Prioritizing Mental Health in the Utilities Industry



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People working in the utilities industry face health risks. The greatest health risk isn’t being struck by equipment, electrification, death by trench, or even falling from heights. It’s mental health. In fact, more construction workers die by suicide than by all occupational fatalities combined, according to an Associated General Contractors of America study. An engineer in a uniform and with a helmet on his head uses a mobile phone while controlling the operation of the gas pipelineThe Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) doesn’t have mental health data specific to utilities, but a lot of the factors that create mental health issues in the construction industry are prevalent in certain jobs in the utilities industry. These factors include:

  • Working in a competitive, high-pressure work environment
  • Being separated from family/friends
  • Experiencing chronic physical pain
  • Continuous safety risks

These qualities make construction statistics a good proxy for the utilities industry

According to the American Addictions Center, about 15 percent of all construction workers in the US have a substance abuse disorder compared to 8.6 percent of the general adult population. And recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows the construction and extraction sectors has the highest rate of overdose deaths among 20 major occupational groups (163 deaths per 100,000 people), This is four times the national average. The CDC also notes suicide rates are highest for males in the construction and extraction sectors (also at four times the national average). 

There’s often plenty of safety training for working with electrical components, for working at heights, and for working around large equipment. But there’s so little company or industry education about mental health even though it’s the industry’s biggest killer.

Promoting positive mental health 

Cal Beyer, Senior Director for SAFE Workplaces for SAFE Project, a national nonprofit dedicated to helping overcome the addiction epidemic in the United States, puts the onus of improving mental health in the workplace on leadership. 

“When leaders embrace a whole-person approach to wellbeing, it reinforces that good health includes both strong physical and mental health,” says Beyer, “When we talk about wellness and wellbeing, it encourages employees to engage in healthy activities that can reduce the effects of stress.” 

For tools on addressing substance use in the trades, click, here

Corporate and Non-Profit Board Director and global marketer, Toby Wong, believes mental health issues are disability issues, and should be treated as such by companies, management and employees.” “We must change the narrative around mental health and disability,” says Wong, who advocates the business and moral case for disability inclusion as key to business and brand success. Toby also serves on the Advisory Board for RespectAbility, a National US disability-led nonprofit creating systemic change in how society views, values and empowers people with disabilities.

Wong, who went deaf later in life and uses CART human real-time captions as her accommodation, evangelizes that disability is not negative. “Disability is part of the human experience and will affect anyone and everyone at any time,” she says. “It’s not ‘if’ you will experience disability but ‘when’.” A group of three multi-ethnic men wearing white and yellow hard hats, standing in a row. The focus is on the worker in the middle, He is the foreman of this work crew, an Hispanic man in his 50s wearing a royal blue shirt, smiling and pointing at the camera. They are construction workers, engineers or utility workers in the city, buildings out of focus behind them.In the US, one of every four Americans has a disability; one in every three households has a member with disability; and 70 percent of individuals with disabilities have a non-apparent disability.

Stigma adds to the problem

The greatest barrier to addressing mental health issues is stigma at the organizational, leadership, and employee level.

“The stigma associated with mental health is problematic in that it creates a barrier for people in need of mental health supports and services,” says Beyer. “Stigma can be both an external and an internal factor. It's a judgment that makes people feel differently about others or themselves. A leading source of mental health stigma derives from the traditional stoic culture of male-dominated workforces where talking about feelings or seeking help is viewed as a sign of weakness.”

“We must change our attitudes and end the negative stereotypes and shame of disability and mental health—a non-apparent and invisible disability,” says Wong. “It’s about your well-being and being safe.  It’s okay to acknowledge that you need some help and to get the support and treatment to be your best in your job and for your family. You matter.”

Toby calls on company boards and CEOs leading successful and caring companies to train their managers and employees about disability inclusion and to provide real access to supervisory support, benefits, programs and on-the-job accommodations for employees with disabilities to contribute and to thrive. “Actions speak louder than words”,” she says.

“Leaders can break down stigma by creating inclusive and respectful cultures that do not tolerate bullying, harassment, and discrimination,” says Beyer. “Employee resource groups have proven to be an effective method of getting peer-to-peer support networks established on topics ranging from parenting, grief, and substance misuse, as well as for reading clubs and other interests.”

For resources about reducing stigma surrounding mental health issues, visit the National Association of Mental Illness (NAMI)

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