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The Coaching Corner with Michael Riegel: Why is it Still Hard to Tackle Mental Health Stigma?

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Over the last 18 months, we have heard a lot about front line or essential workers and the challenges they have faced in dealing with pandemic impacts from burnout and exhaustion to medical exposure and health risks.  Too often, those workers were considered the doctors, nurses, hospital workers, bus drivers, and supermarket employees.  After a short pause to consider safe approaches to maintain projects, construction resumed and has not stopped.  I wish I could explain why construction workers were not cast in the same light.  Perhaps because they are not public facing.  Maybe the stereotype of being strong and stoic worked against them and their risks.  After all, they are not office workers, did not have remote work opportunities, and work in an industry that is already regulated to promote physical safety. 
Or maybe our industry demographics tell a big part of the story.  From a gender perspective, men still make up about 90% of the workers and, as one in the vast majority, many of us were raised not to share feelings.  We all have our struggles and I think the first step is to reconsider our definition of mental health.  Mental health struggles do not have to come with a professional diagnosis though the impact can be observed by supervisors, peers, and team members.  Here are just a few signs: 
Changes in performance – particularly where they did not exist before 
Presenteeism – showing up physically but clearly absent emotionally 
A shift in demeanor or energy – going from gregarious to withdrawn 
As construction professionals, we know about tailboard meetings, safety briefings, and reporting as it relates to physical health and safety.  Let’s start creating environments where our team members feel open to discussing mental health.  Ask your co-worker how they are doing if you notice a change or some concerning behavior.  SSC Underground, a boring and excavation company, now mandates 90-minutes of safety training specifically on recognizing the signs of suicide.  I hope others begin following their example of training team members on a broader range of mental health topics. 
If I am being honest, I have found myself in that majority of construction professionals who has held my tongue and internalized my challenges.  That has included anxiety over feeling inadequate, frustration with career disappointment, and depression from personal and professional losses.  And now, you know about some of my own struggles. 
I hope that efforts to address gender diversity and younger professionals entering the field will open the door for open conversations about mental health.  Please share your experiences (confidentially, of course) or how you are helping your industry colleagues.  I look forward to continuing the conversation and, if there are any topics you’d like to see covered, you can reach me at  
Michael Riegel


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