Mental Health and Safety: Be Present, Be Focused, Be Safe
Although mental health awareness is at an all-time high, it continues to be referred to as “the silent epidemic” within the construction industry. And while this is certainly concerning from an employee health and wellness perspective, it is also inextricably tied to safety on the jobsite. Here, Structure Tone Dublin environmental health and safety director Fiona O’Reilly explains the deep connections between mental health and safety and how she and the STOBG Mental Health & Well-Being Committee have raised awareness and taken action to prioritize mental health.
Why is mental health awareness particularly important in the construction industry?
Unfortunately, the construction industry across the United States, Canada, Ireland, and the UK experience exceptionally high rates of mental health conditions, alcohol and substance abuse, and suicide. The rate of suicide in construction is 3.5-4 times higher than the rate in the general US population. More workers die of suicide than in all other occupational injuries combined. What’s more, the pandemic has been shown to increase emotional stress, anxiety, and financial pressures on the workforce and their families in all industries.
You’re a construction safety professional. What drove you to get involved in raising the awareness of mental health support in our industry?
Organizations in the construction industry recognize the value of making mental health more visible and sharing resources. This serves to educate workers about mental health, reduces stigma, and show an organizational commitment to worker mental health and well-being.
It’s also so closely tied to safety. If people are distracted with stress, anxiety, substance misuse, financial pressure, family issues, etc., they are not safe on the job. Distraction and lack of focus can lead to additional safety violations and injuries. One needs to be present physically and mentally to be safe. As we like to say, “Be Present. Be Focused. Be Safe.”
Engagement is a major factor; we encourage open communication and cooperation. As outlined in our Safety 360⁰ training, simple things like adding your name to the front of your hard hat encourages open dialogue. Members of our senior management team regularly walk our jobsites, which is a fantastic way to bring an experienced, fresh perspective, highlighting potential issues in a non-adversarial manner. To listen and understand a situation or development not only helps to eliminate and reduce the risk to the individual, but also allows the individual to be heard.
Have you seen any change in behavior when it comes to mental health over your career?
I have. Coworkers and supervisors are not as afraid to ask a friend or colleague if they are ok when they suspect something is not right. It can be a relief for them to talk about it. The stigma is being removed. People are talking about issues that used to be kept quiet. It’s important to note that there are trained, experienced, professional medical personnel available through our EAP programme and public helplines in the US through the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, the Samaritans in Ireland, and the UK and other regional help services. It’s okay not to be okay. Talking to someone helps—whether that’s a friend, family member, or healthcare professional.
Another key aspect of Safety 360⁰ is to ensure personnel are fully engaged with the task at hand—are they focused on their task or are they distracted about other issues? A lack of focus can impact safety and ultimately could result in an accident to an individual or others in the vicinity.
In the Dublin office, some of our wellness initiatives include:
- Fresh Air Fridays. Once a month we arrange a brisk walk around our nearby park, Merrion Square, followed by a light refreshment. This is great way to meet up with colleagues and have a conversation outside of the working environment.
- Family Challenges. We established fun family challenges during the pandemic. The Irish government had closed all construction activities for several weeks as well as imposed a 3-mile limit on travel and restrictions on retail, coffee shops, restaurants, etc. Our Dublin office wanted to ensure we maintained engagement between staff during this lockdown period. Through our weekly ‘All Hands Call’ led by our senior management team, we decided to set up these family challenges. They proved to be a huge success with over 30 families competing for the bragging rights. We set a goal for each family to achieve a distance of 31 miles—not only did each family achieve this, but they doubled it!! Each family was encouraged to post their videos and pictures initially on our Family Challenge group sharing platform. It was a great incentive to stay active, get fresh air, and maintain engagement during this isolating time.
- The Four Peak Challenge. This event consisted of some Dublin staff completing a grueling race against time to climb the highest peak in each province in Ireland within a 24-hour period. This fantastic achievement was made even better by raising over €57,000 for St. Francis Hospice.
- Take the Plunge. Brave souls embraced the icy cold waters of the Irish Sea last December, once again to promote and highlight wellness in our Dublin office.
- Employee Assistance Programme (EAP). We utilize our EAP through wellness bulletin emails, highlighting challenges, mental health and well-being topics, helplines, and general information.