Mental health first aid training equips Skanska employees across US and UK
Can a first aid course in mental health begin to reverse statistics around mental health in construction? For Skanska UK, the answer is yes. After partnering with a mental health first aid program six years ago, our colleagues across the pond are sharing their biggest lessons learned with our US colleagues.
As we recognize National Suicide Prevention Month this September, we’re reminded that suicide in construction has long been a brewing crisis. According to the CDC, in 2012 and 2015, suicide rates for males in construction reached 53.2 suicides per 100,000 workers. The statistics reinforce the unfortunate reality that construction is the profession with the highest suicide rate.
Our safety professionals in the US and the UK are taking action to find solutions to these sobering statistics.
Responding to a safety crisis plaguing the industry
In partnership with Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England, Skanska UK is equipping employees to have life-saving conversations. Since 2016, more than 55 percent of UK employees have taken either MHFA’s First Aid or Mental Health Aware course. Those who complete the organization’s First Aid course don a Mental Health First Aider sticker on their hard hat.
The M42 Junction 6 Improvement Scheme project near Birmingham Airport in the UK is one project where the stickers are showing up in force. Eight employees there are certified Mental Health First Aiders. As a result, those on site now know who to turn to for help for themselves or a person experiencing a mental health challenge.
Health, Safety and Wellbeing Manager Ken Reid of Ireland/UK is responsible for coming up with the hard hat sticker.
“The level of site awareness for Mental Health First Aiders wasn’t at the same level as traditional First Aiders. Yet, their role is similar: they are there to offer aid and assistance,” reflects Ken. “I wanted to create a system where those in need didn’t have to go far. With the sticker, everyone knows who they can approach.”
Through a One Skanska mentality, mental health training crosses the Atlantic
In Nashville, Tennessee, removing the stigma around mental health in construction has long been a focus for our Environmental, Health and Safety (EHS) team.
During COVID-19, our Nashville office launched “Start the Conversation” to break down barriers preventing employees from talking about mental health. Originally started out of our Ohio office, the initiative fosters an openness toward tough but important conversations year-round.
For EHS Director Tony Foster, “Start the Conversation” is truly just that—a start. “In our industry, we’re usually focusing on protecting the physical body of the worker. What we’ve seen over time, is that while PPE reduces physical injury, we haven’t really prioritized taking care of what’s going on inside,” he says.
Hearing about Skanska UK’s sticker initiative and employees’ participation in trainings, Tony felt there was opportunity for his office to do even more for mental health safety.
“I reached out to Ken after reading how the UK’s program had been successful,” continues Tony. “Connecting with him energized me to develop a plan not only to provide this training to our employees, but our trade partners as well.”
He was further emboldened knowing that his colleagues overseas had seen success with the program in the context of construction.
Today, with Ken’s help and other UK peers, he is bringing MHFA to our US colleagues, beginning in Nashville. Ken joined the first training class via Teams to reinforce the vision for the program.
“I believe this is the best example that I have personally seen of Be Better Together and One Skanska at work, with UK colleagues serving as mentors for us here in Nashville,” says Tony. “They’re partnering with us to develop and launch an initiative that addresses this huge concern we’re facing in our industry around the world.”
Newly-certified mental health first aiders reflect
So far, 27 Skanska US employees have been trained via Mental Health First Aid classes, with more trainings planned for the near future. Attendees joined the classes from Nashville and Cincinnati.
Motives for acquiring the certification and immediate takeaways from the training have been personal for participants.
Communications Manager Peggy Cook feels a personal call to change the negative stigma surrounding mental health.
“I’ve dealt with it in my life and have seen others struggle, some of whom didn’t have access to resources or felt ashamed to talk about it,” says Peggy. “I’ve lost more than a few friends to mental health related struggles and wish I could’ve helped or identified the warning signs.”
A quote from author and therapist Shannon Alder shown during the training hits at the heart of it: “Never give up on someone with a mental illness. When ‘I’ is replaced with ‘We,’ illness becomes wellness.”
“As this quote was shown, you could see how much it resonated with our training group. Mental challenges are in fact a challenge. However, they can be worked through safely with trusted peers,” reflects Digital Marketing Manager Lauren Foutch.
“With 83 percent of construction workers having experienced a mental health challenge, this training helps eliminate the stigma of mental health crises,” she adds.
Those who finish the class are equipped to have life-saving conversations with colleagues in need of mental health guidance.
“It’s empowered me to ask people how they’re doing and feeling—and to really listen to what they’re saying, and what they’re not saying,” says Peggy.
“Having personally benefited from investing in mental health resources, I knew this training would be extremely valuable,” says Lauren. “After taking it, I’m confident that it’s going to save lives.”
Pointing individuals to tangible professional services
Ken and Tony believe the certification matters now more than ever.
“Current statistics indicate that construction employees are nearly four times as likely to fall victim to suicide, have a high likelihood for addiction issues, and have a greater risk of general mental health concerns,” says Tony.
Consequently, Ken shares, “Right now, people are more likely to need a Mental Health First Aider than a traditional First Aider. Life has gotten harder—social media, societal expectations, pressures from work and even internal pressures add up.”
“People can tolerate these pressures for a period, but everyone has a breaking point. The Mental Health First Aider is there to help people from breaking and signpost them to professional help,” he says.
Looking ahead, he hopes that the training’s principles continue to be embraced across Skanska and beyond.
“Mental Health First Aid is a skill we can use outside of work, too. Sometimes just sitting down and having a chat with others is all it takes to shift course,” says Ken.