Human Resource (HR) professionals understand the importance of having a workforce who are mentally and physically capable of performing work. One way to do so is through Employee Assistance Programs (EAP). They are an extremely helpful tool for companies and provide many services to employees. These including financial consulting and planning, smoking cessation programs, assistance in times of family struggles and divorce, elder care concerns, legal counseling, retirement planning and much more, including crisis support through a 24/7 800-number.

As someone who has worked primarily with field personnel, the issue with human resources, employee assistance programs and more is that they are not always trusted by that group in the workforce. Their perception of employee services is that there is a way for human resources to find out personal concerns. I have heard many workers who believe that the EAP number is really a hotline that goes directly to Human Resources so that they (HR) can “know my business”. Others believe that there is a way for Employment Resources to find out who is using the EAP through demographic information that is provided at the time of services and “use that against me”.

So a lot of the burden, especially as it relates to mental wellbeing falls upon the safety team and the field leadership and those individuals need to know how to help someone in times of crisis. One of the best types of programs I am aware of is based on the concept of a gatekeeper. That is, someone who can open doors to treatment and resources. Employees seeking assistance can approach fellow employees who are trained and volunteer as “gatekeepers” to provide support and information about mental health resources. The gatekeepers may be identified by badges, hard hat stickers and more. 

Gatekeepers also participate in ongoing training sessions to keep awareness active. Most gatekeeper program addresses both suicide specifically and mental health broadly. Gatekeepers are not mental health professionals who conduct official therapy sessions. Employees who approach a gatekeeper can expect to have a non-judgmental, open conversation where they can hopefully freely talk about the way that they’re feeling [and] have a lending hand from the peer.

In a May 20, 2022 article, Construction Dive interviewed Holly Lifke, who is the chief human resources officer and an executive vice president at Boldt Construction, who stated “The reason the (Gatekeeper) program exists is because of the high volume of suicides in the construction industry… It’s about making it more comfortable for people to ask for help,” “But of course, suicide is just one element of mental health.”

“People think it’s a personal issue and not a business issue. But it’s absolutely a business issue,” she also said. “From an economic perspective, it’s been indicated that by 2030, depression will be the leading cause of lost productivity in all economically advanced countries.”

The construction industry is one of the highest industries when it comes to rates of suicide attempts, suicides and substance abuse. Combined with that information is that the construction industry is welcoming and encouraging former military personnel to join the ranks of craft personnel and project management. Suicide rates among persons with a military background has been reported to be as many as 22 persons per day. That alone should be alarming and a call to action.

The mindset for both construction and the military is similar – you have to be tough; you have to be strong; you have to be stoic. There are many other contributing factors, but these three alone should be enough for managers in human resources or operations to be concerned.

"Organizations need to advocate for mental health reform, including easier access to care, and more than anything, creating access to programs and resources to educate people about mental illness"

As in the case of my company, the HR department assures that we receive training in our corporate code of conduct, drug-free workplace policies, non-discrimination, sexual harassment, workplace bullying and more, but there are no required courses in mental health, mental well-being, awareness of psychological issues or more. Salaried employees have access to career educational opportunities, but these are not typically something that a field worker would be aware of. As I was researching for this article I quickly found a half dozen programs, books, and videos on prevention of psychological problems in the workplace, asking for help with mental health, a first aid guide to mental health awareness, a practical guide for mental health and well-being and emotional intelligence, but we had not looked at what was going on outside the corporate offices.

In 2021, NAMI (the National Alliance on Mental Illness) listed some facts:

• One in five adults experience a mental health condition each year. (personal note: I believe that during the height of the pandemic, that proportion was significantly higher – in fact, a study conducted by Vida Health in late 2020, 88 percent of the participants said they had experienced one or more of the depression symptoms during Covid-19. Of the 88 percent, 52 percent said they had lost interest in doing things, 52 percent had trouble sleeping, and 51 percent said they felt hopeless. One out of six participants said they started therapy, and 15 percent have begun taking medication, while another 15 percent have increased medication dosage during the pandemic. A surprisingly 47 percent noted that they felt getting mental health help was a sign of weakness.)

• Less than half adults (43 percent) with a mental health condition receive care.

• Eleven (11) years is the average time between onset of symptoms and getting treatment.

There’s a fine line from dealing with anxiety and being a functional, productive worker to spiraling into depression and not being able to care for ones’ self, much less put in a day’s work.

In an online article (January 20,2021 by Maria Minor) from Forbes:

According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), depression causes an estimated 200 million lost workdays each year at the cost of $17 billion to $44 billion to employers. Depression impacts the rate of absenteeism, cause of disabilities, loss of productivity, and climate in the workplace.  Work and nonwork factors play a role.

“People think it’s a personal issue and not a business issue. But it’s absolutely a business issue"

And we know - Depression is not about having an off day.  It is more substantial and negatively affects how a person feels, thinks, and acts, diminishing their ability to function well at work and home. A medical doctor may diagnose depression if a person experiences these symptoms for more than two weeks: sadness, irritability, loss of interest, difficulty concentrating and making decisions, loss of or increase in appetite, sleep issues, tiredness, restlessness, feelings of worthlessness, and thoughts of suicide.

Depression, if left untreated, may have a significant impact on work performance on self and others. It contributes to a lack of engagement, absenteeism, and performance. It can also negatively impact social interactions with other employees. If the depressed employee is moody, co-workers may avoid them, leading to isolation, conflict, and poor communication. It may also unfavorably impact other employee performance areas, including focus and decision making, time management, and completing tasks. Like most other health conditions, early detection and effective treatment lessen the condition's severity and impact.

Employers can work to improve their employees’ mental health and well-being by taking advantage of resources that are currently available. Organizations need to advocate for mental health reform, including easier access to care, and more than anything, creating access to programs and resources to educate people about mental illness.

The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (CDC-NIOSH) has a well-organized and detailed total worker health (TWH®) program that considers 70 or more components of life that can affect a worker’s wellbeing and functioning at work, so EAP programs may need to consider using resources such as this as they expand their approaches to all aspects of worker wellbeing.

They will help to destigmatize what many people believe is a weakness. They help people “understand that we’re all there at some point” and that many experience mental health challenges at times. If employers understand that it is essential to connect with workers before their mental health issues become suicide ideations, we can make our places of employment more open, welcoming and better workplaces. If only to save one life, it will be a success.