By Todd Lofgren - Executive Vice President and General Manager, Skanska USA Building
Republished from Construction Executive, November 10, a publication of Associated Builders and Contractors. Copyright 2021. All rights reserved.

Physical safety is a big part of the construction industry culture, primarily because the dangers of the business are well-known and documented. Until recently, however, mental health issues were often overlooked. The COVID-19 pandemic, economic uncertainty and current political climate have brought mental health issues into the spotlight as companies look to keep their workers safe both mentally and physically. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control, construction has the highest suicide rate of all industries and more construction workers die by suicide than by all other occupational injuries combined. Due to perceived social stigma around mental health issues, many individuals suffer in silence rather than seek help from colleagues or professionals.

With the right tools, construction managers can educate and empower workers to address mental health issues head on and build a culture of open communication. 

Normalizing the conversation about mental health empowers individuals to talk about it and seek help. The more it is conveyed to employees that it is “okay to not be okay,” the more people will step forward to have open and honest conversations about their mental health. Companies whose leaders and employees have shared their own personal experiences with mental health or substance abuse or misuse lead by example and ultimately create a more open environment for their workers. 

Fortunately, more company leaders are taking a proactive role in the conversation around mental health. Prior to the pandemic, many companies began to place more emphasis on the mental wellbeing of employees. On a more national scale, politicians, celebrities and athletes have been stressing the importance of mental health awareness now more than ever, including Olympic gymnast Simone Biles, who withdrew from the U.S. team and individual all-around Olympic events, citing the importance of her mental health.

One of Skanska’s core values is Care for Life. In addition to prioritizing physical safety on all jobsites, Skanska also promotes the general health and wellness of everyone on the team to protect employees, subcontractors and communities. As part of this, Skanska creates many opportunities to have much needed conversations about mental health. During Skanska’s Summer Leadership Workshop series, sessions were conducted about being an advocate for mental health. Employees learned how mental health is a fundamental component of wellbeing; and how to be an advocate for their own and others’ mental health.

Managers can also serve an important role in identifying potential mental health issues by conducting informal check ins with members of their team. Skanska has integrated a daily “stretch and flex” huddle to start each day on a job site, combining physical exercise with daily check-ins. Workers have the opportunity to warm up their bodies, while also grounding themselves mentally before the day starts.

Education is another crucial component. Investing in mental health training programs for leaders and managers is key to helping self-care remain a priority in the workplace. Skanska employees enrolled in the company’s health insurance plan have access to a robust resource center of in-network psychologists, psychiatrists, counselors and other additional services that promote mental health.

Construction safety requires workers to be at their best both physically and mentally so they can complete their tasks safely. Despite dramatic advances in awareness, prevention, intervention and treatment, mental health conditions and suicide prevention are still taboo topics of conversation. Continue to remind individuals that it is okay to show concern and have discussions about how people are feeling. If they are struggling, encourage them to seek assistance. Lastly, executives and leaders in the construction industry should consider their influence to make a positive impact on team members and peers inside and outside the organization.