A holistic approach to health and safety

A holistic approach to health and safety

Improving Mental Health on the Job Site

Meet the woman who is changing the conversation about mental health in construction.

The construction industry is tough. And it attracts tough people – strong, stoic, get-it-done-at-all-costs kind of people. They power through the long days and physically demanding work to build the places we live, work and play.

But sometimes being tough can make it hard to ask for help.  And that can have negative consequences.  Michelle Walker, VP of Finance for Phoenix’s SSC Underground, grew up in a Canadian blue-collar oil town and experienced it firsthand.

 “When I was in high school, my dad’s best friend died by suicide,” Michelle recalls.

She vividly remembers how the stigma of mental illness and suicide made it difficult for her family and the community to process the tragedy.

“Everyone in town knew what had happened, yet no one could bring themselves to talk about the way he died,” she explained. “I saw how it made it difficult for my dad to grieve.” 

Tackling the Issue Head On

The issue came full circle 25 years later at a Construction Finance Management Association (CFMA) conference, when a colleague raised concerns about the prevalence of suicide and mental illness in the industry. At the time the evidence was anecdotal, but it triggered memories for Michelle.

“I think the hook that got me involved from the beginning was when the risk management professional described the stigma around mental health issues,” Michelle recalled. “People were experiencing mental health conditions and were fearful of seeking treatment because of the impact on their career,” 

"People were experiencing mental health conditions and were fearful of seeking treatment because of the impact on their career.”

Shortly after, a 2016 Centers for Disease Control (CDC) study confirmed her fears: the construction industry, along with mining, quarry and oil, had the highest rate and overall number of suicides across all occupations.

That revelation prompted Michelle and her colleagues to create the Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention (CIASP).

Changing the Narrative

Michelle (as acting chairman) and CIASP members work directly with industry associations, contractors, unions and partners to make mental health issues and suicide prevention an integral part of safety programs. 

One of their main goals is to remove the longstanding stigma and fear that prevents workers from getting treatment. “We need to equate mental health with physical health,” she says. “I envision an industry where a worker will feel just as safe saying, ‘I’m having trouble,’ as does a worker in Arizona in getting a spot on the arm checked for skin cancer.”

“I envision an industry where a worker will feel just as safe saying, ‘I’m having trouble,’ as does a worker in Arizona in getting a spot on the arm checked for skin cancer.”

Part of removing that stigma includes changing the words we use. Michelle explained that saying someone  “committed suicide” or “are depressed or anxious” creates a sense of judgement and labels the person versus describing the condition they are experiencing. Instead, she suggests saying things like “a person is experiencing depression, living with anxiety or died by suicide.”

Human Resources departments can also make a difference by consistently including mental health in company benefits and safety processes.  At SSC Underground, these topics are addressed regularly in company meetings, and behavioral health options are included in annual benefits enrollment.

“Because the construction industry is safety conscious and already has vehicles in place where leaders can discuss mental health and suicide, it has helped to expand the engagement and awareness,” Michelle says.

Making an Impact

Michelle’s greatest satisfaction is the impact that these practices can have on employees’ lives. One example of that, she said, was a long-time employee who suddenly started calling in sick a lot and behaving inappropriately. Rather than terminating the worker, he was given a second chance and help to find a counselor. After six weeks, he completed counseling and remains an employee to this day, thankful for what he learned and the improvement he made through counseling.

You can hear more from Michelle on this important topic in our webinar on mental health issues on the jobsite. Thank you Michelle for making a big impact on our industry.

Employers can find mental health and suicide prevention resources from the Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention at https://preventconstructionsuicide.com/.

Michelle Walker headshot
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Michelle Walker helped found the Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention (CIASP). Her mission is to change the conversation about mental health and reduce suicide deaths in the construction industry.

Michelle Walker in front of SSC truck
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Michelle’s day job is the VP of Finance for SSC Underground in Phoenix AZ. SSC Underground has made mental health an integral part of their overall safety program. Leaders are trained to recognize warning signs and have “are you ok?” converations with employees that may be struggling. The company has been able to help several employees as a result of their focus on mental health.

Michelle Walker giving presentation
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Michelle is the Chairman of the Board for CAISP and works directly with industry associations, contractors, unions and partners to make mental health issues and suicide prevention an integral part of safety programs.

Michelle Walker headshot
Michelle Walker in front of SSC truck
Michelle Walker giving presentation

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