Psychological First Aid: How to bolster mental health in the workplace

It is estimated that one in five people in the United States suffer from some mental illness. Given the current world climate and global pandemic, mental anguish is at an all-time high. Therefore, being aware of and managing mental health and wellness in the workforce is more important than ever.

Construction industry workers are at higher risk for experiencing mental health problems because they tend to put in long hours and are commonly seasonal employees. Plus, being unemployed for long periods of time can be discouraging, adversely impact self-esteem and result in physical and mental health problems. Repetitive-use strain and injuries can affect physical and mental health.

Mental health problems can also be brought on by work-related stress. Common workplace issues that contribute to negative mental health include stigma and discrimination, effort-and-reward relationships, job burnout, harassment, violence, bullying, mobbing and substance abuse.

Employees required to work from home or in a reduced capacity as a result of the COVID-19 lockdown are forced to deal with stresses they never have before. They may have to deal with the added pressure of family members getting sick, losing their jobs and helping their children with online school. This can intensify existing mental health conditions or cause them to deteriorate.

As a result, it is important for employers to have a support system in place and to regularly check on employees. Employers should encourage individuals struggling with their mental health to talk to someone such as a psychiatrist or counselor.

Symptoms

Some common outward signs that someone is struggling with their mental health include unkempt appearance; mood swings and erratic behavior; becoming easily irritated, frustrated, or angered; taking a lot of time off; changes in eating or sleeping habits; and unnecessary fear or anxiety. Other symptoms include decreased productivity; withdrawal from social settings; and abuse of drugs, alcohol or other vices.

In the event that a worker decides to seek counseling, employers should be flexible with scheduling to allow them to attend appointments during workdays. Most mental health professionals are only available during normal business hours, which can make therapy difficult to fit into the schedule of a construction worker. Employers can provide assistance programs or offer on-site counseling as an alternative.

Employers should communicate openly about mental health and avoid stigmatizing the issue. Workers need a safe environment where they can share their concerns and feelings pertaining to their mental well-being.

Additionally, employers can make other mental health tools available. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s “Mental Health in the Workplace” guide, employers can:

  • Offer free or subsidized clinical screenings for depression from a qualified mental health professional, followed by directed feedback and clinical referral when appropriate.
  • Offer health insurance with no or low out-of-pocket costs for depression medications and mental health counseling.
  • Provide free or subsidized lifestyle coaching, counseling or self-management programs.
  • Distribute materials, such as brochures, flyers and videos, to all employees about the signs and symptoms of poor mental health and opportunities for treatment.
  • Host seminars or workshops that address depression and stress management techniques, like mindfulness, breathing exercises and meditation, to help employees reduce anxiety and stress and improve focus and motivation.
  • Create and maintain dedicated quiet spaces for relaxation activities.
  • Provide managers with training to help them recognize the signs and symptoms of stress and depression in team members and encourage them to seek help from qualified mental health professionals.
  • Give employees opportunities to participate in decisions about issues that affect job stress.

Finally, for all the reasons that mental health problems run higher in the construction industry, so does suicide. Construction has the highest suicide rate of any industry. When mental health is not managed properly, the consequences can be dire. We all have to promote positive mental health and manage problems as they arise before they become unmanageable and result in someone taking their own life.

When mental health is effectively managed, it leads to reduced absenteeism, employee turnover, grievances, health costs, medical leave, lost work time and workplace injuries and accidents.

About the Author

Tom O'Connor

Safety Columnist

Tom O'Connor is safety and regulatory affairs manager for Intec, a safety consulting, training and publishing firm that offers on-site assistance and produces manuals, training videos and software for contractors. Reach him at toconnor@intecweb.com.

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