Building Resiliency Through Support: How Construction Firms Can Take Care of Their Employees 

supporting the mental health of the construction industry to build resiliency

We all know that having a foundation and solid structural support while building is critical. Without internal reinforcement, a structure can be compromised by outside factors such as winds and earthquakes. And today more than ever, your teams, just like your projects, require full support.  

During these unique times, new challenges such as feeling disconnected while managing remote workloads can take a toll on an employee’s mindset.  However, with the right efforts and strategies in place, construction firms can help build a more resilient workforce ready to overcome both current and future obstacles. 

“A crisis is when it is most important for leaders to uphold a vital aspect of their role: making a positive difference in people’s lives. Doing this requires leaders to acknowledge the personal and professional challenges that employees and their loved ones experience during a crisis.” – McKinsey

Fortunately, support can come in many forms. To better understand how companies and leaders can comprehensively support their employees – professionally, emotionally, mentally, and even technologically – through crisis and beyond, we spoke to experts and leaders both inside and outside the construction industry. Here’s what we learned. 

Home Meets Work: Managing a New Convergence

Whether we like it or not, we are allowing coworkers access to personal parts of our life, including our kids, messy kitchens, and pets. For many professionals in the construction industry, this new reality can at times feel overwhelming. “It’s a time when our personal and work lives are coming together through our screens in ways we could have never anticipated,” said Rita Giacalone, Ph.D., Global Head of Culture, Diversity & Belonging at Autodesk. 

Since joining Autodesk, Rita has helped spearhead transformative corporate culture initiatives. In the last few months, her team has had to adapt in order to guide managers on how to help their teams cope with new hurdles. “It’s really up to us as managers to care for our teams and to create the space where people can bring whatever it is that they’re experiencing,” she noted.

Her team has identified four strategies, applicable to companies across a range of industries, to help managers support their teams effectively: 

  1. Care Authentically: Put your oxygen mask on first and don’t forget to take care of yourself first. Create limits and set boundaries. For your team, build psychological safety, model vulnerability, listen opening, and be present.  
  2. Establish Inclusive Work Practices: Set virtual working “norms” for your team, set expectations and responsibilities, and document as much as possible to improve clarity.
  3. Overcommunicate: This is the time we should err on the side of overcommunicating. Build transparency and trust through open and consistent communication. 
  4. Create a Sense of Belonging: Connect beyond the work. Share experiences and build a sense that we are all in this together. 

We’ll unpack some of the below key themes as it relates to construction. 

Care Authentically: Creating Psychological Safety in a Crisis

In 1999, Amy Edmondson, professor at Harvard Business School, identified a shared concept exhibited by many high performing teams: psychological safety, or the ability to expose one’s authentic self without fear of negative consequences. Noting the role of psychological safety in today’s work crisis, Amy recently commented in a publication, “This is an opportunity for people to openly express ideas, questions, and concerns without the fear of being embarrassed or experiencing repercussions.” 

So how do you foster psychological safety on your team? We spoke to Mike Glen, Vice President of Business Development/Innovation at Lindner Center of HOPE, an award-winning mental health treatment center in Cincinnati, Ohio. As a long-time mental health advocate, Mike brings roughly 18 years of experience from within the construction industry. His suggestion is for a top-down approach when building psychological safety for teams. “It starts at the top. The leader of the company, office, or team needs to embody this willingness to be vulnerable,” he said.

It’s critical that this vulnerability also be two-sided. “Oftentimes we’re taught. Don’t be vulnerable. It means being weak, right, you need to keep it together,” added Rita.

“One way to create psychological safety is to model vulnerability. We’re all learners right now, we don’t have all the answers.”

“Leaders need to acknowledge that these are uncertain times and they don’t necessarily have all the answers, but they can encourage the team that they’ll persevere because they have in the past,” added Mike. 

Establish Inclusive Work Practices: Setting Boundaries and Expectations with Technology

Teams are more reliant on technology than ever before. We all benefit from being able to connect so effortlessly through the comfort of our home. However, unlimited access to technology can also bring additional stresses, especially when the user has issues establishing clear boundaries and expectations. 

“Employees have to make an effort to stay connected with their teams by leveraging the technology that is available,” said Mike. Stressing the need for leaders to lead by example when it comes to technology use in construction, he explained, “Companies and leaders need to embrace technology, be positive about it, and lead the way in its use. Be the example that the team can still connect through the use of technology in a meaningful way.”

On a basic level, construction leaders and managers can help ensure their team is operational with the technology being implemented. “Help train employees on how to use the technology. Set up opportunities to learn how to use it and use that time to build trust and camaraderie within the team,” Mike added.

The responsiveness and flexibility of IT teams also play a vital role in supporting employees. “Collaboration and video conferencing tools make human connection possible. Our role in IT is to make sure that the right tools are available, as well as provide training options and resources to use them effectively,” said Gerald Chua, IT Regional Manager – West at Skanska USA. 

While Skanska was already well equipped to support its large remote workforce, Gerald and his team had to adjust quickly in recent weeks to accommodate the influx of remote users at one time.

“Technology plays a key role in making a positive impact on an employee’s remote working experience. I always think back to what our leaders stressed at the beginning of this crisis: we have to be flexible and adapt to the changing work environment,” he noted.   

In addition to circulating a remote work preparedness email to employees, business leaders distributed similar messaging across their teams and channels. This included training materials for collaboration that supported existing resources and programs. “Having the ability to use these tools well impacts how effectively a team collaborates,” Gerald said. “We have maintained a steady campaign to reinforce the benefits of these tools and teach employees how to maximize their capabilities.” 

Other ways construction companies can create healthy relationships with technology include setting virtual meeting “norms.” These norms should be simple agreements with your team about how you intend to work together in a digital environment. While no two teams will be the same, common norms include:

  • Setting hours for team calls and meetings 
  • Understanding that kids, pets, and roommates could appear unexpectedly
  • Defaulting to video on when conferencing
  • Signaling when you are going offline or when responses might be delayed
  • Vocalizing when things aren’t working 

Overcommunicate: Building Trust 

Trust is crucial in construction. When projects run smoothly, there is likely an underlying level of trust that can be credited for that success. During a crisis, the levels of trust you foster internally is also paramount. “As managers, your ability as leaders to build trusting human connections will determine the quality of everything that follows,” added Rita.

“It’s not just your relationships; it’s also about the work product. Trust directly impacts people’s ability to go the extra mile and focus on being productive.” 

A recent survey by Autodesk and FMI corporation, “Trust Matters: The High Cost of Low Trust,” supports just that. According to the report, in firms where trust is at its highest, employees are also much more likely to go above and beyond when it comes to helping each other. These organizations foster a more positive working culture that will, in turn, deliver better results for the business. And trust also affects the success of remote work. In a recent webinar, attendees were polled 78% said trust had a significant impact on remote work.

There are many ways that project teams can build trust internally. “Building trust is about being transparent with where we are and the issues we are facing. It’s having open discussions about the issues and opportunities that build trust between individuals and organisations,” said Stephen Kennedy, MWH Treatment, Head of Digital & Innovation in a recent blog post about building trust in the construction industry. 

The quality and frequency of communication also plays a vital role in building trust. “Frequent communication provides a sense of safety and reassurance for our team members,” said Shannon Davis, Learning and Development Lead at MAREK. “Our employees are our number one resource, therefore they are at the heart of our communication plan. Our team members are the reason we communicate consistently providing updated FAQs as new information is released, video messages for encouragement, and picture tips for social distancing best practices. Our intention with frequent communication is to send the message that we, the MAREK family are navigating these unprecedented challenges together.”

To recap from the report, a few winning strategies for building trust in construction include:

  • Be transparent
  • Ensure roles and responsibilities, as well as the consequent expectations of employees, are well defined and known
  • Provide ongoing and candid performance feedback
  • Communicate clearly, directly, and simply

Create a Sense of Belonging: Advocating and Supporting Mental Health

Feeling a sense of belonging is critical to mental health. When employees don’t feel like they belong in an organization, they can feel isolated and anxious. These feelings can heighten further during a crisis where there are added external pressures. 

“Managers need to look for changes in behavior such as change in demeanor, irritability, restlessness, tardiness, absenteeism, disorganization, forgetfulness, fatigue, and sluggishness,” warned Mike.

“Listen for changes in tone and how communication is delivered. It’s not just what they say; it’s about how they deliver it.” 

To support employees’ mental health and create a sense of belonging during this critical period, Mike and one of the clinicians, Amanda Porter, at the Lindner Center of HOPE, suggested the following actions for managers and leaders: 

  • Be empathetic and understanding: Acknowledge that your team may be anxious and uncertain of what lies ahead. 
  • Encourage employees to be creative/innovative: Sometimes the best ideas come out of times of crisis. Adopting the mindset of “what do we stand to gain?” instead of “what do we stand to lose,” can go a long way during challenging times. 
  • Ask meaningful questions that are deeper than on the surface: Ask how they and their family are doing and do it on a regular basis – not just during this time of crisis. 
  • Ask how you can help: Or even better, offer specific suggestions on how you can help 
  • Remind them that we are resilient: Our country has persevered in the past during other times of uncertainty such as 9/11, and the recession of 2008. 
  • Recognize them for their effort: Remind them that they are valued. 
  • Be flexible: Make accommodations such as flexible work hours, working from home, when feasible.

Nonetheless, supporting employees’ mental health requires a long term commitment to programs and education. Once again, the Lindner team outlined a few crucial, but simple concepts: 

  • Conversations: Simply having meaningful conversations with someone, ideally, face to face, is the best way to support someone’s mental health. If face to face is not an option, then phone or video connection is the next best option. 
  • Empathy: Understand mental illness through education. Take the time to learn about mental illness so that a leader and a team can be understanding and supportive of someone’s circumstances. As a leader, this will help you develop the right expectations for your individual team members and will help you understand how you can support them. 
  • Advocacy: As a leader know your mental health benefits, available treatments, and how to find a good mental health care provider. Support and encourage your team to get help when they need it. 

Support Resources

Fortunately, many resources exist to help construction firms support their employees wellbeing during crises and all year round. We’ve listed a few resources below and we will continue to add to the list:

Grace Ellis

Editor in Chief, Digital Builder Blog, Autodesk

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