Safety pro gets personal about construction’s mental health challenges

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​​​​​​Mike Popp is vice president of environment, health and safety at Milpitas, California-based XL Construction.

Opinions are the author’s own. 

I’ve suffered from anxiety and panic attacks since the age of 22. If you’ve ever had a panic attack, you understand how terrifying it is when your mind and body signal that you’re dying. At first, they occurred randomly, and the unpredictable nature intensified the anxiety. Over the years, thanks to talk therapy, I was able to reduce the frequency and intensity — but all of that changed when COVID-19 hit. Returning to the office retriggered the anxiety.

At that point, I knew I had a choice to make: I could either stay silent, letting both my well-being and my work suffer as a result, or I could go out on a limb and speak up about it. I chose the latter.

When I approached XL Construction’s CEO, Richard Walker, to share my experience, I was nervous. I wasn’t sure how he’d take this information. Would he think I’m not capable in my position? Would he think less of me? 

A headshot shows XL Construction executive Mike Popp.

Mike Popp

Courtesy of XL Construction


Fortunately, I received his unconditional support. After I spoke with him, Richard facilitated conversations with C-suite members to help them understand my challenge and how we might best work together in situations that may be especially difficult for me.

That’s not the default leadership response, so I’m grateful to work at a company that allows us to show up as whole humans. Knowing that the stress is off at work and I don’t have to hide it or make excuses allows me to relax into my role.

I share this because I know there are many others who have had similar experiences in the construction industry. Maybe you also suffer from anxiety or panic attacks, or perhaps you’ve been touched by some other form of debilitating mental condition. If so, you likely understand not only the physical and mental repercussions, but also the shame that can lead to suffering in isolation.

Mental health and construction

Mental health is a topic that affects construction more than most other industries:

  • The suicide rate for construction is the second highest of all industries: 53 in every 100,000 workers. This is attributable to a number of factors that often compound: financial distress, long working hours, separation from family and substance abuse.
  • Historically, construction is also a very male-dominated industry, and men have been discouraged from talking about their feelings or asking for help. As a result, many issues are internalized and may eventually reach a breaking point if they can’t find an outlet for support. Much of this despair, however, is preventable with the right protocols and support.
  • The substance abuse rate within construction is nearly twice the national average. Around 15% of all construction workers in the United States have a substance abuse disorder, compared to 8.6% of the general adult population. Construction workers represent around one in four of fatal opioid overdoses amongst all workers. This is a physical industry, and opioid addiction often begins with a prescription to aid a work-related injury, then eventually leads to substance dependence.

These are staggering statistics, made all the more shocking by how seldom these issues are discussed. The prevalence of these issues spiked as a result of COVID, but, quite positively, that’s also when we started talking about these issues more freely. 

Going beyond physical safety

In construction, safety can’t just be about your body: Your mental well-being is as important as your physical health.

Two years ago, we expanded our approach to safety at XL to focus on health and well-being, not just jobsite safety. That was a first step in the right direction toward helping more people who are suffering. But we’re only part way there. It’s a journey, and we are still working to improve. I’m exploring technology that would make it easier for individuals to customize and track their care and anonymously get assistance.

Currently, when someone is injured, we have a workers’ compensation claim manager who follows their case from injury through full recovery. They are aware of prescriptions and stay in touch with the doctor to monitor closely, in an attempt to avoid addiction. 

If any sort of mental health or substance-related issue does arise, it’s brought to my attention, and I partner with human resources to develop a plan to help the person, be it medically or therapeutically.

Talking about mental health

During Construction Safety Week, we dedicate a day to mental health and encourage people to share their stories. The goal of these events is to start conversations that normalize mental health issues. It’s not about checking a box, but living our safety mantra: Think safe, work safe, home safe.

It’s also about taking action. Whether it’s a jobsite safety issue or something more personal: If you see something, say something. We want to be sure everyone is receiving the type of support they need in a timely way, and to do that, we all must chip in.

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