By Andrea MacLean
Special to Ontario Construction News
Ask what the top dangers of construction work are, and you’ll get the same answers almost every time: falls, electrocution, caught-ins and struck-bys. Yet more construction workers die from suicide each year than every other workplace-related fatality combined.
In fact, the construction industry has the highest suicide rate of any profession, and more than 80 per cent of construction workers have experienced stress at work. Working tirelessly throughout the COVID-19 pandemic to support their families and communities has only exacerbated the stress, burnout and mental health struggles for these essential workers.
But there’s a deeper issue: Most individuals struggling with mental health do not seek help or express their feelings to others.
“COVID has hit everyone hard. But as an unappreciated, and sometimes resented, essential service operating throughout the pandemic, the mental health impacts on our team were a bit unique,” said Steve Barkhouse, owner of Ottawa renovation contractor Amsted Design-Build.
“We started seeing signs of stress showing up in ways and to degrees that we hadn’t experienced before,” he said. “Thankfully, a couple of members of our team were brave enough to reach out and bring their challenges to our attention, knowing that we would support them in looking for a solution together.”
“Through my position on the Algonquin College Board of Governors, I was able to connect with Dr. Beck at The Royal and Joanne Snell at Algonquin College. We wanted to provide support, leadership and empathy while offering tools, strategies, education and understanding to our team and the industry. The collaboration and mental health support programming that we were able to create from there blew us away and has already had a tremendous impact.”
In the male-dominated world of construction—where mental health discussions are rare—it’s critical for employers to cultivate a workplace environment in which workers feel supported and comfortable discussing mental health issues. Providing support and the right resources can help shift the industry’s outdated mindset around mental well-being.
How to support your workers’ mental health
“People really need people and men particularly need special consideration when it comes to supporting their mental health,” says Dr. Raj Bhatla, the chief of staff with The Royal and mental health advisor to the Amsted mental health initiative. “One in 10 men experience major depression in their lifetime and it can manifest in different ways. We need to offer hope and help in a variety of ways. This initiative is a great opportunity to start those important conversations.”
Provide tools for outside the workplace
“For many years, Algonquin has had close ties with both the construction industry in Ottawa and The Royal,” said Joanne Snell, senior learning consultant with Algonquin College Corporate Training.
“When Amsted president, Steve Barkhouse, reached out to us for ideas on how to help construction workers deal with COVID-related mental health stresses, a video featuring personal commentaries from construction workers and mental healthcare specialists, accompanied by a one-day Mental Health Toolbox Workshop for Amsted employees and take-away reference materials seemed like a natural fit – especially as first-rate advice, information, and workshop speakers would be available from The Royal.
“And, as it happened, support to cover the costs of program development was available at the time through the SkillsAdvance Ontario program.
“This turned out to be a truly collaborative effort drawing on the partner organizations’ deep talent pools. Everything aligned beautifully,” Snell said.
Your main priority should be the safety of your workers, mental health included. Stigmas about mental health have prevented many people, especially men, from seeking the help they need. In the construction industry, redefining gender norms and cultural expectations can help normalize mental health discussions, reduce suicide rates and encourage men—and women—to speak up about their struggles.
Mental health matters
“We received an immediate outpouring of gratitude from our team following the screening of this video and workshop,” Barkhouse said. “They felt safe, not alone, heard, understood, and relieved. They noted that they learned a lot, and were able to make plans and use the tools provided. That it was supportive and they felt encouraged to talk about mental health and to be vulnerable.”
Barkhouse believes that “we have the opportunity, but really, the obligation, to begin to shift the perception surrounding mental health in construction. Anyone can benefit from the tools, strategies and techniques presented here. And in turn, create a ripple effect through our industry, positively impacting the lives of the individuals and their families, encouraging the incoming labour force, and strengthening the companies willing to invest in the mental well-being of their teams.”
The writer is vice-president, integrated marketing, communication and impact, for The Royal Hospital Foundation in Ottawa.