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

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With decades of experience in the trade, DeShon Leek understands firsthand the downsides that come with working in the construction industry.

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

“I believe it’s the competitive nature, high-pressure work environment, alcohol and drug abuse, end-of-season layoffs, separation from families, physical exhaustion from hard work and the long hours that stress the construction workers,” said Leek to MiBiz.

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

“Everything seemed perfect,” said Leek.

But personal problems at home eventually led to the boyfriend getting divorced and losing his family and home.

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

Leek’s boyfriend has become a tragic statistic that unfortunately is 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 Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

For Leek, the issue dates “back to mental health awareness.”

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

change of narrative

A variety of partners across the state – including workers, management and various state agencies – want to help change the narrative that has been playing out in the industry. They gathered in Lansing earlier this month to celebrate Suicide Prevention Week in Construction and to highlight a range of efforts to promote mental health awareness in the workplace.

Sean Egan, Deputy Labor Director at the State Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity, discussed how the industry is raising awareness and prioritizing the protection and support of construction workers.

“When we looked at the data during our workplace mental health working group this spring, it’s really striking how out of the ordinary construction is, compared to other industries,” Egan said, also citing the high concentration of men in this sector workforce.

“Over 90 percent of workers are men and probably 85 percent of them are white men, and that’s a demographic that’s less likely to seek help, and men are much more likely to commit suicide than women,” he said.

Egan calls for a “culture shift” within the industry to provide more support for people struggling with mental health issues.

“We’re trying … to not only attack the stigma in the management and employer ranks, but also to recognize in the workforce ranks that it’s okay not to be okay,” he said.

While some attribute the problem as a side effect of the construction sector‘s current busy pace, Egan said the data shows that suicide rates “have been increasing since the early 2000s to the mid-2000s and are continuing to increase in this particular industry.” ”

The data also shows that employers need to take steps to support their employees’ mental health.

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

Warning signs, prevention tips

Evone Edwards, PhD, Licensed Clinical Psychologist, Clinical Director for Outpatient and Recovery Services Pine Rest Christian Psychiatric Servicessaid workers with mental health challenges may present various warning signs.

“Some of these key red flags that we look for are suicidal threats and statements,” Edwards said.

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

“Nearly 20 percent — or one and five — workers in the construction industry report heavy alcohol use in the past month, and about 12 percent report drug use in the past month,” she said. “This affects oneself, but also enormous risk factors for suicide. Especially when you see this increasing and combining with other risk factors, that becomes a red flag.”

On the prevention side, Edwards said employers — especially during peak seasons — can encourage work-life balance among their employees. This includes encouraging days off and recreation or providing financial coaching or planning.

“Often construction workers are doing very well financially in the summer or peak season and then they have these periods of underemployment,” she said. “Planning ahead to try and avoid some of that debt or financial uncertainty risk during these periods of underemployment can help.”

Edwards added that communicating with friends and family during times 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 thought about not being alive or have you thought about killing yourself?” She said, “Create an opportunity where they can admit that without taking it as a negative.” is viewed and continue the conversation and then stay with the person and help them connect to help.”

‘talk about it’

Edwards said Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) are helpful options, especially for construction workers. The Gatekeeper Training Question, Persuade, Refer (QPR) teaches employers, employees, and team leaders how to ask the right questions while learning more about the red flags and what they can do to help overall.

“There’s a lot of different options out there, Pine Rest has worked a lot with all kinds of industries, including resources to help with some of these financial stressors and things, as well as direct mental health care,” she said.

Speaking during Construction Suicide Prevention Week, Leek also highlighted red flags employers should look out for in their employees.

Leek’s top three warning indicators include a decrease in workers’ labor productivity and an increase in conflicts between colleagues.

Overall, however, Leek sees great value in keeping the communication going.

“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 Crisis Lines: Text “HELLO” to 741741
  • National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline: 988
  • Benice of the Mental Health Foundation of West Michigan: A mental health and suicide prevention program for businesses that can be helpful in improving work culture, improving employee engagement, and supporting suicide prevention efforts. https://www.benice.org/our-programs/business
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