The impact of construction culture on employee mental health

workers for mental health story

By Bill Heffernan

Special to Chicago Construction News

Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, mental health problems in the workplace, and the consequences associated with untreated conditions, were significant. However, since the onset of the COVID lockdown, mental health concerns have become a frequent topic of discussion.

Many people have been forced into isolation. For some, this change in lifestyle has been devastating. According to recent reports from public and private agencies, instances of anxiety, depression, alcohol and drug abuse, self-injury, and suicide have increased during the pandemic.

In a typical year, one in five people will experience a diagnosable mental health condition. For many who are confronted with a mental health challenge, this period of distress is managed with support from friends and family.But for those who lack a network of caring friends and relatives, this period can be lonely and difficult.

Quite frankly, almost everyone needs help to get through tough times. Research suggests that those with a mental illness will struggle for as long as ten years before seeking aid or treatment. During this time, the collateral damage to self-esteem, self-image, and interpersonal relationships can be profound.

There are a host of “reasons” for choosing not to get help. The biggest deterrent is the cost, due to uncertainties about insurance, funds, and resources available for care. Many do not know where to find or how to access systems of care.

Still others are affected by the stigma of asking for help. They consciously, or subconsciously, believe that they should be able to address and resolve any difficulty on their own. This burden can be fostered and perpetuated by family, friends, or the community. Also limiting are real concerns about confidentiality and not being sure who will know about when treatment is sought and its impact on the future.

Clearly, these “reasons” are completely rational. Without sufficient knowledge about health insurance or other resources, finding the necessary care is difficult. Reliance upon local organizations or faith-based communities may be too time-consuming. A reliable alternative is an employer-sponsored assistance program (EAP or MAP), which can connect those seeking help with the most proper providers of care.

Mental health conditions and addictions are caused by real-life conditions that impact the brain. Any feelings of shame must be replaced by hope for improvement.  The right intervention, combined with appropriate treatment and, in some cases, the best medication is the formula for a healthy recovery.

In the construction industry, especially, resources are available to stem the high rate of suicide, which is 53 deaths per 100,000 workers. Suicide is now the tenth-leading cause of death in the United States, but the construction trades have the second-highest rate of any profession. The fact that these strong, hard-working employees feel trapped in a world where they do not know how, or where, to turn for help is tragic.

In response, a culture and community of trust must be created to recognize and accept that mental health is a significant part of being a healthy individual. Leaders in business and labor must openly support the benefit of mental health services, just as they do physical health services, which are more apparent and commonplace. Pathways to understandable and affordable care are critical. Proper design of insurance coverage and other support services will facilitate easy access to treatment of mental health illness.

Finally, employers and employees must see and hear one another. It is acceptable to reach out to a co-worker or a friend who is struggling to ask about his/her well-being. Do not be passive when encountering persons or situations where “something is wrong” or “doesn’t seem right” in the workplace. Care enough to get involved and be supportive of those around you. Learn about the resources available to help. Promote their availability to others. Be comfortable talking about health – especially mental health.

Bill Heffernan
Bill Heffernan

Bill Heffernan, ScreenSafe, Inc, will deliver the Keynote Presentation on this very topic during the Construction Expo and Safety Conference on March 3, 2021. For details, visit

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