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COVID-19: One more reason to take mental health seriously

Even in the best of times, mental health is a big concern in the construction industry.

Many studies suggest that people who work in construction are highly prone to mental-health troubles. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control reports that this industry has one of the highest rates of suicide of any occupation. With the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, construction workers are now faced with added pressures: the risk of themselves or loved ones becoming infected by COVID-19, real or potential job losses, school closings and other hardships. The question is: How will they handle this extra pressure? Will it directly affect their relationships with their fellow workers, family and friends? As contractors, can we help those who may be affected?

Many of us who work in this industry have direct experience of how important it is to support and understand mental health. Fortunately, the industry has recognized this problem and is working on solutions. So, what can contractors do to manage the pressures stemming from the coronavirus outbreak?

Support your employees’ general health

Having a safe workplace helps reduce the likelihood of injuries, which are known to add to mental-health troubles. In a study by the Institute for Work and Health, this correlation was directly measured. Within a 12-month period following an on-the-job work injury, seven out of 10 injured workers reported frequent bouts of depression. Many construction workers suffer from compounding ailments resulting from injuries experienced on the job, including ongoing pain, the psychosocial consequences of being unable to work and the abuse of pain-management medications. A safe workplace also means fully carrying out COVID-19 safety practices that are meant to keep employees not only healthy but also mentally at ease. These measures include improved sanitation, social distancing, leave for employees who may have COVID-19 and — when necessary — the reduction or suspension of construction activity.

Talk to employees about mental health and encourage them to talk about it too

My son has severe mental-health troubles. For the longest time, my wife and I did not talk to others about it and it took a physical and emotion toll on our family. We found that once we talked to other parents and people who were in a similar situation, we were helped tremendously. I recently talked to a colleague about my son, and he pulled me aside to tell me about his son. I was able to provide him with some information that, I hope, will help his family in the long run. Such talks are rare in the workplace. The National Alliance on Mental Illness states that although one in five Americans live with mental illness, only 43 percent of them seek support.

This means very few of our employees who need mental-health support are getting it through the workplace. Unfortunately, a typical construction site is not a place where people talk about their feelings or personal struggles. Regular communication from management about mental health should be part of standard safety messages. It’s also important to offer a setting in which employees feel comfortable discussing how they are doing. Employers can do simple things like promote #IWILLLISTEN; this campaign, started in 2013, is designed to help break the stigma of mental-health issues as well as allow employees to find trustworthy advocates for support.

Take effective actions

It’s essential to give all managers the training they need to identify mental-health troubles and play a constructive role. Resources like the ICU Program, a workplace guide designed to foster circumstances that support emotional health, provide guidelines for establishing stigma-free worksites. Similarly, training in Mental Health First Aid can improve managers’ understanding of mental health and helps employees make use of appropriate resources.

Carrying out programs like this will help people in construction or other industries learn how to prevent problems from escalating while providing a supportive workplace. Additionally, it’s important not only to identify people who are at risk but also to assess employees’ mental-health benefits to make sure they are relevant and accessible.

The stigma around mental illness is real, and we need to make an effort to lessen it. Earlier I stated it was difficult to talk to others about my son’s mental-health struggles. By talking about them, we were able to learn of many great people who laer helped us as a family at home, school and work. I encourage people to talk to each other, their employees and their medical-health providers. A safe workplace, good communication, effective training and supportive benefits are recognized in the industry as best practices for promoting a healthier and more productive workforce. We are not going to solve this problem overnight, but we can take steps now that will make a real difference.

Bruce Morton, CHST is a Senior Loss Control Consultant with the Milwaukee office of Marsh & McLennan Agency. He can be reached at bruce.morton@marshmma.com.

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