Connecting Safety and Emotional Wellness in Construction
- May 9, 2023
A two-part interview on mental wellness with Cal Beyer
May is Mental Health Awareness Month, making it the ideal time to discuss the topic. We at The Beck Group have openly discussed mental wellbeing for many years and continue our commitment to mental health with this insightful interview with Cal Beyer.
Cal is a long-time advocate for mental health in construction. He recently spoke to Elizabeth Haynie, our Health & Wellness Benefits Manager, about our industry’s connection between safety and emotional wellness. Keep reading for insights from their conversation.
Part I – Mental Health is a Construction Safety Issue
How does mental health relate to safety in construction?
The connection between safety and mental health is real. The issues we face in our personal lives follow us to work just as work stressors come home at the end of a shift.
If left unresolved, these pressures lead to stress, sleep disruptions, and self-medication by workers seeking to cope. Workers who are stressed, tired or impaired may lose focus on concentrating, resulting in project disruptions like injuries or even fatalities.
Your presentations range from “Shining Light on Mental Health and Suicide Prevention” to “Straight Talk About Substance Misuse.” Explain why construction needs to address these topics.
Remember when we did not discuss mental health in the workplace? It was the “elephant in the room” in corporate offices and jobsites. However, data shows some compelling reasons why it is important:
- Construction workers have been hit hard by the opioid crisis, with prescription rates two times higher than other industries.
- Construction ranks high for the percentage of workers affected by substance misuse. The National Safety Council reports that 19% of construction workers have a substance use disorder.
- Construction has the second highest rate of suicide among all major occupations.
It takes courage to talk about workplace mental health because when we talk about it, people can get help. Companies who care recognize that people are their number one asset. By caring for their people, they become an employer of choice and provide a sustainable competitive advantage.
Can you explain how you integrated mental health into safety?
After Hurricane Katrina, I vowed to make mental health the next frontier in safety. I went to work for a contractor to teach how to weave mental health into a safety, health, and wellness culture.
We expanded the emphasis on health and wellness with physical safety. Safety became a team sport. We talked about how everyone has mental health and that it is a sign of strength to offer others help or to seek and accept help. We educated, equipped, and empowered employees to take responsibility for their and their families’ wellbeing.
The turning point was reframing Safety 24/7. It went from ensuring workers made it home safely at the shift’s end to getting workers back to work because many were struggling in silence at home.
We found ways to reach workers experiencing challenges ranging from family or relational issues, caregiving responsibilities, and financial pressures to grief, anxiety, depression, or substance misuse.
What are common issues you see in construction around mental health?
Construction is physically and mentally challenging. Schedules have worsened with labor shortages and supply chain issues. With worker shortages, scheduled and unscheduled overtime has increased.
Meanwhile, families are experiencing higher stress, especially those with children and caregiving responsibilities for other family members. They also report rising financial stress from inflationary prices for groceries, gas, and utilities.
Workers in construction and other “tough guy and gal” cultures didn’t discuss these pressures. We bottled it up instead of learning to express our feelings or seek help. We continued to “play through the pain.” Without a pressure relief valve, some of us experience blow-ups.
By making mental health a workplace safety, health and wellbeing topic, companies can provide workers and families with a safety net and resources.
How is the industry promoting awareness and support for mental health? Is it getting better?
I’m proud to see the industry embrace mental health. For a decade, publications have helped reduce stigma and share resources. The Associated Builders and Contractors, the Associated General Contractors of America, and trade-specific associations now share resources and have added topics to annual conventions and chapter meetings for 5-6 years.
National Construction Safety Week has addressed workplace mental health for the past three years through separate but interrelated themes. I was co-chair for the first two annual Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Summits. This March, there were 65 sponsors and over 400 attendees.
Momentum has shifted, and mental health is becoming mainstream in construction culture.
The second part of Cal’s and Elizabeth’s conversation will publish on May 23.