The construction industry is tough by nature. Long hours, difficult manual labor, razor thin margins, and competitive markets make for an industry filled with pressure. These factors, along with social, political, and environmental factors make mental health and wellbeing a critical issue in the construction industry today. Historically, though, this hasn’t always been an issue at the forefront of people’s priorities. Often there has been a “don’t ask, don’t tell” mentality. But sometimes, the first step to solving a problem is simply starting the conversation.
The Briq team sat down with our friend Cal Beyer, VP of Workforce Risk and Worker Wellbeing at CSDZ, to discuss the integral role of mental health and wellbeing in regard to the overall safety of construction employees. We also list resources people can access for get help, or to get involved, as well as insight into why construction is such a high risk industry for suicide, and how Cal thinks technology may be able to help.
Let’s dig in.
Cal, give us a quick overview of your background and what led you to become involved in mental health & wellbeing initiatives?
“I've had an eclectic career. I worked in healthcare through high school and college and I knew I had a caregiver spirit. But I worried about my own mental health and wellbeing. I didn't have the confidence to be a doctor. I just had this nagging doubt. Was I good enough? Was I smart enough? I also knew that I was a perfectionist and workaholic. I think that's where it began for me.
The first time I was confronted with suicide was when my mother helped a family member after her son died by suicide. There was a lot of blame in the family and finger pointing. My mom led with compassion. She was a bridgemaker and a peacemaker. What I learned was you never judge. You never know what someone else is going through. As a teenager that was powerful.
When I was in healthcare, the one pain we couldn’t get rid of was the sting of suicide. People were puzzled. I knew I needed to do something, without even knowing there was a position called “safety.” So I became a safety, risk professional, and expanded into occupational health and wellness. I’ve always tried to connect dots and see things before other people. I wanted to figure out how we could shift the culture, and take advantage of these cultural trends, and with that, become a communicator and a storyteller. I think I've been able to bring soft skills to a hard skilled industry.”
Soft skills for a hard-skilled industry. That sums up you and your work perfectly. We love our contractors, and we love that they can be rough around the edges. But that's also what’s so refreshing and important about your work.
“Well you’re going to make me cry. The cool thing is when you’re talking about our industry right now, we don’t demand the business case like we used to. What's the benefit? What's the ROI? No one says that about someone's life.
So ultimately, my goal was to bake mental health and suicide prevention into safety and risk culture. My first path was occupational health and wellness, then in 2014 I began to work for a contractor.”
The parallels between the medical industry and how that has related to your work in construction is so interesting. Tell us a little bit about the specific factors that make construction such a high-risk industry in terms of mental health.
“For many years this was a taboo topic. We were not allowed to talk about it in the workplace. Some of that is our industry. Tough guy, tough gal culture. That's typical with any male-dominated industry. But often your greatest strength is your greatest weakness. It’s really hard to change multigenerational culture, but the younger generation is more open to talking about mental health.
Another factor is that there's a lot of musculoskeletal injuries which lead to chronic pain. These chronic issues make it easy to reach for a bottle, or for doctors to prescribe opioids. Substance misuse is common.
But more than that, it's an exhausting industry. How many other industries start at 6 or 7 am? You miss your family in the morning, and you have overtime so you miss them at night. Your family is the most important thing to you, so it can definitely create loneliness and isolation.
It’s also not easy to get acceptance on a job site. Many employees can feel humiliated or put down if a project isn't going well or the business considers it a “failure.” People take pride in what they build. Even in companies where it’s a good respectful workplace, people know what projects are “winners” and “losers,” and the people who work on those projects feel a sense of pride or sometimes shame depending on how the project is viewed by leadership.
So really, here’s how I boil it down. There's industry factors, company factors, job tasks/ environmental issues, and personal factors.”
So there’s obviously a ton of factors that go into mental health risk and overall wellbeing. We know construction is often heavily dependent on the seasons. Are there seasonal or geographic factors in regards to mental health?
“Yes geographically, there is some evidence. Altitude can be a factor, seasonal affective disorder has been listed as a factor. I think that’s a little less predictable though. For me, I try to talk about things we can control. And not all suicides are related to mental health, some are coping skills, some reasons are financial.
There are seasonal layoffs, end of project layoffs, and these things create a lot of financial stress. I know a lot of young professionals who are scared to ask for help, but if we teach people coping skills, maybe they can seek help.”
So this brings us to the next question: Is there anything that you think data analytics or technology can do to predict risk factors or even detect risky situations?
“Man, I have got to think yes. I haven't had enough time to collaborate and research on that. Right now, you know how siloed data is within companies and especially in this industry. One challenge is a lot of our information is private and confidential. But if you can get creative and separate or aggregate the data, I think there's several pathways. I don't know about predictions, but you can definitely use it diagnostically. I think we can use data to diagnose and identify certain pressure points and challenges, and then address appropriate interventions. Whether it can be predictive remains to be seen. It would be hard because there are so many different individual factors and variables, but clearly I think there are some real paths to being able to leverage technology.”
So, Cal, how can people or companies in the industry get involved in mental health or safety and wellbeing initiatives?
“I love that question. This is a personal issue and a family issue. But we want to make this information available to every stakeholder in construction. Embrace this. Put the number for the National Suicide Crisis Lifeline in your phones. Send it to your family. Send it to your kids especially. This is a really sensitive time. Let people know they are not alone.
For an employer, do the same. Normalize the conversation to reduce stigma. If people talk about these topics, people can get help. When we normalize this, and tell people it's okay to not be okay, people will step forward. The companies that have allowed their leaders and employees to share lived experience with mental health or substance misuse or suicide survival, those peer groups come together and they show trust. They show support, and they start to help each other solve problems. But we can't get to peer-to-peer support until we have more companies willing to take those first steps. It takes a unified leadership approach. CEO’s need to mobilize a team of leaders to talk about it internally. Ask yourselves if you’ve done enough. Can you do more?
When that employee feels supported and knows there's a safety net, they are more apt to take advantage of these services. Employee assistance programs get a bad reputation, but they're really good people, and they can offer help. It just takes an aggressive promotion to understand who is available and the frequency of those services. I wish labor unions, like employers, would better promote EAP’s.”
And finally will you tell us a bit about the Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention (CIASP)?
“Of course. It was founded in 2016 to support the mental health and wellbeing efforts that we were leading within CFMA to promote throughout the industry. There are a lot of resources available. It became a non-profit in 2018, and has its own board of trustees and governance system. But what's powerful is things like the posters in English and Spanish, gender and racial diversity (not as much as we would like, but we are getting there), tool box talks, white papers, and even case studies. It’s a repository for resources. I would say there's also a few chapters of other associations that are personalizing the CIASP. That’s a cool thing. It’s been powerful.”
Thank you, Cal!
The Briq team would like to thank Cal Beyer for his expert insight on this topic. His work has been extremely important for our friends in the construction industry, and we are grateful to him for having these conversations and leading these initiatives surrounding mental health and wellbeing.
Needing help makes us human. We’ve included some resources below for anyone who may be struggling or who wants to get involved.
The Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention (CIASP) is raising awareness about the risk of suicide within the construction industry and providing suicide prevention resources and tools to create a zero-suicide industry. Visit the Get Informed and Resources tabs to learn more and take steps to StandUp for suicide prevention.
The National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention (Action Alliance) is the nation’s public-private partnership for suicide prevention. The Action Alliance works with more than 250 national partners to advance the National Strategy for Suicide Prevention. Current priority areas include: transforming health systems, transforming communities, and changing the conversation.
The Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals. You can also call (800)-273-8255 any time day or night to talk with a counselor.
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