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

With decades of experience in the trades, DeShon Leek understands firsthand the dark side that comes with working in the construction industry.

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

“I think it’s the competitive nature, high pressure work environments, alcohol and substance abuse, layoffs at the end of the season, separation of families, physical exhaustion due to hard work and long working hours. which affects the construction. workers,” Leek told MiBiz.

He tells the story of his 32-year-old high school friend who struggled with mental health issues. The man worked in commerce, had a wife, three children and a dog, and owned a house.

“Everything seemed perfect,” Leek said.

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

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

Leek’s friend became a tragic statistic that is sadly 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 problem goes back “from the awareness of mental health.”

“Many construction workers are reluctant to talk about mental health and it’s because they feel ashamed or fear judgment from their peers and negative job consequences. Some just don’t know how to get the proper access to help,” she said.

changing the narrative

A host of partners across the state, including labor, management, and various state agencies, aim to help change the narrative that has been unfolding in the industry. They gathered earlier this month in Lansing to commemorate Construction Suicide Prevention Week and highlight a variety of efforts to support mental health awareness in the workplace.

Sean Egan, deputy director of labor for the state Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity, discussed ways the industry is raising awareness and placing an emphasis on protecting and supporting construction workers.

“When we look at the data during our workplace mental health task force this spring, it’s really surprising how out of line, if you will, construction is compared to other industries,” Egan said, also citing the high concentration of men in the sector. workers

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

Egan is calling for a “culture change” within the industry to be more supportive of people facing mental health challenges.

“We’re trying to … not only attack the stigma certainly among the ranks of management and employers, but to have the ranks of workers recognize that it’s okay not to be okay,” he said.

While some may attribute the problem to a side effect of the current fast-paced construction industry, Egan said the data shows suicide rates have increased “from the early 2000s to the mid-2000s, and continues to rise in this particular industry. ”

Furthermore, the data also demonstrates that employers need to take steps to support the mental health of their employees.

“Employers have an important 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.

Evonne Edwards, PhD, licensed clinical psychologist, clinical director of outpatient and recovery services at Pine Rest Christian Mental Health ServicesHe said that workers experiencing mental health problems may show several warning signs.

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

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

“Nearly 20 percent, or one and five, of employees in the construction industry reported heavy alcohol use in the past month and about 12 percent reported using drugs in the past month,” he said. “Those are concerning in and of themselves, but they are also big risk factors for suicide. Especially if you see it rising and combining with other risk factors, that becomes a red flag.”

On the prevention side, Edwards said employers, particularly during peak seasons, can encourage work-life balance for their employees. This includes promoting days off and recovery or providing financial advice or planning.

“Oftentimes construction workers can do really well financially during the summer or peak seasons and then have these periods of underemployment,” he said. “Planning ahead to try to prevent some of that debt or risk of financial insecurity during those times of underemployment can help.”

Edwards added that reaching out to friends and family during periods of underemployment can help promote self-esteem and reduce risks.

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 been thinking about not wanting to be alive or have you been thinking about wanting to kill yourself?’ she said. “Create an opportunity where they can admit that without it being seen as a negative and continue that conversation and then stay with the person, helping them connect to help.”

‘Talk about it’

Edwards said Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) are helpful options, particularly for construction employees. Question, Persuasion, Refer (QPR) training teaches employers, workers and team leaders how to ask the right questions while learning more about the warning signs and what they can do to help in general.

“There are a lot of different options, Pine Rest has done a lot of work with all sorts of different industries, including resources to help with some of those financial stressors and other things, as well as direct mental health care,” she said.

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

Leek’s top three warning indicators include reductions in workers’ labor productivity, as well as an increase in conflicts between co-workers.

In general, however, Leek sees great value in maintaining communication.

“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 Line: 988

  • Benice from the Mental Health Foundation of West Michigan: A mental health and suicide prevention program for businesses that can be a useful tool for improving workplace culture, improving employee engagement, and supporting suicide prevention efforts.


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