What the industry with the worst statistics can do to better support its workers in need of help

I am the son of William—a man who battled mental illness and substance abuse for most of his life. I share this not as an admonishment of our health-care system, nor as a plea of sympathy for my family. In full disclosure, my father lived a long life despite his challenges and was the best father he could possibly be.

Still, I recall a time when I was about 15 years old and we had taken my father to the hospital where he proceeded to tell the doctor, my mother and me how he wanted to take his own life. And I wish I could say that was the only time this happened. As I reflect on this encounter, which is still mind-boggling to me, I consider the countless lives that have been lost in situations just like this because there was no one to hear that cry for help.

As you know by now, reader, this is not a piece about preconstruction planning or close-out, but a call to action for all industry professionals to mobilize against the horrible truth that there are people in our field whose cries for help go unheard. 

See the Stigma


 

The construction industry is one of the hardest hit where mental illness and substance abuse are concerned. Consider the facts: Construction work is extremely taxing on the body and takes a physical toll. Additionally, construction is an incredibly stressful business that couples the stigma of addressing mental illness with a largely masculine presence. 

Consider the last time you heard someone say, “Wow, I am really stressed out.” How often is the advice, “Just man up!” and “Don’t be a wimp!” offered? There are many great men and women in the industry, and this is not meant to further segment this problem as strictly a male issue. After all, mental illness and substance abuse are not discriminators. This is simply a commentary on how perceptions further complicate the need for addressing workers’ mental health. 

It is fascinating to realize that, if the need for help came from an individual with heart disease or high cholesterol, the reactions would be drastically different. Physical health issues are tangible and are therefore accepted as deserving of attention and empathy. The stigma of mental illness, however, makes the often-intangible issues of depression or suicidality, for example, more challenging to confront.

As such, the construction industry and the public at large must address this problem head on and no longer build walls but, rather, open windows, letting in the light needed to see this epidemic more clearly.

Know Your Team

Knowing your team is easier if your firm is comprised of 10 or 20 individuals, but what if the teams number 100, 500 or 1,000? Then, it’s far more difficult. This is not to say a president or chief executive officer should have an intimate relationship with every associate, but do the leaders of your firm (e.g., department heads, business unit managers, field leaders) have any idea what drives or motivates their team members?

 

It’s not the job of division managers to act as therapists or psychologists, but individuals who are connected to their teammates are more likely to recognize unusual or aberrant behavior. Sometimes all it takes is a colleague asking, “How are you doing?” to provide the impetus to drive concern. 

Watch for Indicators

The construction industry is, in fact, a world of extremes—extreme risks, dangers and deadlines. This creates a pressure cooker of anxiety. Long hours and stress-filled days are commonplace. Firms manage projects with an eye fixed on cost control and labor deficiencies. As a result, managers, supervisors, craftspeople and estimators all build, while the stress around them weaves into every fiber of the project—especially now, as we allow technology to keep us on the clock 24 hours a day. 

So, how do leaders discern the normal stresses of the job from saturation? If you have ever said, “In my day, I managed 10 projects at a time (uphill, in the snow, etc.),” then stop it. Times are different—they are not better; nor are they worse. The industry has experienced enhancements, as well as new challenges. 

There is a fine line between “normal” and “overworked,” yet so many leaders know what they are doing when they take on “just one more project” with little concern about the effects that extra work will have on the people doing it. Human capital is not disposable, and burning through those assets as if they have a shelf life of 12 to 24 months is a sure indicator that the team is not OK.

Focus on the Positive

The construction industry is a “fixer” business. Contractors fix problems. As rudimentary as it sounds, that is how the business works. As a result, contractors have become very efficient at identifying the things that require fixing. If something is operating correctly, they find something else to fix. Unfortunately, the unintended consequence of this behavior is that businesses generally tend to focus on the negative (what isn’t finished, what needs more work, etc.). 

 

At many firms, positive feedback is the hardest thing to come by. Rather, there is a focus on negative or constructive reinforcement. When was the last time someone in your firm acknowledged an employee for doing something well? Once again, this is not about every person getting a trophy or providing empty platitudes, but offering credit where it is due and because it is right.

Associates in firms tend to muddle around, shell shocked because the last piece of real feedback they received was on some cumbersome annual performance appraisal form, completely devoid of anything meaningful. Best-in-class firms have made it a point to celebrate their associates with greater frequency, which has a correlative effect on mental stability.

When one considers how much time is spent at their job, it is easy to see how mental stability may be negatively influenced by environmental factors. Mental illness and substance abuse were not created by our industry, nor will they be fixed overnight. 

However, the stigma of this plight must be removed so that we, as an industry, can do a better job of fixing it. Let’s not add to the ever-increasing statistics, but rather, be the solution. For William.