Inside Out

by Glenn Cook

Illustration by Raymond Reid

On construction sites, it’s mandatory for workers to wear hard hats. These pieces of safety equipment protect the head from outside forces. But some people on those job sites are also dealing with forces inside their heads, forces that hard hats offer no protection against.

“Men tend to be less comfortable talking about their mental health.”
– Perry Ruehlen, executive director of the Canadian Society of Safety Engineering

Mental health is an important component of a person’s overall health, but in the construction industry, it can be overlooked. But employers and experts are working hard to change that and open up a dialogue from which everyone will benefit.

“[Talking about mental health on job sites] is extremely important. Creating a psychologically healthy and safe workplace instills the importance of the mental health and wellbeing of all employees, while supporting those with mental illness,” says Perry Ruehlen, executive director of the Canadian Society of Safety Engineering.

“It’s absolutely critical,” adds Dr. Joti Samra, a registered psychologist based in Vancouver. “Over the last decade, we’ve had an increasing convergence of evidence showing that the construct of psychological health and safety is relevant to every single work environment. And we could argue that in certain ones, like construction sites, where there’s an elevated level of physical safety issues, it becomes more important.”

David Grauwiler, executive director of the Canadian Mental Health Association – Alberta Division, says that work sites are like a “second home” for employees, so the need to talk about mental health has moved front and centre.

“Certainly [it is important] from a bottom line perspective … We know that time away from work costs employers money. And currently in Canada, the number one reason people are missing work is not physical injury, but mental distress,” he says.

One of the biggest hurdles in tackling mental health on construction sites, though, is the fact that, despite concerted efforts to get women involved, a high percentage of construction workers are men. “Men tend to be less comfortable talking about their mental health,” Ruehlen says. “Leadership support and involvement throughout an organization are critical in creating a physiologically safe and healthy workplace where employees feel comfortable speaking about their mental health. In construction, leadership is predominantly male, and if that leadership can champion a physiologically safe and healthy workplace, construction workers will be more comfortable.”

Grauwiler acknowledges initiatives like Bell Let’s Talk Day, which was held on January 25 this year, have opened up conversations about mental health, but stigmas can be difficult to break down on an individual level.

“There is still a bit of a mindset around this indestructible and resolute Albertan man,” he says. “He can solve his own problems; he is not hindered by things like depression and anxiety. But we know statistically that more than 500,000 Albertans fill prescriptions for antidepressants. … The danger men are in is believing they can handle mental illness and its onset.”

But Dr. Samra says she has seen attitudes shifting. “When I go into work sites or have spoken to these audiences, the appetite is so strong,” she says. “I think most people in most areas, regardless of the stigma, have an awareness that, yes, this matters, it affects us and we need to pay attention to it.”

Addressing mental health is an important component of North American Occupational Safety and Health (NAOSH) Week, coming up from May 7 to 13, 2017. The event is a partnership between occupational health and safety organizations in Canada, the United States and Mexico.

“[NAOSH Week] is a great opportunity for people to come together and raise awareness of things that are happening in their own work environments,” says CSSE president Kathy Tull. “And then there are recognition programs that come along with it as well. It’s a great opportunity to reflect on what they’re doing.”

“If you’re exposed to certain risks, if your colleagues and co-workers are exposed to certain risks, there is an elevated level of potential stress that can add.”
– Dr. Joti Samra

The trilateral partnership not only brings more attention to the issue of workplace safety, but also allows practitioners to share new ideas. “There are a lot of countries that have their safety weeks and these kinds of events. But to be able to tie things together, especially with the United States, and with Mexico – who aren’t as active, but they have been and they try – it’s so much easier when you’ve got more momentum, as many people as you can gather together to keep that rolling, and to change it up,” Tull says. “We see places like the United States coming up with their own ideas on what can be done. That provides a lot of creativity.”

Dr. Samra has presented at CSSE conferences in the past (the organization’s next professional development conference is scheduled for this September in Halifax), and she has lent her psychological expertise in the Globe and Mail and on The Bachelorette Canada. She says that, because construction sites have so many physical dangers, that makes mental health so much more important.

“If you’re exposed to certain risks, if your colleagues and co-workers are exposed to certain risks, there is an elevated level of potential stress that can add,” she says.
But with so many tools in place to promote physical health, both Dr. Samra and Grauwiler agree those resources could be used to frame mental health in a way workers already understand.

“On construction sites now, they often have a safety moment or a team meeting before the start of their day to focus on occupational health and safety. It would be a really natural connection to also add a mental health moment to that,” Grauwiler says. “That’s actually happening in a number of workplaces that we’re aware of.”

Heading into the future, Dr. Samra would love to see more programs and resources developed to make talking about mental health issues easier.

“I think every workplace needs to be incorporating discussion of psychological health and wellness the same way we do physical health and wellness,” she says.

“It’s about getting those two worlds linked together: the people who want to do the right thing and the people who can help them do it,” Grauwiler adds.

For more information on NAOSH Week, visit

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