Long-term pandemic effects of ‘hyper attention state’ being felt onsite, says panellist

Journal of Commerce | Russell Hixson | November 2, 2020

BC experts from construction, trucking, film and government met for a virtual summit to discuss mental health strategies, with one construction company president highlighting the importance of having mental health protocols in place, especially during the pandemic.

The summit was the fifth and final part in a series of sessions organized by the BC Municipal Safety Association (BCMSA) with input from the BC Construction Safety Alliance (BCCSA) and others.

Darin Hughes, president of Scott Construction, explained how in the early days of the pandemic, construction was deemed an essential service and project teams had to rapidly adjust.

“This major thing was happening and we needed to react quickly because we continued to work,” said Hughes. “One of our advantages was we already had lots of health and safety protocols that are required. For us it was really understanding what we needed to do immediately to ensure workers are safe and feeling that they are safe.”

Hughes also praised the collaboration builders showed by sharing COVID-19 protocols and materials with competitors.

But as the industry chugged through the summer, Hughes said some mental health issues began to surface.

“I think now, at this stage, we are starting to see the long-term effects of being in this hyper attention state,” he said. “People definitely have anxiety, some are having absentee issues, also we are seeing a general irritation on a day-to-day basis.”

Hughes noted that outside of work, many are facing concerns with child care, elderly family members or job security.

“From a construction standpoint, in this long phase of dealing with this going forward, we must have structures in place but it is about identifying the signs and then providing the right support.”

Hughes explained that a big part of this is getting information about recognizing and addressing mental health issues into digestible sizes and then messaging it appropriately to workers and supervisors. Scott Construction’s mental health committee has worked to make mental health information as easy to access as possible.

“It’s been really interesting how people respond when the information is easily available,” said Hughes. “But we can do a lot better to continue to make the info available. The key is to really make sure they know the supports are out there. We are not going to solve it for them, but we can direct and guide them. From our standpoint that is what we are trying to do.”

Hughes said COVID-19 has also been concerning when it comes to substance abuse, an issue that is already alarmingly prevalent in construction. He explained construction is physical work that can cause injuries over time which some treat with substances. With the workers being overwhelmingly male, they often choose to cope with mental health issues by using substances.

“All these factors contribute to a focused problem in construction,” said Hughes. “I don’t have all the answers, but for our industry, the reality of this is here.”

He noted that he hopes the pandemic will bring an even greater awareness to the issues of mental health and substance abuse and explained that for Scott Construction, already having a mental health committee in place was a huge advantage.

“I think the legacy of COVID-19 will prove how important it is to have those structures in place when you really need it,” said Hughes. “This just proves that if you do the work and set the right groundwork, it will be there when you need it, that will be a lasting thing for us.”

The mental health toolkit, which includes information packs, checklists, an online discussion form and recordings of the summit can be accessed here: https://www.bcmsa.ca/psychological-support-toolkit-for-workers-and-employers.