Doubling Down ... how you can help your workers thrive during and after COVID-19

Chris Alderson is CEO of CHASNZ and Chair of Mates in Construction NZ

Research into the role of work on a person's mental health has long shown that there is a strong relationship between the workplace and mental health. Work provides us with a sense of purpose, reinforces our role within society and generates opportunities for growth and development that keep us engaged and "gets us out of bed in the morning!"

For the construction industry, workers relationship with work was interrupted for over a month when New Zealand went into Alert Level 4 lock down last March. Although most construction activity has now resumed under level 3, 2 and soon 1, there is still the longer term impact of this event on construction businesses that has the potential for significantly decreasing the mental health of workers within the industry.

Already we are starting to see the effect of this on our support services both at a national level and through the increased demand for services such as Mates in Construction.

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The things about construction work that improve or impair our mental health haven't changed because of COVID-19.

Simply put, there are good things that we need to do more of, and negative elements that we should remove - and now is a time to redouble our efforts because of the increased level of pressure, uncertainty and economic hardship that will impact people in our industry.

In this article, I will discuss some of the high level work factors that business owners and managers should be aware of and how they may relate to the coming months and years. There are practical steps that can be taken to help all persons involved in the construction industry continue to thrive despite the challenging work environment.

This article references the work conducted by National Mental Health Commission and Mentally Healthy Workplace Alliance in Australia (November 2014).

Restructuring

We know that unemployment is associated with higher levels of mental illness and in particular sudden and unexpected first time unemployment can be particularly damaging to the individual. There can also be a level of shame or embarrassment associated with having to accept government assistance. Equally for those making these tough decisions, it is often the last thing that business owners want to do, as they are often very close to their workers.

This article doesn't cover how to retain jobs or shore up business finances and the reality is that businesses will need to reorganise and restructure to adapt to the new economic realities. The key point here being - how it is done.

Involving workers in the problem and genuinely asking how together it could be solved allows a sense of control and engagement that is beneficial for mental health. Even if ultimately the decision is still to downsize and release jobs, having been through a process where those effected have some say in the outcome enhances their dignity and sense of self-worth.

Secondly, open and honest leadership communication around the economic situation being the main driver for job losses de-personalises the issue. If a person is being made redundant because of economic reasons then clearly state that as the reason. Dressing it up as a performance issue when the person has never had poor performance mentioned before is problematic and unjust.

Understand as well that even though it is difficult, an empathetic and caring approach when communicating is appreciated by the receiver of the news. Avoid a clinical approach and certainly avoid giving the news by email, text or by phone if possible.

The Job Itself

We know that jobs with high physical, emotional and cognitive demands combined with low job control, social and organisational support have a negative impact on mental health. COVID-19 and the related economic outlook has potentially upped the pressure for those now dealing with shortened time-frames, unmovable budgets and longer working hours. In particular think about supervisors, project managers and those who have been asked to achieve what were previously challenging but now potentially impossible targets with no increase in resource or time allowance.

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Construction clients should be engaging with their supply chains to understand who is more at risk and be working together to ensure that reasonable steps are taken so that those in these at risk jobs are; supported, their requirements heard, given control of the situation and not pushed into untenable positions.

Front line supervisors and managers behavior in regards to supporting workers is seen as a proxy for the level of support and care that the wider organisation represents and can be a positive factor when done well and negative factor when absent.

Supportive supervision is key to reducing mental health risk those whose jobs are more prone to the conditions mentioned above. Doubling down by investing more in front line leaders will be essential in the medium to longer term. This means investing in training around people and leadership skills (e.g. providing effective feedback, creating a vision for the project), mental health awareness (listening, coaching and pastoral care) and dealing effectively with change.

Workplaces with managers who have had mental health training (such as St John's mental health first aid) have been proven to be workplaces with reduced psychological distress. Having a commitment to mental health training also increases the perception from the workforce that talking about mental health and early help seeking is normal.

Temporary Contracts

In a post COVID-19 environment, with higher levels of future work uncertainty, there may be a tendency to move the workforce onto more temporary contracts. Research in this area has shown higher levels of mental distress generally for temporary workers than full time employees.

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Leading labour hire companies will double down by providing increased end to end support for their workforce such as; increased communication, a sense of belonging and pride in the brand and even access to support services such as Employee Assistance Programmes (EAP), Mates in Construction, budgeting and community support activities.

Construction companies should be balancing the immediate drive to release permanent roles in favor of short term roles where possible. Where there is more reliance on labour hire, making sure that the labour hire organisations they deal with are aligned with their values and are providing increased levels of support for their workers.

Integrating labour hire and temporarily contracted workers onto projects is an important positive protective action for mental health that all construction projects can take. The quality of good social support on site through a sense of being part of a team cannot be underestimated. Creating a sense of comradeship and closeness with fellow workers is a big mitigating factor and it is doubly important that temporary workers, who often are employed role by role, are integrated effectively into the social structure of the existing team.

Spending more time on "welcomes", team meetings and appointing "Aunties" on site to watch out for and assist those who need to be brought into the group are effective tactics in this area.

The Physical Environment

The COVID-19 situation has made us all more conscious around our physical environment, and in particular cleanliness and hygiene. Research has proven that a poor physical environment contributes to poor mental health.

Construction sites are often naturally noisy, dusty, muddy places. Construction workers accept this as part of the work but expectations now around the cleanliness and hygiene of areas such as bathrooms, portable toilets, washing stations and places to eat have been raised.

Slipping back to poor sanitation, hygiene and lack of amenities in a post COVID-19 alert level world seems like losing valuable ground gained. One of the silver linings I have heard from construction workers over the past months is that for the first time they have felt like they have clean basic facilities and as a result feel more valued, humanised and safe. I would encourage the industry in general to take the lessons and practices in how we provide clean and decent facilities to workers and stick with them. This also includes managing dust, vibration, poor lighting and noise better.

Healthier construction workplaces will provide better support for workers mental health.

Non-work Factors

Life events, home and family situations as well as a person's individual make up all can contribute to positive or negative mental health. People still carry these issues with them to the workplace, and the workplace is where we all spend a significant amount of our time.

Given the widespread economic impact of COVID-19 it is more likely that workers will be required to increase support for friends and Whanau. The social issues that contribute to poor mental health will increase in New Zealand society, and we have already seen the demand for social and community assistance rise dramatically.

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It is well known that groups within our community are more susceptible and impacted by these issues. These include young people and those on low wages. Many of these work in the construction industry.

Construction workplaces should be thinking about how they encourage an increase in focus on family, better fitness and diet as protective factors rather than encouraging negative factors such as excessive alcohol consumption.

The construction workplace should strive to be better at providing a safe place for people who are doing it tough to seek help and be protected from ridicule, bullying or further mistreatment. Now is the time for construction workplaces to engage from the top to the bottom in providing support and encouragement for early help seeking and connecting people to the support that they may require.

If you haven't communicated a clear anti-bullying policy - now is the time to do so!

Flexible Work

Another silver lining from the recent alert level restrictions is that we all learned alot about what flexible working conditions really mean and more can be done. Encouraging enhanced flexibility around working hours, start times and rosters have been proven to have a positive effect on mental health. Often the family or life situations that people find themselves balancing can be made easier by providing some flexibility.

For those roles that can be done from home, I would encourage organisations to reflect on the recent experience and integrate these learnings into the way we work going forward. For site based roles that can't physically be done anywhere but the workplace (as many in construction are), we can still think about offering staggered start times, more flexible rosters and other innovations based on consultation with the workforce.

Supporting Those Who Have Experienced Poor Mental Health

Lastly, we are living in a world where there is a high likelihood that many more of us will have had their mental health impacted. Work has an important role to play in helping those recover from depression, anxiety disorder, addiction and many other issues.

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Having a work environment where constructive plans can be put in place for those returning or continuing to work while having suffered (or currently suffering) from poor mental health is essential and beneficial to all in maintaining a longer term sustainable construction workforce.

Again to do this, managers and supervisors will need increased skills and knowledge in new areas - such as mental health first aid and Mates connector training. Construction industry associations and ITOs need to gear up to provide services for their members to ensure support for people needing placement and support during return to work.

Counselling services need to be increased and more available and affordable to those needing it and this can be supported better by workplaces and industry associations by focusing and prioritising resources in this area over the coming two years.

Government needs to play its role as well as the largest purchaser of construction services in New Zealand. Funding for work place mental health support programs needs to be prioritised and directed to all of New Zealand's construction workers. It is a well established fact that construction accounts for the highest number of suicides by industry and there is an urgent need for all parties across the industry to address this issue.

For more support around mental health in the construction industry these resources are available:

Mates in Construction New Zealand

Managers Guide to Mental Health in Construction

Pocket Guide on How to have a Conversation About Mental Health

Where to get help:

If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.

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