to promote workplace mental health are available here:

  • Suicide Crisis Lines: Text “Hello” to 741741.
  • National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline: 988

  • Bennis at West Michigan Mental Health Foundation: Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Program is a tool to improve workplace culture, improve employee engagement and support suicide prevention efforts.

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