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FGIA: Countering the “tough” image

February 16, 2022  By Amy Roberts

The typical image of construction work is that of strong, hard-working, resilient workers who log long, purposeful hours braving the elements to build anything from houses to high-rises. But does this reflect reality?

Most construction jobs are high-pressure environments where the focus is on productivity, with workers having little control over their often-repetitive workload, methods or schedule. Also, the project-to-project and seasonal nature of construction contributes to worries over job security. Besides the unpredictability of employment, there is the expectation of overtime and working long hours, sometimes in stormy environments. The exhausting physicality of the work and workplace injuries can lead to chronic pain, depression and psychological trauma. More recently, although construction work usually takes place in relative isolation from the general public, COVID pandemic risks have only made it worse. A corollary to the macho image is that workers are unlikely to acknowledge or divulge such psychological stress, which contributes to widespread industry inattention to worker mental health.

As a result, workers often resort to alcohol or other drugs to numb physical and/or emotional pain. Accordingly, the construction industry has been disproportionally affected by the opioid epidemic. Doctors often prescribe various types of opioids to help cope with pain, which can make it easier for workers to become addicted. According to CNA Financial, almost three out of four injured construction workers were prescribed a narcotic pain killer in 2016. They are likely to turn to alcohol and/or illicit drug markets once their prescriptions run out. 

Statistics Canada found that 33 per cent of workers in the construction industry reported poor mental health. In addition, 64 per cent of construction workers wished their employers did more to support mental health initiatives. 


What to do?
Among the commonly published recommendations relating to this problem are those that focus on employee engagement. Examples include: 

  • Acknowledge burnout. The pandemic and labor shortage has placed added pressure on companies and workers to handle increasing backlogs. Employers should understand and empathize with the resulting employee burnout.
  • Institute mental health and wellness programs. For example, the Canadian Mental Health Association offered resources for employers seeking to support their employees’ mental health with workplace training.
  • Education is needed. Many construction workers recognize the fact that alcohol or drug use can negatively impact work, but they don’t understand the extent of the impact. 
  • Sell your company culture. Make it known that the company is aware of the psychological challenges without stigmatizing anyone and has help available. 

Re-Mind, a collaboration between the BCCSA and Work to Wellness Rehabilitation Inc. to improve construction workers’ access to mental health information and services, offers tools and resources pertaining to these topics. Plus, the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety now has a free online course called Substance Use in the Workplace: Addressing Stigma. The goal of this 30-minute course, available in both French and English, is to help workplaces understand and respond to the impact of stigma toward people who use substances. The course can be found on the CCOHS website and is recommended for those interested in learning about substance use and how to support those affected without using “stigmatizing language.” The traditional image needs updating, and the underlying humanity should be addressed.

Amy Roberts, FGIA Director of Canadian & Technical Glass Operations

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