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Mental Health & Suicide Prevention in Construction with Kathleen Dobson



In recognition of World Mental Health Day, we are in conversation with Kathleen Dobson, Safety Director at Alberici. She shares some critical insights on Mental Health Awareness and Suicide Prevention in Construction. The learnings relate to so many industries. Gather some insights, reflect on how you can apply these to improve the safety of your workplace and make a difference!

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Real leaders leave a legacy. They capture the hearts and minds of their teams; their origin story puts the safety and well-being of their people first. Great companies ubiquitously have safe, yet productive operations. For those companies, safety is an investment, not a cost for the C-Suite. It’s a real topic of daily focus. This is The Safety Guru with your host Eric Michrowski, a globally recognized Ops and The Safety Guru public speaker and author. Are you ready to leave a safety legacy? Your legacy success story begins now. Hi and welcome to The Safety Guru. My name is Eric Michrowski and today I’m very excited to have with me Kathleen Dobson, who’s the safety director with Alberich. She’s here to talk to us a little bit about suicide prevention and awareness in the construction industry. Kathleen, welcome to the show. Really happy to have you part of the conversations. Oh, thank you so much, Eric. It’s my pleasure to be here. Kathleen, to start out, if you can share a little bit about your journey and how you got into safety and really, you’re passionate about the topic we’re going to talk about today on suicide prevention. Absolutely. Thanks. I started out as a hospital based registered nurse, and after about 15 years in the hospital, I ended up working for a manufacturer as their occupational health and safety nurse. And some of the roles that the nurse had were not very traditional. For example, I was responsible for managing confined spaces and I was responsible for conducting aerial lift training and for truck training, things that I really didn’t have experience in. And so, I. Educated myself, got some training, and as I was is that was developing my training programs, I was asked to participate in safety audits again, something that I wasn’t really familiar with, but I really enjoyed. And when that position ended, because, you know, the company downsized and so on, I found myself with several different experiences, hospital-based nursing, manufacturing, a little bit of safety, a little bit of training. And I was fortunate enough to find a job with Albury’s constructors who recognized that I understood behavior-based safety and some components of construction. So that’s kind of how we got to where I’m at now, you know, back 20 years ago and really my passion for suicide prevention. I’ve had several friends and relatives who have committed suicide. One was a registered nurse, colleague of mine. She was probably one of the first people that I knew that had taken her own life. My husband’s cousin, my own cousin. And so, there’s I think it’s it shows that almost anybody can be affected by suicide. And about five years ago, I heard a presentation from a group called the Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention. And I said, wow, that sounds great. And I and I found that one of the organizations that I belong to, network, which is the National Association of Women in Construction, as well as Tom, as well as talk, the Association of Women and Constructors were both involved pretty heavily in this in this process. And when I went to network to ask them how active and how involved we were, they said not very they were lending their name more than anything else. And I said, well, we need to do more because this is a real crisis in the industry. People are dying every single day, much more so much more so than falls in electrocution and being struck by vehicles on the highway. But we never we don’t talk about it and we don’t recognize it. So, both talk and network have put together position statements. And since they’ve been doing that, I’ve been advocating for mental health awareness and suicide prevention. That’s phenomenal. Can you share maybe a little bit about why it’s so important in the construction industry, some of the elements that make it perhaps more prone to suicide and the risk associated with it? Oh, sure. Well, in construction for many, many years is really an institution with a pretty narrow view of who belongs. So, gender, race, religion and ethnicity are all concerns. And if you were in the building, trades in your family were not part of the generations of workers. You’re really an outsider until it’s proven otherwise and. So, people who are outsiders, obviously are not included in in the day-to-day companionship, relationship, the camaraderie, the community that the construction industry offers, and if they have issues and honestly, there’s probably 40 or 50 percent of people in the United States who at one time or another have some sort of a diagnosable mental illness, whether it’s, you know, I mean, it could be depression that that’s temporary or could be depression. That’s long term and overwhelming. But the construction industry has been having been made up of very stoic men mostly. And the industry is recognized for high hazards and taking risks and being the tough guys. If you’re injured, you just kind of suck it up and you go on with your business and. So those are just some of the reasons why construction gets impacted, because we don’t, we don’t share our feelings. We are we are taught really to not. Suffer, you suffer in silence and that and that just the overall attitude, nothing can happen to me and. We’ve got this this real sort of macho image, right, about the about the industry, these are traits that are that are in quite a few other industries as well. There’s no doubt that. But all of this also has an impact in terms of overall health and safety, because if I’m not well, in some way, shape or form, I’m not going to show up with potential on the job. And other things can also happen, which can impact myself and also my peers. Can you could you show me maybe a little bit more about why businesses need to do more? I often have heard in the past, which I think is completely wrong, that business shouldn’t start dealing with mental health themes and issues. Tell me more about how you remove the stigma and why it’s so critical for businesses to drive change around suicide and suicide prevention. Well, I think I think you use you mentioned a word that I don’t like using, and that is stigma because stigma places the places a negative impact on the individual. If you’re stigmatized, you are often negatively looked at in you with your group. And we really should not we really shouldn’t put blame on people because they are depressed or they’re in pain or are there or they may have another issue that that has caused them to suffer with their mental health. Right. And I think it’s and I think it’s important that we talk about it. You know, another situation that has happened in the industry is that we’ve brought on board and recruited many, many, many people who have transitioned out of the armed services. And a lot of those individuals, especially if they have seen action in in a war zone or some sort of a conflict, they suffer from post-traumatic stress. And so, the triggers on the job site, loud noises, shouting, can trigger a stress reaction. If we talk about it, if we talk about it, it becomes very commonplace. And I can’t I can’t take credit for this. But one of my colleagues said if we can talk about prostate problems and psoriasis. We can talk about mental health and suicide prevention. And I think that I think that, you know, as we see from years ago, no one ever said the word cancer. And because there was that that that view that, oh, you know, there was something bad about that. And so. Once we started to recognize there’s nothing bad about it, we can help people who have cancer, we can we can help them transition through the different phases of the illness, even if it is deadly to them. They need they need our support. They don’t need to be isolated and ostracized. And I think that our ethic, our individuals who are having mental health crises should also be treated the same way. They should not be isolated; they should not be ostracized. And it takes an individual who has a keen eye and ear for listening to their fellow workers and cheering, hearing them talk about situations, their families, what’s going on in their lives, and as well as, you know, that sort of inflection that they’re hearing, how they’re doing their work. And if we can educate our first line or front-line supervisors to make them more aware of what to look for, patterns to look for, if people are kind of going down that that path towards suicide, I think we’re going to save a lot of lives. I think that’s so important. It’s part of the work environment is a huge part of each person’s life. And the more people are aware of signs, the more they’re prepared to address these issues, have conversations, the more positive impact we can have overall. So, I think this is incredibly important what you’re doing in that space and really trying to create more awareness around it for businesses. So, on that topic, what can businesses do to drive real impact around this? Well, you know, we talk about having employee assistance programs, and I think that they’re great. However, most employee assistance programs are designed to assist people in a in a traditional work setting, in an office setting, I believe. I don’t think they’re often equipped to manage field workers because they don’t understand what the field workers going through. They don’t understand the aches and pains that they have at the end of every single day. And how those aches and pains then can transition into another trigger, which is overuse of prescription medications and an addiction to those prescription medications. So, I think that having an employee assistance program is great. I think that the people involved with employee assistance programs need to get out onto job sites to see how workers are and how the work is done, because nobody’s going to call in employee assistance program if they don’t trust that that their conversations are kept confidential and that and that there’s no way for it to get back to the human resource department. Because are they going to put a little checkmark beside my name or a little asterisk when it says Kathy made a phone call to the AP and she’s known she’s concerned with her finances or she’s concerned with her marital status or she’s concerned about the addiction that she has. So having an AP program, I think getting families involved just by sending home material, it doesn’t have to be really focused. It can just say something like, are you OK? And if you have if you have a problem, here’s a number to call or here’s a person to talk to. Right. I’ve seen I’ve seen job fairs or, you know, where people bring in their families to celebrate a project. And there’s some vendors there, you know, they have some gateway is they have some games for children. And occasionally you’ll see a table set up, nobody behind the table, just pamphlets and information about substance abuse and alcohol abuse and mental health awareness and suicide prevention. Those tables get cleared out all the all the information gets taken and it can be a family member or it gets taken by the individuals themselves because they don’t have to directly say anything to anybody. Again, having a supervisor trained and aware so that they can. Be what we call a gatekeeper from the field to from the field to a to a helping environment to that to the suicide lifeline. No, to just say, hey, how are you doing? And can and continue to probe. Because when somebody when somebody typically ask you how you’re doing. Oh, yeah, I’m OK. But if that person says, you know what, you just don’t seem like yourself, you seem as though you’ve got something weighing on your shoulders. Do you want to talk about it? And sometimes that it gives people the opportunity to open up at that point. That’s really important. And I know when we’ve talked about on the up side before, there’s some organizations I’ve seen where the EP has gone to the next level, where they also have peers that are part of the organization that that were previously front-line workers are still front-line workers who take part in this. So that that seems to address your point around people that understand the work environment. So, with some skills around it, I think the theme of the supervisor awareness and understanding is so critical because that’s a person that’s going to interact the most with a team member that and they have a chance to check in. And on Australia, they had an annual campaign that’s are you OK? And it’s really around helping broach the topic, the conversation and speaking about it in all organizations on a regular basis around the importance of mental health, mental wellbeing, but also in terms of suicide prevention. We agree. And I think that by asking somebody, do you feel suicidal? They’re not going to go out and commit suicide. They’re going to recognize that as a as is a helpline that they could utilize. One thing I wanted was the one thing that I wanted to point out about having front line supervisors, being those individuals who can really make a difference. I read I read an article over the weekend, a gentleman by the name of Calvin Byers. He is he’s really a thought leader. He’s really been on the forefront of addressing suicide prevention in the construction industry and mental health awareness. He said, you know, nowadays we have to focus in on people’s eyes because we can’t see we can’t see expression any other way. And sometimes you can see in people’s eyes the sadness that’s there when they when they are suffering with an issue. Wow. That’s really, really important point. And I think in terms of really connecting with that, that means you’ve got to be comfortable making that eye contact, having a conversation, be looking for potentially signs of challenges that may be happening. Exactly, and, you know, as I said, our supervisors are not always they’re not always the most. People, persons on the job site, you know, a lot of times they are right there, the people there to get things done, they’re not the people that are on site to kind of. Coach and guy, you know, give the old hugs and tell them that people are doing you’re doing OK. Exactly. And I know just a couple of days ago, there was World Mental Health Awareness Day, and there was it was looking into it just before our conversation. And I found a staggering statistic from the CDC that just talks about the relevance, importance of this. They said that this was done just over the summer and said one in 10 Americans had considered suicide the previous month, about twice as many as in twenty eighteen. So, the problem, obviously, was with social distancing and the pandemic likely pointing to this increase. But the other element is young adults, eight to twenty-four. The proportionate proportion was astonishing. It was one in four. So just really such a critical theme now and in construction, but in so many other industries are really in the space of health and safety. Yeah, and, you know, you talk about the one in 10 and how that number is really increased, I think that, you know, because we have been so isolated and in in our own homes and away from our community and our and in our people that have always given us comfort. You know, if you if you had problems at home before, they’re probably not going to be any better because you’re there all the time. Exactly. And, you know, when you when you address the children that No. One in four. That’s really that’s frightening. And it I think that that really looks at the issues that surround the culture that the children are in, the intimidation, the harassment, the bullying that that that child get. That’s really that really becomes a psychological that really has a psychological impact on them. You know, as an adult, sometimes we can deal with that. But when you’re a child, you have no idea how to how to deal with somebody who is always putting you down because of your height, your weight, your inability to do sports because you’re a nerd, whatever the case may be. I mean, there are there are hundreds of different reasons why children are ostracized or picked upon and children don’t know how to deal with it. That be really well, to the next mix theme I’d love to explore with you is really what can you do about this? So, you’ve talked about what organizations can do, but what can an individual who listens to this, who has awareness, has what is it that you can do to make a difference in ultimately people’s lives? One of the first things that I would that I would recommend is for people to download the Lifelines for suicide prevention on their phones and in and in there, and then they’re messaging. You know, so that if you come across somebody, you can readily say, hey, do we need to call this number or do you need some assistance with just finding some support? And if we advocate and if we can advocate for people. I think that’s really, really important, you know, the suicide lifeline number, by the way, is 800. Two, seven, three. Eight to five, five. And the and the lifeline number is seven four one seven four one phenomenal resources to have it at your fingertips. If ever you come in, come into a situation where you’ve got to have a conversation, do something about it. So, thank you for sharing that. And any other suggestions for people in terms of a difference they can make, either in terms of if you know somebody that that might be contemplating or you’re not sure how to approach the conversation or even if you want your organization that your part of this are really embracing that something needs to happen. I think I think really just opening up the conversation is the first real key step in all of that. And just being able to ask that first question, are you OK? All right. There’s many, many, many ways that an individual can help and support. But, you know, just by being an advocate, if you’re on the job site, find, find and download some posters, some suicide prevention, some suicide prevention posters. Ask your company to offer workplace mental health screenings. Get the AP involved or community mental health professionals in so that they understand and know the workplace and the culture of the company, and I think it’s important also for us to recognize that if somebody has a mental health issue when they come back to work. Neither they nor their problems should be ignored. You should be able to talk to them and say, hey, welcome back, we’re glad to have you back. But if you if you continue to have an issue, I’m here to help you. You know, thanks for trusting in me. I’m on your side. That’s really important. And I thank you for everything you’ve done in terms of creating awareness around this, in terms of helping organizations start embracing in terms of the role and how they can make a difference. I really appreciate you coming on the show to speak more about this critical topic around suicide awareness and prevention. So, thank you so much, Kathleen. Oh, sure thing. And just one more reminder, everybody takes that checkup from the neck up. Thank you for listening to The Safety Guru on C-Suite radio. Leave a legacy, distinguish yourself from the pack, grow your success, capture the hearts and minds of your team’s. Fuel your future. come back in two weeks for the next episode or listen to our sister show with the Ops guru Eric Michrowski.

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Kathleen Dobson is a 21+ year veteran of the construction industry. As Safety Director for Alberici Constructors, she has responsibility for and supports their automotive, heavy civil, mining and industrial processes divisions. Kathi is engaged in project start up and provides sites with ongoing evaluations, audits and training when needed. Kathi is zealous regarding safety of workers and believes that everyone should be able to say they have the right PPE, the right training and the right environment in which to work. She is active on several national committees where she focuses on standards, advocacy and influencing the construction industry.