Mental Health and Addiction In The Trades

I’ve been thinking a lot about mental health and addiction in the trades these days. So much so that I frequent the Centre For Disease Control and World Health Organization websites looking for interesting articles and statistics regarding construction workers and their overall relationship to mental health and addiction. I have heard that rates of mental health problems and addiction are reported to be much higher amongst construction workers than other areas of employment. And I believe it. I believe that people who are prone to or lack the skills to deal with mental health and addiction would be drawn to trades as a means of employment because of the nature of construction trades transitory/impermanent nature. I also believe that there are certain cultural attitudes, workplace practices, and norms that contribute to worker mental health problems and addiction.

In my random research I found a study that was investigating how mental distress was related to pain and injuries amongst construction workers. The study found that 9 out of 10 workers in the study fulfilled the criteria for a mental disorder, and that substantial mental distress was associated with the injury rate and pain. The study concluded there was a need for rigorous studies on construction worker mental health and how it affects their work and well-being. (Jacobsen-HB; Caban-Martinez-A; Onyebeke-LC; Sorensen-G; Dennerlein-JT; Reme-SE, source: J Occup Environ Med 2013 Oct; 55(10):1197-1204, link: http://dx.doi.org/10.1097/JOM.0b013e31829c76b3)

Another study found When accounting for alcohol consumption, older construction workers were 1.7 times more likely to have been diagnosed with an emotional problem than other older blue-collar workers. Nonsmoking older construction workers were 3.2 times more likely to have chronic lung disease than their nonsmoking blue-collar counterparts. The high rate of chronic lung disease is most likely related to on-the-job dust exposure, while the increased risk of emotional disorders might be due to the dynamics of the construction labor market. (Petersen-JS; Zwerling-C, source: Am J Ind Med 1998 Sep, 34(3):280-287, link: http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/(SICI)1097-0274(199809)34:3<280::AID-AJIM11>3.0.CO;2-Q)

Yet another study on women in trades; results from a telephone survey with 211 female laborers indicated that having responsibility for others’ safety and having support from supervisors and male coworkers was related to greater job satisfaction. Increased reported psychological symptoms were also related to increased responsibility, as well as skill underutilization, experience sexual harassment and gender-based discrimination from supervisors and coworkers, and having to overcompensate at work. Perceptions of overcompensation at work and job uncertainty were positively associated with self-reports of insomnia. Finally, sexual harassment and gender discrimination were positively related to reports of increased nausea and headaches. (Goldenhar-LM; Swanson-NG; Hurrell-JJ Jr.; Ruder-A; Deddens-J, source: J Occup Health Psychol 1998 Jan; 3(1):19-32, link: http://www.apa.org)

This study speaks for itself: Occupational health and safety concerns of tradeswomen employed in the construction industry or closely related trades were determined. The study group was based on purposeful, rather than random, sampling; trades groups that were represented included carpenters, welders, electricians, plumbers, laborers, mechanics and millworkers. Data was collected via focus groups, in depth interviews, and open ended self administered questionnaires. The total sample size was 51 respondents. Major categories of concern that were identified included: exposure to chemical and physical agents; injuries from lifting, bending, twisting, falling, and lacerations; lack of proper education and training; and health and safety risks related specifically to tradeswomen (inadequate protective clothing and tools; overcompensation for gender; unsatisfactory restroom facilities; and psychosocial stressors). The authors conclude that many of these concerns are amenable to change through engineering, behavioral, and/or administrative interventions; appropriate changes should help to make the construction site a healthier and safer place for workers of both genders. (Tradeswomen’s perspectives on occupational health and safety: a qualitative investigation, Goldenhar-LM; Sweeney-MH, source: Am J Ind Med 1996 May; 29(5):516-520, link: http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/(SICI)1097-0274(199605)29:5<516::AID-AJIM11>3.0.CO;2-3)

To conclude, I found an article with statistics made by a SAMHSA survey on drug and alcohol abuse in the USA. It found that between 8.7 and 9.5% of US workers overall aged 18-64 reportedly used drugs and alcohol heavily, while 14.3% of construction workers reportedly used drug and alcohol heavily. I am concluding after reading that study that there is a higher than average rate of substance abuse amongst construction workers in the USA. (https://www.samhsa.gov/)

This topic is important to me because I have experienced mental health and addiction while working as an electrician. I developed a problem with alcohol that I have since learned to control through abstaining. I experienced bullying, various forms of harassment, and exclusion that had me experience two mental breakdowns during my 7 year career as an electrician, and led me to understand and become fascinated with workplace culture. I have learned about masculine and feminine cultures and how they play out in the workplace, how unions have and continue to take control over the push to improve workplaces though many forms of safety agendas, and I have learned some skills in navigating my place at work and how to shut down opposition to my presence.  I have also learned how racism, sexism, transphobia, xenophobia, classism, play out and intersect in workplaces, and I think it’s fair to note I have experienced privileges in having worked as a white women, and noticed the difference as to when I was seen as gay compared to when I was seen as straight.  And what I mean is I have noticed the priviledges associated with being in those demographics, as well as the disadvantages.

I am hoping this passion doesn’t take me too far away from working in the electrical trade, but this year I have found I am having an easier time finding work and energy for the helping fields than trades. I’m currently seeking an amazing electrical job, the dream is that it will be a permanent union site, probably as a maintenance electrician. I have been taking steps to get an FSR B ticket, so I can pull permits and have my own company. I have been doing some work as a union salter, trying to expand the electrical unions reach. The more electricians we have under one union, the stronger our bargaining power is and the higher our standards for health, safety, wage, retirement etc for our industry.

I am tired of fighting to prove myself and have noticed significant stagnation in my careers development since acquiring a red seal journey ticket. I am making a move to take other job opportunities presented to me; this winter I will be working as homeless shelter outreach staff. I am certain there will be a percentage of construction workers in attendance at the shelter. I am also taking a volunteer counsellor training program to learn how to be a volunteer counsellor at a counselling centre in the city I live in. I hope to continue to work as both an electrician and mental health worker, and look forward to seeing how the future developes.

4 thoughts on “Mental Health and Addiction In The Trades

  1. I was wondering if you could give into more detail about your experiences being viewed as straight vs. gay? Like what were some of the pros and cons in each situation.

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    • Hi Sparky 13,
      to be brief, being viewed as hetero female in a male dominated environment can sometimes allow coworkers to view you as someone to persue if they themselves are hetero, trying to fit you into their familiar female roles. being a married mom is the safest role, because then you are out of bounds and a caregiver. Being a single lady can be hard because the men around you start to look like potential dates, which can really shift the co-worker power dynamic, sometimes in a negative way. Being viewed as homosexual could put you either in as one of the guys, or complete outsider because you don’t fit the hetero norm. do i have your curiosity peaked or are you satisfied?I’m curious why you ask?

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      • Thank you so much for the reply! Right now my coworkers assume I’m straight. I’m not out to them because as the first woman most of them have worked with I’m worried about being seen as too “other.” I’m potentially moving to a new job and and debating being out at work.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Mostly I try to keep work about work. Its safer that way, so they are judging you on your work ethic only. You will have enough friends outside of work to bond with, and you will make new friends at work that you can trust. Dont sweat it!

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