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Mental Well-Being: What Challenges Do Labor Industries Face?

By Phil Britt | May 2, 2017

Mental well-being in certain union industries is a growing concern, costing workers in terms of health and companies in terms of lost wages and benefits. According to Industrial Safety and Hygiene News, depression costs businesses an estimated 200 million workdays every year, valued at $17 billion to $44 billion. Prevention efforts help, yet a high percentage of workers don't receive treatment because it isn't offered, is offered only quietly or they aren't encouraged by foremen and managers to seek assistance when mental health warning signs appear.

This begs the question: Which labor industries are susceptible to mental health issues and what can trustees do to provide members with support?

Labor Industries at Risk for Mental Health Issues

There are many industries that show a higher propensity for mental health issues, such as construction, oil and gas, entertainment and trucking. Let's take a look at what puts these union members at risk:

  • Construction - The mental well-being issues in the construction industry have come into focus in the last couple of years as new national reports showed an alarming rate of suicide and other mental health issues, according to a Commercial Observer article. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for males ages 25-54, a demographic that dominates the construction industry. Construction workers are more susceptible to stress and other mental well-being issues because the industry itself is inherently more dangerous than many others, with workers using heavy equipment, working several feet above ground level, working with chain saws and other tools that can injure a person quickly if used incorrectly, just to name a few. A study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention added that construction workers often suffer the effects of financial and interpersonal stress due to lack of steady employment and isolation. The isolation issue is further exacerbated by the macho working environment that tends to dominate the industry, with substance abuse acting as another contributing factor.
  • Oil and Gas - Like construction, this industry features oil rig workers in unsafe conditions — the 2016 movie "Deep Water Horizon" featured many of them — as well as periods of long isolation from families and the boom-bust cycle that can mean unsteady working conditions. According to an article on the Petroplan website, the isolationism and the long periods away from home are particularly stressful for oil and gas industry workers.
  • Entertainment - This is another industry that features unsteady employment issues, with stage plays, television shows and other media having uncertain runs depending on the popularity — or lack thereof — with the audience. Much gets made of the performers who experienced well-publicized mental health struggles, but the behind-the-scenes workers are susceptible to many of the same stress-inducing challenges and poor mental health without the large paychecks some star performers receive to afford professional help on their own.
  • Trucking - According to FleetOwner, a study showed that although more than three-quarters of drivers suffer from diabetes and hypertension, only 19 percent admit to having mental health issues. Though medication could help in some instances, some of the potentially helpful prescriptions aren't permitted by the U.S. Department of Transportation.

These industries have started to recognize the importance of the mental health issues and have stepped up their prevention efforts. Many of the recommendations are applicable to workers and businesses in all of the above industries.

Prevention Help Offered

The Carl J. Spencer Foundation and the National Alliance for Suicide Prevention have developed the Construction Industry Blueprint for Suicide Prevention in the Workplace. The initiative recommended that companies look for the following mental stress warning signs in workers, particularly if any of these behaviors seem to be on the rise:

  • Rising extreme mood swings;
  • Taking unnecessary risks; and
  • Discussing personal troubles.

Any evidence of substance abuse is another important warning sign that a worker's mental well-being should be addressed.

The Construction Financial Management Association recently launched The Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention, an industry group that offers publications, websites, suicide prevention posters for the workplace, chapter meetings and other events designed to help workers with thoughts of suicide and other mental health issues. FleetOwner also recommended written safety messages and comprehensive training for drivers to address these issues in the workplace. With a stronger focus on community, unions can create better prevention opportunities for mental health.

Through employee engagement and dedicated assistance programs, labor union leadership can establish a wellness culture to properly recognize and address mental health issues in the workplace.

Phil Britt has worked as a journalist for 40 years, specializing in business issues for the last 30. His work covering the steel industry and its labor issues has been referenced in books, while his articles have appeared on numerous websites, national and international publications. Among current and past clients have been the American Medical Association, Afcom, the Credit Union National Association, Independent Banker, EH Publishing, the Southeast Chicago Development Commission, the Northwest Indiana Times and Insurance & Technology Magazine, just to name a few.