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Mental health — Construction’s silent epidemic

"The real mental epidemic today is that we are all struggling to put on a show and pretend that everything's OK all the time": Bryan Baeumler


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June 4, 2019 by John Bleasby

Work-related stress, depression and anxiety have overtaken musculoskeletal disorders as the most reported workplace health issue in the construction industry, according to Kevin Fear, H&S Strategy Lead from the UK-based Construction Industry Training Board (CITB). At the first annual conference of the Institutional Occupational Safety & Health organization (IOSH), Fear described the issue as a “silent epidemic.” The worst possible outcome from a severe mental health issue is, of course, suicide. Fear said that the construction industry in the UK has the highest rate of suicides versus any other profession. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in the U.S.A., similarly identify the industry for its high suicide risks. This silence needs to be broken.

Statistics suggest nearly 9 per cent of construction workers are already suffering from depression

The unseen versus the seen
Mental health could also be described as not just a silent epidemic but also an invisible health hazard, unlike the tangible risks of construction such as working at heights or around heavy equipment, or tool operation. And as Sarah Lorek pointed out in an article published on constructibletrmible.com, the sufferer can be invisible too. “Of the people you work with every day — from happy-go-lucky Bill to Gina who always brings in donuts — chances are good that at least one of them struggles with their mental health,” she wrote. “Or, maybe it’s you. From laborers to high-level executives, mental health issues affect people indiscriminately.” Sadly, the issue has lagged behind other health and safety risks in terms of effective monitoring and management.

Why the problem in construction?
Construction remains a male-dominated industry. The work is physically challenging of course, but also mentally challenging. The tough, macho image that continues to surround construction work can make individuals reluctant to speak out about their feelings due to the risk of being stigmatized. The CDC has studied this, and has identified some specific aspects that challenge the well-being of construction workers: a competitive, high-pressure work environment; a high prevalence of alcohol and substance abuse; end-of-season layoffs; and separation from family.

Bryan Baeumler adds his voice
Well-known TV contractor celebrity Bryan Baeumler brings the importance of mental health into focus, telling Canadian Contractor his own personal story:
“I’ve suffered with an anxiety and panic disorder for most of my life. The first 3 years of filming, appearances and life in general were a blur of almost constant panic attacks, doing my best to smile and laugh without letting the inner turmoil show through the cracks. While I’ve learned how to manage it somewhat over the years, it continues to affect me in different ways, mentally and physically, from time to time. The real mental epidemic today is that we are all struggling to put on a show and pretend that everything’s OK all the time… but it’s OK to be not OK, and it’s important to talk to someone about it. We all need to take a minute and ask those around us, ‘Are you OK?'”

Look for some outward signs
Once management and team leaders accept that mental health is an issue to be dealt with, it becomes easier to identify the signs of a mental health issue through a worker’s outward behaviour. Look for high incidents of injury or self-reported pain. Statistics suggest nearly 9 per cent of construction workers are already suffering from depression, so look for increased tardiness, absenteeism, and medical leaves. Reduced productivity is another indicator —Some call it “presenteeism”, or showing up for work but not functioning effectively. Isolation, decrease self-confidence, increased inter-personal conflicts or reduced problem solving ability are more clues that might point to a developing mental health issue.

Start the conversation and eliminate the stigma
It might be appear difficult at the outset to initiate a pro-active program in your company, but at some point it will be important to get workers to speak out concerning their issues and anxieties. Fostering a safe, non-threatening culture within the company can really help, experts say. From there, educational resources can be identified that can help the worker.

Eliminating the stigma attached is vital. That can begin by making all workers aware that mental health is a legitimate health issue, and that their well-being, both physical and mental, is a priority. “Don’t be the manager that makes your crew feel worse about their thoughts than they already do,” writes Lara Lipman in geniebelt.com. “Start by setting an example! Be open, make healthy choices, and show that you are there for your crew! Make mental health conversation apart of weekly discussions so your job site becomes a safe place to express concerns.”

Help is close at hand
It’s a matter of everyone being better informed. This can start by contacting resources available in your local community. “The goal of mental health units is to get people talking and working together,” Erica Beuermann told Canadian Contractor. Beuermann is a social worker with the Department of Mental Health in the Huron Community Family Health Unit near Stratford, Ontario. She suggested companies organize visits from experts, like psychologists, through local chapters of the organizations such as the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA). Their professional speakers will help employers and employees both learn how to identify symptoms and how to respond if they see something happening to a co-worker. After that, management can follow up by planning awareness sessions for all employees on a regular basis, and maybe organizing occasional “mental health break day” activities involving all employees away from the job site.

Have resources at the ready
After you’ve established the basis for ongoing conversations about mental health issues in a safe environment, and hopefully broken the stigma surrounding it, the next step is to have immediate and longer term action plans ready.

In an urgent situation that may be escalating in real time, Beuermann suggests the Emergency Department of the local hospital would be able to help. “They will have trained experts and specialists on hand,” she said.

In terms of on-going professional support, management and employees may not even realize that their company health policies may have built-in provisions for mental health counselling. While this may only be a short-term solution, maybe four sessions or so, it can provide a starting point. Beuermann also suggested that employees with issues could reach out to their family doctor, who will be able to offer an appropriate referral. On site or in the office, employers can put together a list of accredited doctors in the area who are available for workers to reach out, and make hotline numbers easily accessible.

How to start
Here are some resources that can be used start a mental health awareness program within your organization:

For employers
Mental Health Commission of Canada
Government of Canada: Mental Health in the Workplace
The Canadian Mental Health Association

For workers
Workplace Strategies for Mental Health

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JBleasby@canadiancontractor.ca

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