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DeShon Leek DeShon Leek COURTESY PHOTO

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

BY Danneisha McDole Saturday, September 24, 2022 06:21pm

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 Building and Construction Trades Council, has seen many cases of workers who struggle with mental health issues, even during boom times like the industry is currently experiencing. 

“I do believe that it is the competitive nature, high pressure working environments, alcohol and substance abuse, end of the season layoffs, separation from families, physical exhaustion due to hard labor, and the long working hours that takes a toll on the construction workers,” Leek told MiBiz.

He recounts the story of his high school friend of 32 years who wrestled with mental health issues. The man was employed in the trades, had a wife and three children and a dog, and owned a house. 

“Everything seemed perfect,” Leek said.

But personal issues at home eventually led to the friend going through a divorce, losing his family and home.

“My best friend moved in with his father and his father came home from work, found him passed away on the basement steps from an overdose,” he said.

Leek’s friend became a tragic statistic that’s unfortunately too common within 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.

To Leek, the issue stems “all the way back to mental health awareness.” 

“A lot of construction workers are reluctant to discuss mental health and it’s because they feel ashamed or fear being judged by their peers and the negative job consequences. Some just don’t know how to get the proper access for help,” he 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’s been playing out in the industry. They gathered earlier this month in Lansing to mark Construction Suicide Prevention Week and highlight a range of efforts to support mental health awareness in the workplace. 

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

“When we looked at the data during our workplace mental health work group this spring, it’s really striking how far out of line, so to speak, that construction is compared with other industries,” Egan said, also citing the sector’s high concentration of male workers. 

“You’re looking at 90-plus percent of workers being male and probably 85 percent of those being White males, and that’s a population that’s 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 become more supportive of people dealing with mental health challenges. 

“We’re trying to … not only attack the stigma certainly among the management and employer ranks, but with the worker ranks to recognize that it’s OK to not be OK,” he said. 

While some may attribute the issue as a side effect of the currently busy pace of the construction sector, Egan said the data show the suicide rates have been rising “since the early 2000s to middle 2000s, and it just continues climb in this particular industry.” 

As well, the data also demonstrate that employers need to take steps to support their employees’ mental health. 

“Employers have a strong role to play. That’s where we spend most of our time when we’re awake as adults and that’s a great intervention point and a great place to be more supportive,” Egan said. 

Warning signs, prevention tips

Evonne Edwards, PhD, licensed clinical psychologist, outpatient and recovery services clinical director at Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services, said workers experiencing mental challenges can display various warning signs. 

“Some of those key warning signs that we look for is suicidal threats and statements,” Edwards said.

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

“Almost 20 percent — or one and five — employees in the construction industry report heavy alcohol use in the last month and about 12 percent report using drugs in the past month,” she said. “Those are concerning themselves, but also huge risk factors for suicide. Especially if you see that increasing and combining with other risk factors, that becomes a warning sign.”

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 recuperation or providing financial coaching or planning.

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

Edwards added that communicating with friends and family during underemployment periods can help promote self-worth 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 anymore or have you been thinking about wanting to kill yourself?’ she said.“Create an opportunity where they could admit that without it being seen as a negative thing and continuing that conversation and then staying 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, Persuade, Refer (QPR) gatekeeper training teaches employers, workers, and team leaders how to ask the correct questions while also learning more about the warning signals and what they can do to help overall.

“There’s lots of different options out there, Pine Rest has done lots of work with all sorts of different industries, including resources to help with some of those balancing financial stressors and things as well as direct mental health care,” she said.

Speaking during Construction Suicide Prevention Week, Leek also highlighted warning indicators that employers should be on the lookout for in their employees. 

Leek’s top three warning indicators include reductions in workers’ job productivity as well as a rise in any conflicts among coworkers.

Overall, though, Leek sees great value in keeping up communication.

“You want them to be able to talk about it —don’t suffer in silence,” he said.

Additional resources for employers to promote workplace mental health may be found here:

  • Suicide Crisis Lines: Text “HELLO” to 741741
  • National Suicide & Crisis Lifeline: 988
  • Benice by the Mental Health Foundation of West Michigan: A mental health and suicide prevention program for business that can be helpful tool for improving workplace culture, improving employee engagement, and support suicide prevention efforts.    https://www.benice.org/our-programs/business
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