CEO Les Hiscoe contributed his insights to Chief Executive magazine on operationalizing mental health and well-being in the workplace.

Construction is a complex, tough industry in the best of times. These past two-plus years have shone a light on the absence of mental health consideration in the workplace—it urgently needs to be addressed across all industries, and especially in construction.

While incredibly rewarding, construction is one of the most taxing, challenging jobs—frontline teams can work long hours in intense, demanding environments. People need to feel safe and secure to be productive and reach their full potential, and on top of that, research shows that improving worker safety from a mental health and well-being perspective can significantly reduce safety incidents on project sites.

Lead by Example

From my seven years of leading with a people-first approach at Shawmut Design and Construction—a $1.3 billion national construction management firm—I fully recognize that new programs are only as strong and successful as the leadership and support behind them. When it comes to mental health, leaders need to address the stigma around it head-on, lead by example, and model self-care and work-life balance. I’m focused on bringing the best version of myself to work each and every day—and encourage others to do the same. Our executives recently had a two-hour session with a mental health professional to help us with the challenges we face caring for our own mental health—and that of the 1,000 people at Shawmut who rely on us—with an emphasis on how to avoid or manage burnout.

To lay the groundwork for a mental health program to succeed, executives need to lead with empathy. Our leaders make a point to inquire about folks’ well-being on a personal level, bringing humanity and connection to the workplace and showing acceptance of the whole person. Being cognizant of energy drains and managing teams’ energy levels to help them thrive is a continuing responsibility and goal for our leaders. All our managers go through the 7 Talents of Management training to learn and implement skills including how to energize and thrive. Similarly, all executives have undergone trainings, workshops, and seminars to understand the psychology of human behaviors behind why people make basic mistakes and do unsafe things when they have the knowledge, tools, and resources to prevent these errors.

Transparency is also key—as an employee-owned company, we share progress from financials to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives, celebrating successes while also highlighting areas of work that are still needed. This creates a sense of ownership and shared responsibility, opening channels for grassroots innovation, ideas, and initiatives. We also provide different channels to celebrate individual people and teams, including the documentation of positive observations on jobsites and our internal 10 on the Tenth communication that recognizes one person each month who goes above and beyond to deliver for their clients.

We strive to create a culture of open communication and connection. Managers have intentional check-ins to build a relationship and open communication channels, and have been trained to create safe spaces for honest conversations around numerous topics, including mental stress, fatigue, performance, and roles. This eliminates as many career unknowns as possible—helping to reduce anxiety and stress—so each person understands their clear career path, where they stand, and what they need to move forward. Supporting this, our talent management system, ShawmutYou, allows each employee to own their career and understand their progress and development in real-time.

Establish the Business Imperative

There is no doubt that the construction industry has a mental health crisis. Construction experiences the second highest rate of suicide among major industries, and while nearly 60% of construction workers reported struggling with mental health, only a third said they would communicate this to their employers. Years ago, I declared both safety and DEI business imperatives, creating the Chief Safety Officer position and hiring a Chief People Officer to drive this work as the leading experts. To create accountability, our executive leadership team has safety and DEI efforts as goals and KPIs.

In 2016, Shawmut increased its focus on Total Worker Health, incorporating it into our safety program. This introduced our entire company and network of partners to the concept of focusing on safety of the entire person—not just physical safety and not just on the jobsite. This, on top of our culture, laid the groundwork for our enhanced focus and work on mental health and well-being.

Creating an inclusive workplace and culture is what allows employees to show up as their best selves. Core to this is DEI work that allows people to feel safe opening up about their struggles—without blame, stigma, or judgment. This needs to be integrated into the fabric of a company—we now have mental health included in our safety moment (which Shawmut has in all meetings) during our new hire orientation. We launched an Inclusion Learning and Awareness Plan that includes trainings on inclusive management and how to understand and interrupt unconscious biases.

Understanding that people’s quality of work isn’t tied to when and where they work, we launched Shawmut Flex in 2016. This focus on work-life balance and flexibility alleviated stressors that can be linked to managing both a personal and work schedule.

During Construction Inclusion Week 2021, we launched Culture of Care Toolbox Talks, which focus on safety from a psychological, mental health, and general well-being standpoint. Standard construction toolbox talks share physical safety rules, guidelines, learnings, and expectations with everyone on a jobsite. Our Culture of Care Toolbox Talks topics include empathy, mental health awareness (PTSD, suicide prevention), racism, sexism, discrimination, veteran awareness, and anti-graffiti. Shared monthly through talks on jobsites, it involves gathering all field staff together and demonstrating the importance of this work and Shawmut’s commitment to it. The Culture of Care Toolbox Talks are also shared companywide, and we’ve created jobsite signage to support each of the topics.

Provide Accessible Mental Health Benefits

Imperative to a mental health program are mental health benefits with accessible offerings. At Shawmut, we have an intentional benefits strategy designed to support mental health, with everything put in place to nurture and advance the wellness of our people. This starts with our strong healthcare package, ample vacation and holidays, Shawmut Flex, and Summer Fridays.

Our robust mental health support includes well-being webinars that cover topics from understanding depression, to managing worry and anxiety, to suicide awareness. Our Employee Assistant Program is confidential and free, offering short-term counseling and referrals—available 24/7. Our life assistance provider includes services for emotional and mental health support, work-life solutions, legal guidance, financial resources, and help for new parents. Our benefits team regularly shares resources and free webinars for employees to access and join, including a Mental Health Awareness Month webinar in May.

An effective approach to mental health is not possible without a strong cultural foundation. In addition to being the right thing to do, there are tangible, quantifiable benefits for creating a safe, inclusive workplace. Mental health allows everyone to bring their best selves to work each and every day, and this leads to excellent client service and a strong and successful business.

Read the byline on Chief Executive magazine here.