By Cal Beyer of Cobb, Strecker, Dunphy, Zimmerman
Published April 1, 2020. Originally published in Construction Business Owner
Construction is a people business built on healthy relationships and partnerships. Human capital risk management holds that employees are the primary asset of companies. Companies that truly care for workers yield a sustainable competitive advantage from building a caring culture.
A crisis is the best time to reinforce these beliefs. It is said that actions speaker louder than words. Winston Churchill said, “Out of intense complexities, intense simplicities emerge.” And so it is with the complexities and uncertainty of COVID-19. The intense simplicity emerging in the COVID-19 crisis is the essential need to maintain regular communication from company leaders promoting the mental well-being of the workforce.
The Rising Anxiety, Fear & Uncertainty
As a leader, you should provide ongoing communications that are honest, forward-looking and realistic. This communication strategy demonstrates to employees and business partners that your company is providing clear leadership during times of uncertainty and crisis. During COVID-19, it is important to acknowledge that the rising uncertainty is creating or compounding stress, anxiety and fear in your employees and their families.
A recent survey by a construction publication shortly after the onset of the pandemic in the United States revealed that anxiety among workers was the leading issue expressed about COVID-19 by almost 70% of respondents. The next highest issue was the shortage of materials at 23%. This reinforces the simple need to focus on the people in your companies.
During the COVID-19 crisis, construction workers are nervous about the uncertainty and the negative news, including the tumbling economy and its many ripple effects, including:
- Concern for their health and the well-being of their families
- Potential layoffs or job losses
- Interrupted earnings or health-care benefits
- Rising expenses and debt
- A threatened outlook for their retirement
The broad shelter-in-place orders in many states are moving many workers deemed “nonessential” into their homes to work. The sudden adoption of working remotely, combined with schools closing and required online homeschooling options, has created additional stress and chaos.
These stressors are creating a pressure-cooker environment in the homes of the workforce. The levels of stress, anxiety, worry and fear are rising among construction leaders, supervisors and workers of every level and in every job. A Triple Threat
COVID-19 is disrupting our lifestyles, disturbing our routines, distracting our focus and concentration and draining our patience. COVID-19 is a triple threat to construction companies and their workforce.
First, COVID-19 threatens to exacerbate the underlying mental health conditions of our employees and family members. Approximately 20% of the U.S. population has an underlying diagnosable mental health condition. The conditions with the highest prevalence among the active workforce include anxiety and panic disorders, depression and substance-use disorders.
Second, COVID-19 creates isolation and separation from the protective aspects of work, the so-called psychosocial benefits of work. This is happening in many forms, including:
- Office closings
- Project shutdowns
- No group meetings greater than 10 people
- Smaller work crews in the field or in the office
- Staggered shifts in the office or in the field
- Meaningful human connections like handshakes have been eliminated
We are wired for human connection, and when forced to unplug from these connections and relationships, we feel the effects of isolation and loneliness. The World Health Organization (WHO) suggests not using the term social distancing and instead using the substitute physical distancing. Many mental health professionals are suggesting the phrase physical distancing with social connecting.
Third, we need to be concerned about the growing risk the uncertainty of COVID-19 will have on our projects. Many safety professionals are concerned that the disruptions and distractions of COVID-19 will contribute to increasing frequency and severity of incidents and injuries on job sites.
Communicating with Empathy
Company leaders are urged to establish a holistic communication plan to reassure workers, to reduce stress, and to demonstrate a caring culture. In company communications, it is beneficial to help bridge the gaps created by working remotely or project shutdowns have created. It is also important to use language that promotes psychological safety and reinforces trust and protection for the well-being of employees.
In communications with employees and business partners, it is advisable to use reassuring language that demonstrates empathy and concern, such as:
- We care about you and your families.
- We are continuing to monitor the situation closely, and we will keep everyone informed of new developments and decisions.
- We are in this together, and we are working hard to lessen the impacts.
- We are committed to communicating regularly to keep everyone updated.
- Take time for self-care practices for yourself and for your family.
- We have an employee assistance program (EAP) that can be helpful for taking care of you and your families. We encourage you to use this free and confidential service.
Stress Reduction Strategies
A few additional practical strategies to help employees deal with the mounting pressures of COVID-19 include:
- Offer employees resources via email on stress management, self-care tips and behavioral health resources.
- Provide the telephone number and online resource website for your company’s EAP.
- Ask your EAP provider if you can extend the eligibility for your union employees during the crisis.
- Provide information to your employees on telehealth services your company may have as part of your employee benefits program. This will provide employees with peace of mind for communicating with primary care providers while not wanting to risk being exposed to COVID-19 in clinic waiting rooms and while people are being instructed to not visit emergency rooms unless they are experiencing life-threatening symptoms.
- Hang posters in your office and jobsite locations from the Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention (https://preventconstructionsuicide.com/Posters).
- Hold toolbox talks (while complying with the social distance guideline from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on stressors and stress management, psychological safety and self-care practices.
The impact of COVID-19 has sent shockwaves throughout our companies, the industry, the nation and globally. COVID-19 has created trying times for workers and their families. The rising uncertainty is increasing stress, anxiety and fear among workers and their families.
These are serious ripple effects of COVID-19, and it is important for employees to feel comfortable to seek help and resources as tensions rise. Company leaders can help promote mental well-being by communicating with empathy and concern.
Below are some additional mental health and suicide prevention resources from CSDZ:
Resources for Employees and Families
Resources for Employers
Cal Beyer is vice president of workforce risk and mental well-being for Cobb Strecker Dunphy Zimmerman (CSDZ) in Minneapolis, Minnesota. For 100 years, CSDZ has specialized in construction insurance, surety and risk management. He has served on Construction Business Owner’s Editorial Advisory Board since 2016 and is also a member of the executive committee of the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention. Contact Beyer at cbeyer@CSDZ.com or 651-307-7883.