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Constructing conversations: mental health

Updated: Jun 24, 2022

The Builder Project’s Constructing Conversations series aims to promote dialogue throughout the industry, across trades and companies, on topics that affect us all.


As Mental Health Awareness Month comes to a close, we surveyed select participants about their experiences with and opinions on the state of mental health in construction. In an effort to ease conversation around this highly stigmatized topic, we posed a series of questions. Each respondent is a seasoned veteran in the industry with decades of experience. Through their voices, we hope to shine a light on the current state of mental health in the construction industry.


Colin Whyte, former project manager and current vice president of operations for a small general contracting firm


Please share a personal experience or that of someone you know who has had mental health issues related to the construction industry.


It was a typical NYC fast paced project, design-build format, a city medical facility upgrading a previously abandoned building with completely new MEP Services, relocating the building entrance including elevators/stairwells etc. along with some technical imaging rooms, exam rooms, and support offices. Basically, a nine-month minimum project the customer wanted done in six months. Needless to say, seven days a week, long days for months, a bad diet, etc. resulting in a very stressful period that manifested itself when I almost crashed the car, driving home after another long day, with crippling stomach pain. Turned out to be a kidney stone. The point being, if you are not taking care of yourself, physically and mentally, it leaves the potential there to make bad decisions and choices out of what appears to you to be necessity. Those decisions, like in my case, can lead to other health issues. I believe these compounding factors also greatly increase alcohol and drug dependence in our industry.


What is your current company doing to help with mental health?


Unfortunately, our company does not have a definitive mental health policy or procedure in place that focuses solely on mental health. However, we do try to create a good working environment, encourage people that it’s okay to talk openly about any problems and try to help. We have an open-door policy from the owner on down where any employee can be sure to be received compassionately. We are currently scheduling a summer get-together to promote a work-life balance and initiate some team bonding. The next step for us is for us to develop a mental health policy to encourage a culture of openness. Investing in our team’s mental health is investing in our business.


What do you think the industry should collectively do to reduce the number of suicides?


Awareness is key, I believe introducing mental health topics, as toolbox talks, while talking about general site safety, will at least open a door to this issue. Historically, the majority-male population and “man up” lessons learned from society at an early age create a stigma that can only be broken by bringing the issue into focus.


Brian Davis, architect and owner’s rep


Please share a personal experience or that of someone you know who has had mental health issues related to the construction industry.


As Owners Representative, I have had specific and personal conversations about mental health on our construction sites. In one such conversation, one of my most effective project managers openly admitted his own apprehensions about his ability to manage his stress levels on the job site, in the trailer, and at home. The amount of responsibility and, more importantly to him, the number of people relying on his ability to make things happen apply weighty pressure daily. The more the company is recognized for excellence in delivery, the more pressure to perform expands, further exacerbated by the individuals’ desire to please the huge number of others influenced by their success (or failure). This company recognizes that their industry has a certain tough-guy/woman culture in which it is difficult to reveal signs of mental struggles, and many expend a great deal of energy concealing anxieties.


What is your current company doing to help with mental health?


Over the years, the company management has dedicated countless hours dedicated to job-site safety training but little time focusing on mental safety. More recently aware of the growth in industry-wide mental health decline, company executives, via video, identified to all team members that in 2018 there were nearly 1,000 deaths due to construction safety conditions but nearly 5,500 suicides among the national construction ranks. They realized that step one was to spread awareness of the situation and the alarming extent to which this decline has invaded the industry.


What do you think the industry should collectively do to reduce the number of suicides?


To stem the tide of this increasing problem, the company is initially advancing three approaches:

  1. Training team members to be aware of their own stress levels or mental anxieties and recognize the difference between the normal stresses associated with day-to-day construction activities and deeper conditions that can erode one’s mental state or spiral toward debilitation. Group lunch discussions are encouraged and planned; after work gatherings are further encouraged.

  2. The executive team also reinforces the “family” nature of the company, including their subs, some of whom have been working together for years. They make it very clear that the company has qualified resources available for any of their members, and they should readily seek out their assistance at the first sign of things possibly going awry...with absolutely no consequences or judgment.

  3. The firm management also recommends the reduction of on-site media news and social feeds which often ferment inflammatory environments, negative speech, and conflict among those with diverse backgrounds and views.


Chris Wilcox, site superintendent for a general contracting firm


Please share a personal experience or that of someone you know who has had mental health issues related to the construction industry.


Construction is inherently stressful. Not only to the management team, which is ultimately responsible for delivering the project safely, on schedule, and within budget, but also to the craft workers putting work in place. As managers, we are constantly up against deadlines, difficult logistics, personnel conflicts, design, coordination, and logistical problems, dealing with an array of personalities, from well-educated owners and consultants to folks who may not have graduated high school. Can it be stressful and cause mental health issues? Absolutely! I have been a project superintendent my entire adult and professional life. I’ve built high rises, casinos, resorts, and everything in between. I’ve experienced a fatality, a heart attack, drug and alcohol abuse, and an array of other health and wellbeing issues. Through the years I have learned a few things to help me with stress: keep things in perspective (it’s only a job), stay calm and in control of the situation, don’t worry about things we have no control over, treat everyone with the same respect (you’ll get it back), make sure the team takes some time to have some laughs during the day, and lastly, have a healthy outlet after work.


One story in particular comes to mind. Jimmy was a very talented mason and the foreman on this particular project. We were building an ornate student center for an elite university with lots of brownstone and granite. Jimmy was doing layout and fitting the stone beautifully until one day I started to see some errors, and when I approached Jimmy about them, he flew off the handle. Then I started to smell alcohol on his breath, and I was deeply troubled. Without the support from my office, I approached Jimmy one day. We chatted in my office. I told him it had to stop, or I would have no choice but to fire him. He said okay, left my office, and went home. The next day he came into my office and thanked me. He finished the project, it came out beautiful, and we went our separate ways. Until about 15 years later, and we bumped into each other again…he’s still sober.


What is your current company doing to help with mental health?


Without asking our HR folks about available help beyond insurance, I don’t have a good answer to this one.


What do you think the industry should collectively do to reduce the number of suicides?


First, it’s all about awareness!! Hotlines should be readily available, and we need to remove the tough-guy image of the construction worker and industry. Companies and OSHA could take a bigger role with education, awareness, and training through the use of toolbox talk topics and social media.

 

If you know someone in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text the Crisis Text Line (text HELLO to 741741). Both services are free and available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. All calls are confidential.


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