If you believe it’s time to help your workforce improve their mental health, but don’t know where to start, this guide is for you. If you have already started to address mental health you can use these same steps to assess your efforts, identify new opportunities and tap into additional resources.
1. Improve awareness for mental health starting at the top
The mental health of employees is at an all-time low and top management must verbalize how it will lead your company to address this challenge. The ability to do this effectively will go a long way toward building trust throughout your organization.
One of the recommendations resulting from a 2021 study of the construction industry from the Center for Workplace Health is for leaders to articulate a vision and implement policies and practices that communicate that addressing mental health is a strategic imperative for the company. In addition, they believe that leaders sharing personal stories that “it is ok to not be ok” will create empathy and trust among the workforce by reducing stigma and fear of judgment.
At Ames Construction, addressing mental health started within senior leadership and ownership, then progressed to human resources and safety professionals. “We created mental health advocates within each of our operating companies,” says Jerry Ouimet, President and CEO of Ames Construction Co., a large civil contractor. “We have identified resources and trained people in an attempt to respond to any team member in crisis.” The company is currently rolling out a program focused on peer-to-peer communication. “A craft worker may not be comfortable talking to their boss about something that's going on, but they might talk to their peers,” says Ouimet. “So, we're creating a peer-to-peer network of support so that our folks can access someone at their level that is trained and able to respond.”
2. Assess your workforce mental health efforts
Measuring the quality of existing mental health efforts is necessary for improvement. Workplace assessment tools guide you through analysis of your existing mental health efforts and suggest additional practices. According to Mandi Kime, Co-Chair of the Associated General Contractors Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Task Force and Director of Safety for AGC of Washington, construction employers often have Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) but workers are not aware of what support they might have available through these programs.
“You should test drive your employee assistance program to be sure it works for you and your people,” advises Ouimet. “Most of the time it probably wouldn't meet your expectations for someone in crisis.”
Michelle Walker, Vice President of Operations at SSC Underground, suggests using the Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention Needs Analysis and Checklist as a starting point. The needs analysis is focused on creating a safe culture, training, and awareness, normalizing the topic of suicide prevention, and decreasing the risk of suicide.
NAHB also offers a needs analysis and checklist, broken into five primary areas of readiness for a company to study:
- Corporate attention to/consideration of mental health (building a caring culture).
- Resources in place for employees dealing with a mental health issue/personal crisis.
- Readiness of the company to assist suicidal employees.
- Building protective factors.
- Crisis response.
An accompanying integration checklist offers action items corresponding to the five areas of readiness.
Associated Builders and Contractors’ Total Human Health Assessment asks employers questions about mental health as well as emotional wellness, social wellness, and community wellness.
3. Make the connection between mental health and safety
According to Kime, employers need to place equal value on mental health and physical safety. “Stigma is a barrier for people who may be struggling so normalizing conversations about mental health is a great way to support people who may be struggling,” she says.
“In construction, a strong, can-do attitude sometimes doesn’t allow people to bend enough to get help,” says Ouimet. “We want them to know they've got someone they can talk to; they've got resources.
Toolbox Talks help get the conversation about mental health started. Resources are available from several organizations including The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB), the Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention, and Associated General Contractors of America.
Associated Builders & Contractors’ Total Human Health Initiative is designed to help members focus and improve the complete health, wellness, and livelihood of their employees. The Total Human Health Initiative encompasses multiple dimensions of health organized within four, simple categories: Body, Heart, Mind, and Soul. Resources include a Toolkit and Assessment.
4. Offer employees training
Training in mental health awareness, suicide prevention, and intervention strategies will provide employees with the tools they need to understand the complexities of mental health issues, reduce the stigma surrounding mental health, and give them confidence in their ability to intervene when necessary.
The Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention has partnered with LivingWorks to offer the 60-90-minute LivingWorks Start online suicide prevention training at no cost. Additional training modules include LivingWorks SafeTALK and Living Works Asist.
Similarly, the Mental Health First Aid at Work training program teaches participants how to notice and support an individual who may be experiencing a mental health or substance use concern or crisis in a work environment and connect them with employee and community resources. OSHA also offers a wealth of resources designed to help senior managers support the mental health of their employees.
5. Help workers assess their mental health
If workers have a way to confidentially assess their own mental health, they can identify areas where support is needed and may be able to avoid a mental health crisis or prevent suicide.
Two screenings are recommended in Kime’s Mental Health Best Practice Guide for Construction, which she wrote for her Master’s Degree thesis. On the CIASP website, you can find a screening built specifically for construction workers that connects employees to a free confidential assessment and resources for taking personal action for mental health.
Another screening tool that targets middle-aged men uses a comedic approach, which can be helpful with individuals who are uncomfortable discussing mental health or vulnerabilities.
6. Promote mental health benefits and resources in the workplace
AGC’s Kime advises construction companies to document their mental health program in writing. “This will communicate to employees the value you place on them and the resources available to help them,” she says.
Kime also suggests employers create a poster or document that shares what EAP and insurance benefits include and how to get help. “Include contact information on the EAP, what to expect on an initial call, and what services the EAP can offer (counseling, referrals to counseling, web resources, and/ or support groups),” she says. “Outline the benefits from the insurance provider on mental health support, how much the copays are, how many visits you are entitled to, and a link or phone number to find providers.”
In the Center for Workplace Health Study of the construction industry, respondent organizations identified the following resources as the most helpful to share with employees:
Supervisor Training 69%
Employee Training 66%
Toolbox Talks 64%
Fact Sheets 51%
Employee Assistance Program 48%
Mental Health Apps 39%
Newsletter Content 36%
Emails on Mental Health 33%
Hardhat Stickers 31%
Wallet Cards 25%
7. Be intentional in the work you pursue
Employers need to recognize how the pressures of tight schedules and a shortage of workers may negatively impact mental health and substance abuse. “We have to put pressure back on project owners that while it may be possible to work compressed schedules to get projects completed, there’s a cost to be paid in terms of safety, mental health, and morale,” says Kime.
According to Ouimet, one of the most difficult challenges for those in the CEO role today is saying no to billions of dollars of opportunities because of the negative impact that additional work would have on employees. “We’re trying to be disciplined to make sure that a project is a win for our people, a win for their families, a win for our clients, and a win for us,” says Ouimet. “You have to be really intentional about the work you pursue and the commitments you make.”
Through increased awareness of mental health and substance abuse issues, an honest assessment of existing programs, and deliberate actions, contractors can build a culture of care within their company. Together, we can make it known that construction is an industry that takes care of its workers.