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It's OK to Not Be OK

How mental health challenges are impacting the sheet metal and HVAC industry and how SMACNA and SMART are helping members fight it.

Matt Cramer, Owner of Dee Cramer Inc., Holly, Michigan, recalls a time when he had an employee who was having a hard time. Cramer could tell he was fatigued, distracted and just not himself. Not only did the employee have a best friend recently commit suicide, but he also had family trouble at home, and it was weighing heavy on him. He was drinking too much as a result. 

Cramer and his team tried to get him to call the SMART MAP hotline, but he wouldn’t. The Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation (SMART) Union Membership Assistance Program (MAP) is a resource designed to provide support and assistance to members of the SMART union who may be facing various challenges in their lives, including mental health concerns, substance abuse and financial difficulties. The SMART MAP hotline has trained counselors on the line 24 hours a day, seven days a week to help people talk about their challenges and find help. 

“One day, I offered to call for him, and I put him on the phone,” Cramer explains, describing the feeling of relief he felt knowing he could help. “I have the SMART MAP hotline saved on my phone, and you should, too. These are our teammates, our employees, our people.”

Cramer’s situation is all too common. Approximately 15% of U.S. construction workers have a substance abuse disorder — nearly twice the rate of the national average of 8.6% of the general population, says data from the National Survey on Drug Use conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration. Other statistics they report: 

  • 12% of construction workers have an alcohol use disorder compared to 7.5% nationally.
  • 16.5% of construction workers reported heavy alcohol consumption within the past month, nearly twice the average of all full-time workers surveyed.
  • 11.6% of construction workers reported illicit drug use within the past month.
  • 14.3% of construction workers were diagnosed with a substance use disorder in the past year, more than 1½ times the average of all full-time workers surveyed.
  • 2.3% of construction workers have a marijuana use disorder.
  • 1.3% of construction workers have an opioid use disorder — almost twice the national average. 

And the problems construction workers may be facing aren’t only related to substance abuse. Thirty percent of Michael Barnes’ clients are suffering post-traumatic stress disorder, while another 30% have spending or other types of addictions.

“And, in my opinion, it’s impossible for someone to not be impacted by these challenges in their day-to-day work,” explains Barnes, Owner of Barnes Education and Consulting LLC, who covered this topic during his Partners in Progress session, “Nurturing Well-Being in the Workplace.” 

On top of that, a CDC study found that the rate of suicide among construction workers is the second highest in the country. Compared with the national average, a person working in construction is 3.5 times more likely to take his or her own life. 

“A construction worker is more vulnerable to suicide than they are to the dangers of an actual construction site,” explains Chris Carlough, SMART MAP Program Coordinator.

Chris Carlough, SMART MAP Program Coordinator

“When we saw that, we realized we needed to talk about this more.” 

Construction, HVAC and sheet metal work can be physically demanding and often involves high-stress environments, which can contribute to mental health concerns among workers.

SMART, SMACNA and other industry organization are creating programs to help employers recognize and address these issues to help employees cope. 

Addressing mental health concerns in HVAC and sheet metal jobs requires a multifaceted approach that includes promoting awareness, providing access to mental health resources, improving workplace safety and fostering supportive work environments. 

HVAC and sheet metal workers may exhibit various signs indicating mental health problems. While these signs can vary from person to person, Barnes suggests the following as common indicators to watch for:

  1. Changes in behavior: Increased irritability, mood swings or uncharacteristic aggression can all be signs of mental health challenges.
  2. Decreased productivity: A decline in job performance, missed deadlines or decreased attention to detail may indicate that a worker is struggling with mental health concerns that are affecting their ability to focus and perform effectively.
  3. Increased absenteeism: Frequent absences from work, particularly without explanation, could be a sign that a worker is experiencing mental health challenges that are impacting his or her ability to attend work regularly.
  4. Physical symptoms: Physical symptoms, such as fatigue, headaches, muscle tension or gastrointestinal issues may manifest because of stress or anxiety related to mental health issues.
  5. Social withdrawal: Withdrawal from social interactions with coworkers or friends, avoidance of social gatherings or increased isolation may suggest that a worker is experiencing mental health difficulties and may be struggling to cope.
  6. Substance use: An increase in alcohol or drug use, or noticeable changes in patterns of substance use, could indicate that a worker is using substances as a coping mechanism for underlying mental health issues.
  7. Difficulty concentrating: Trouble focusing, forgetfulness or difficulty making decisions may be signs of mental health concerns such as depression or anxiety that are affecting cognitive function.
  8. Emotional changes: Expressing feelings of sadness, hopelessness, worthlessness or unexplained crying episodes may indicate that a worker is experiencing emotional distress.
  9. Conflict in relationships: Increased conflicts with coworkers, supervisors or family members may be indicative of underlying mental health issues that are impacting interpersonal relationships.
  10. Self-Care neglect: Neglecting personal hygiene, changes in appetite or sleep patterns or a lack of interest in activities that were previously enjoyable may suggest that a worker is experiencing mental health difficulties.

While experiencing one or more of these signs does not necessarily mean that a worker is struggling with mental health problems, it may warrant further observation and support. 

Why should employers care? Because it can cost them more than one employee. “It can increase employee turnover, increase absenteeism, increase the use of workman’s compensation and healthcare benefits, decrease productivity, increase medical costs, increase legal costs, decrease employee morale and create a toxic workplace,’ Barnes says. 

Matt Cramer, Owner, Dee Cramer Inc., Holly, Michigan

Employers can play a crucial role in implementing strategies to support the mental well-being of construction and sheet metal workers, such as offering employee assistance programs, providing training on stress management and mental health awareness, and creating a culture that encourages open communication and destigmatizes seeking help for mental health issues.

“My philosophy is a healthy work team that provides physical and emotional safety to employees — no bullying or hazing with everyone treated fairly and having the same opportunity to succeed and have their voices heard — will reduce mental health symptoms in the workplace,” Barnes explains. 

A highly effective work team will embrace the five Rs: rules, roles, routines, rituals and relationships, Barnes says, adding that “people will struggle more with mental health problems if your procedures aren’t well defined.” 

The goal is to avoid trauma in the workplace, which in construction can be caused by injuries, fatalities, near misses, discrimination and bullying.

To prevent hazing and bullying, leaders can establish a zero-tolerance policy, lead by example and promote a positive and diverse workforce culture, Barnes suggests. “Take complaints seriously and encourage open communication,” he says. “Monitor the workplace for signs of bullying, take action for prevention and regularly review and update your anti-bullying policies.”

Remember, inclusivity is not: 

  • Ignoring or downplaying differences between individuals. 
  • Discriminating based on race, gender, age or other factors. 
  • Stereotyping individuals from marginalized groups. 
  • Failing to recognize and address how our biases and privileges may contribute to exclusion. 

Leaders can also suffer something called compassion fatigue, Barnes says. This is defined as the physical, emotional and mental exhaustion resulting from prolonged exposure to helping relieve other people’s stress. 

“The more burnout you have, the less tolerance you have when employees want to talk to you,” Barnes says. “And the more employees who come to you as a trusted person, the more likely you are to experience burnout.”

Providing these managers with support and encouraging them to take vacations or breaks can limit this tendency for compassion fatigue, Barnes advises. 

The Sheet Metal Occupational Health Institute Trust Inc. (SMOHIT) works with SMART and SMACNA to provide its Member Assistance Program (MAP). Using the SMART MAP training program can help SMACNA contractors understand how to interact with troubled employees and get them help. This mental health awareness and action program highlights the issues associated with substance use disorder and suicide prevention, then educates union members on solutions, helping members and their families access those resources if and when they need them.

Cramer arranged to have the full three-day awareness training program at his facility. “It helps break down barriers and normalize talking about these issues,” he says. “And it’s not just about substance abuse issues; it’s about all mental health challenges employees can be facing — everything from divorce to family challenges to difficult jobs to responsibility with running work and schedules to problems with kids or with spouses to work-life balance challenges.”

The SMART MAP program focuses on three essential treatment aspects, according to Carlough: 

  • Awareness of mental health: The national and localized training sessions offer a broader awareness of the problems associated with mental health disorders — from depression to substance use disorder to suicide prevention. They focus on the social, financial and quality-of-life impact for those members and their families who are affected and the options available to them.
  • Finding reliable resources: Mental health issues can be complex, so having the best professional resources is vital. SMART MAP discusses the problems associated with substandard drug and alcohol treatment centers and what good evidence-based treatment comprises, highlighting SMOHIT’s preferred provider treatment centers from around the country. It also examines the value of the right employee assistance programs (EAPs) and the importance of various 12-step support programs.
  • Having peer support: The therapeutic value of one union member helping another cultivates a powerful peer support network. SMART MAP mentors listen to and support those members throughout their journeys and assist in the most important part of this program: helping members work toward gaining long-term recovery from whatever mental health issue they are working through with compassion and empathy.

Michael Barnes, Owner, Barnes Education and Consulting LLC

The SMART MAP program is designed to help union members and their families address a wide range of challenges and improve their overall quality of life, Carlough says. By providing access to supportive services and resources, the program aims to strengthen the well-being of union members and contribute to a healthier, more resilient workforce.
The trainings are led by Carlough, who brings his own experience in recovery to reach a vulnerable population that has a “tough guy” mentality. 

“These trainings start with construction workers who are rough and tumble and push some of those emotions down,” he says. “But at the end of these trainings, we have members saying they’re going to start doing therapy and work on some self-care stuff.” 

“We’ve been able to pivot over the last few years to peer training,” Carlough adds, “which is getting to our rank-and-file people on the jobsite or in the shop and really empowering them to go out there and be peer advocates for their members. It’s getting people to be comfortable having uncomfortable conversations.

“I am interested in advocacy for people who are struggling with mental health, addiction and thoughts of suicide, as well as for all the people suffering because addiction is a family disease,” Carlough says. “One of my top priorities is looking to normalize mental health so talking about it becomes as open and stigma-free as discussing any other illness.”

“People get scared to ask for help,” Cramer agrees. “We need to normalize it.”