• Sara Fender

Awareness Months for Mental Health and Road Construction Safety: a Look at the Deeper Connections

Updated: May 23, 2019

May is Mental Health Awareness Month and Oregon Transportation Safety Awareness Month. Two fields intersecting personally in my life: I’m a mental health counselor and I have family and friends who work in the road construction industry. From my perspective, mental health awareness and workzone safety are connected. Safety on the jobsite is multi-faceted, and one of those facets is mental and emotional health.

For some time now, the topic of mental health has been gaining traction in the broader construction industry, which includes road construction. While this is a positive trend, the reasons are not. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the Construction and Extraction industry has the highest rates of men dying by suicide than any other occupational group since 2012: nearly three times higher than the suicide rate for the general population (53 versus 17 per 100,000 persons in 2015 stats). Shocking, right? I know I was shocked when I learned this a few years ago.

Why? Information from various sources online suggest or identify the following factors:

· Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for men in the general population between the ages of 25-54, a large demographic that makes up the construction industry.

· Suicide risk increases in high-pressure and high-skilled jobs.

· Men who are single, divorced, or widowed are at an increased risk for abusing alcohol and drugs, as are any persons who use alcohol and drugs to cope with life stressors. Substance abuse increases suicide risk (and is considered a symptom of underlying mental health issues when used to self-medicate).

· Most forms of construction, including road construction, are seasonal, operating with a built-in level of urgency. There is only so many days in a year to complete work and meet contractual obligations. This reality results in:

o High-pressure, production-driven work

o Long work shifts

o Common night shift work

o Limited season breaks (some work 6-7 days/week, at times)

o Long-term travel away from home (overnight)

All of these can contribute to increased stress, disrupted sleep patterns, difficulty in managing diet and exercise, increased interpersonal conflicts, isolation and loneliness….which can all lead to common mental health symptoms like anxiety and depression.

· The construction industry remains primarily a “tough guy” culture. This traditional masculine, blue-collar environment is historically not conducive to talking about mental health or getting help for mental health needs. Stigma remains (and real fear with it) if a person admits to having mental health issues or seeks help: fear of employment loss, along with the fear of being seen differently, losing respect, pride, and reputation.

Women make up roughly 9% of the construction industry, and while the attention related to mental health has been driven by the suicide rates of men and the industry (reported suicides for women in the industry is relatively low), mental health efforts benefit ALL employees regardless of gender, position, or role in companies. See the industries with the highest suicide rates for women here.

What can construction companies do to better support mental health and wellness?

1. Start talking! …and continue talking about mental health as a normal part of overall health and safety. Companies need to take the lead to begin reducing stigma and encouraging openness. Learn how to talk about mental health and not feel awkward about it. Find ways to integrate the topic into the overall culture of the company. Encourage employees to access services. Prevention and early intervention are key components to reducing suicide risk and reducing the negative impact of mental health issues.

2. Get educated! …provide education and training on mental health topics for all levels of employees, including owners and managers. Options to begin with include signs and symptoms of common mental health issues, and skills training in managing oneself and talking to others about mental health.

3. Have a plan! …create or review your company’s policies and procedures for mental health crisis response services (i.e. following a death or jobsite accident) and acute mental health service options. Develop an overall mental health wellness plan with action steps and share it with your employees.

4. Provide support! …know the variety of mental health resources that are available for your employees. Post and distribute crisis hotline information, know how and where to access mental health services for acute needs, ongoing counseling options in your company’s area, phone and internet counseling resources, and what your company insurance policies offer employees in mental health and substance abuse benefits. Regularly inform, remind, and encourage your employees to use available resources.

5. Encourage connection! …while many of the factors that increase stress and increase risk for mental health issues cannot be changed in the industry, protective factors that guard against mental health issues and suicide risk can be emphasized. Promoting a work culture that tangibly values employees through appreciation, acknowledgment, support, relationship, and problem-solving efforts can directly affect morale, job satisfaction, and increase a sense of purpose and meaning to work.

These efforts can provide far more benefits than raising awareness and reducing stigma around mental health in the road construction industry. Companies can see it as both intangible and tangible investments: enriching and improving life satisfaction of their employees and their families and seeing long-term profits through increasing overall productivity via reducing absenteeism, reducing performance issues, and increasing employee retention.

The following sources were used to compile the content of this blog post, along with the writer’s own knowledge of and experience with the mental health and road construction industries:

Building Understanding of the Mental Health Challenges in the Construction Industry https://www.rand.org/blog/2018/01/building-understanding-of-the-mental-health-challenges.html

Centers for Disease Control Statistics https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/67/wr/mm6745a1.htm

Creating a Mentally Healthy Workplace: ROIs https://www.headsup.org.au/docs/default-source/resources/beyondblue_workplaceroi_finalreport_may-2014.pdf?sfvrsn=6

MATES in Construction report http://micaus.bpndw46jvgfycmdxu.maxcdn-edge.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/MIC-QLD-construction-industry-roundtable-report.pdf

Mental Health in Construction https://geniebelt.com/blog/mental-health-in-construction and https://constructible.trimble.com/construction-industry/mental-health-in-construction-stats

Prioritizing Mental Health in the Construction Industry https://medium.com/@D2Ktraffic/prioritizing-mental-health-in-the-construction-industry-c7e617f3acc1

We Need to Talk About Mental Health in the Construction Industry https://www.chessconnect.org.au/mental-health-construction-industry/

What Construction Workers Could Teach Other Industries About Mental Health Awareness https://www.forbes.com/sites/amymorin/2016/05/21/what-construction-workers-could-teach-other-industries-about-mental-health-awareness/#3d9a7fa112d2

Sara Fender is a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) Intern, working in private practice in Gladstone, Oregon. She holds a Master's Degree in Counseling from Multnomah University in Portland, Oregon. Sara provides counseling services to adults and older teens experiencing a variety of common life challenges, with a special interest in grief, loss, and life transitions. Sara is dedicated to providing a voice for mental health and wellness through direct services, education, and community involvement. To contact Sara, email her at counselingwithsaraf@gmail.com or visit www.sarafender.com