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How (and why) Wisconsin contractors should address employee mental health issues

John Wallen is vice president and Wisconsin Construction Practice Leader for global insurance brokerage Hub International. He has more than 30 years of experience providing risk management consulting, effective insurance solutions and innovative risk and cost reduction strategies for the construction industry. He is active in multiple construction industry trade associations, including ABC, AGC, ASA, Plumbing and the Mechanical Contractors Associations, as well as the Construction and Financial Management Association. Wallen has been a featured speaker for several of these and other construction associations on various risk management topics.

The COVID pandemic has exacerbated an already serious global health mental health epidemic. While Wisconsin has moved into second place among states in how effectively it provides access to care, the time is ripe for the private sector to step up its game, too.

And the urgency may be the greatest for the construction industry, whose workers are more at risk than any others. According to the Construction Industry Rehabilitation Plan’s research, 83% of workers have experienced mental health issues to some extent. Further, the industry’s suicide rate surpasses all others, at 53.2 per 100,000 workers.

There’s a price to be paid for not acting. Here’s what construction firms need to know.

Reasons to respond

It makes good business sense to foster shifts in the culture and environment that make the industry such a hazard to employee mental health. Better management of the risks that create the issue has a payoff: every dollar spent in mental health services returns $4 in improved health and productivity, according to the National Safety Council.

In fact, the NSC and NORC at the University of Chicago have established a Mental Health Employer Cost Calculator that enables employers across a broad swath of industries to see the breakdown of the costs for not acting. A hypothetical construction firm in Wisconsin with 200 workers, for example, would see the following costs:

    • lost time: $73,136
    • job turnover and retraining: $87,682
    • health care: $89,392
    • total costs: $250,210

Putting a series of best practices in place can provide the framework of an effective mental health program.

Best practices can make a difference

1. Raise awareness.

Part of the construction industry’s challenge with mental wellness revolves around the stigma it carries. Little is done proactively to help construction workers deal with the death by suicide of a co-workers aside from – maybe – short-term counseling. It takes education so that workers don’t miss the risk factors and warning signs. It takes an openness to discussion. It takes intervention that’s easily accessed.

Start by ensuring risk factors and warning signs are brought in the open – with signage in common rooms, for example, and through open discussion in small group meetings. Risk factors can be a family history of suicide or a history of trauma. A lack of support networks is another. Warning signs of stress can be weight and appetite changes or anxiety and loss of motivation.

A company’s leadership has a key role in making it “OK” to talk openly as advocates for emotional wellness. This includes sharing their own stories, becoming more human and relatable in the process and showing that opening up is not a bad thing.

2.  Manage the work/environmental/cultural psycho-social risks.

There are numerous systemic barriers to good mental health in the construction business that must be addressed. Too often, construction companies culture have a “get-er-done” mentality.  When mental health is stigmatized, employees may feel pressured to use physical ailments to excuse the mental health days they really need.

It’s key to understand and address how the structure of the work adds to emotional stress. A broader focus on education, resources and support over time will nurture a more balanced work environment. There’s a price when the on-the-job risks aren’t addressed, particularly relevant in today’s economic climate: 71% of workers who are persistently stressed out at work intend to look for new jobs in the 12 months ahead.

3. Assess the needs; measure the impact of solutions.

It’s not easy to turn a culture around. It takes more than a one-and-done mental health “campaign” to solve persistent burnout issues. A consistent and integrated program is the best fix.

Every effort should be based on a determination of needs, starting with frank one-on-one conversations on shared experiences. Supporting data can also be found in claims for services and pharmaceuticals, which can multiply as rates of anxiety and depression escalate. Even if people are getting the help they need, be alert to the risk of people falling through the cracks in accessing services. Common workplace metrics like employee satisfaction, changes in productivity, absenteeism and presenteeism will show the impact of solutions and inform the way forward.

4. Count on evidence-based, quality solutions.

The best resources for quality mental health services pass the following litmus test: They are safe, effective, patient-centered, timely, efficient and equitable. The provision of care also has a scientific basis.

They also are accessible through health plans and Employee Assistance Programs while screening for a range of disorders – not just depression, for example, but substance abuse, as well. Access should be equitable, ensuring that all employees’ needs are met, regardless of location or job.

5.  Mental health initiatives are key to comprehensive wellness programs.

Integrating mental health programs into the broader wellness program requires understanding and structuring solutions around the eight dimensions of mental health and well-being. These include emotional, spiritual, intellectual, physical, environmental, financial, occupational and social wellness.

Programming around these dimensions could include lifestyle coaching for emotional wellness and guidance on budgeting and financial goal setting for financial wellness. Occupational wellness, with an eye to personal satisfaction derived from one’s work, could be supported with mentoring programs. Financial wellness is another dimension that can be addressed through one-on-one coaching, as well as solutions targeted to particular employee groups (like student loan repayment/counseling).

The construction industry has had worsening issues recruiting and retaining sufficient workers to replace those aging out of the field and enable it to meet the demands of business. Finally, we need to consider the additional stress brought on by supply chain challenges that continue to add stress due to project-completion delays.  Investing in the emotional health of todays and tomorrow’s workers is not really optional anymore.

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