Photo: Belanger; Illustration: Paige Pennifold

Alberta’s construction industry is opening up about mental health

Christmas used to be the hardest time of year for Don Rowan.

It was the late 1990s, and he was making good money as a consultant in the oil and gas industry. But before the ink on the paycheque could even dry the money left his bank account, swallowed up by a horde of unpaid bills that seemed to grow more voracious each month. With his wife handling the finances, he was blindsided by the size of his by the size of his debt, which ballooned every holiday season as the couple strove to top the previous year. He imposed an allowance in an effort to stop their out-of-control Christmas spending, but with no success. “It just blew up,” he says, “and then we blew up.”

Marital strife only compounded Rowan’s financial stress. Credit card bills and mortgage payments weighed on his mind. He was deep in an economic hole, unhappy and hopeless. Only a sudden windfall, like a large payout from his life insurance, could wipe out his debt, he figured. And the only way he could see himself earning that payout was by taking his own life.

So that’s what he tried to do.

Counting the cost

Rowan’s story is undoubtedly familiar to anyone who has lived through a few of Alberta’s boom-and-bust cycles. Perhaps something similar happened to one of your neighbours. Perhaps you experienced those same feelings of depression and doubt yourself at one point. What is really troubling is that this story may be more common than we think.

Earlier this year, the Alberta government released a review of mental health in the province that noted one in five Albertans suffer from mental illness or addiction, and more than 60 per cent of those people will not seek help. The human cost of depression, addiction and suicide is incalculable, but the Conference Board of Canada did estimate several years ago that mental illness was costing the Canadian economy $20.7 billion in lost productivity and workforce participation. Other studies that include health care and indirect costs have added billions more to that figure.

Louise Chénier, manager of workplace health and wellness research at the Conference Board, says 78 per cent of the short-term and 67 per cent of the long-term disability claims in the country are tied to mental health issues. On average, 500,000 Canadians will miss work every week due to mental illness.

The greatest challenge in measuring mental health in the workplace is that the surrounding stigma discourages many from seeking help. This is especially true in traditionally male-dominated industries like construction. Men tend to see their doctors less than women, assuming they even have a regular doctor at all, Chénier says. As a result, she believes mental illness likely goes underreported in male-dominated industries.

“We expect men to be strong,” she says. “That’s the societal image we have, and some consider that mental illness is a sign of weakness.”

Neil Tidsbury, president of Construction Labour Relations— An Alberta Association (CLRA), has seen firsthand how people in the industry are sometimes expected to “cowboy up” and remain silent about their problems. For years, he has worked on the challenges of addressing mental health in the construction industry, both in his role at CLRA and more recently as a board member of the Lieutenant Governor’s Circle on Mental Health and Addiction.

As an organization, CLRA primarily exists to represent employers in collective bargaining and administer collective agreements, which includes providing benefits to thousands of people. It has taken years of toolbox talks, workshops and other outreach efforts to make sure construction workers are not only aware of the resources out there, but also comfortable using them. Anonymity may be a crucial component of resources like employee family assistance programs, but it has not made the task of measuring the impact of mental health on the industry any easier.

“We’re paying over two-thirds of our budget for services that we don’t see being delivered and can’t see being delivered,” Tidsbury says. “So within that, it is very difficult to get a statistical handle on what’s going on.”Screen Shot 2016 06 02 at 8.38.21 AM

Tough guys don’t talk

For nearly 10 years, Rowan carried around the burden of his suicide attempt. He subscribed to the tough guy’s approach: don’t talk, don’t admit weakness and just keep on going. If you ignore your problems long enough, they just might go away. “I buried it, and I just continued on with life, but it wasn’t really much of a life,” he says. “I existed.”

Emotional problems rarely stay buried for long. By 2007, his struggles were bubbling to the surface and beginning to affect his coworkers—a crew of eight men he was supervising at the time.

Over the course of a year, Rowan’s behaviour changed so much that the men did not even want to come to him with a simple question for fear that he would explode in a rage. They tip-toed around their unapproachable supervisor.

Rowan could no longer deny the impact his mental health issues were having on himself and those around him, and this realization marked the beginning of the end of his dark decade. Divorced, he was in a relationship with a new woman who, as he describes it, “kicked his butt” to seek help with the emotional baggage he was still carrying. He took advantage of his company’s employee family assistance program. He got a counsellor. And he went to a Men at Risk presentation where he met Barb Campbell.

Thinking safety

Offered by the Suicide Prevention Resource Centre in Grande Prairie, Alta., Men at Risk is targeted to those who work in the trades or industry. Since originating in the Peace Country in 1999, the program has spread elsewhere throughout the province with the support of Alberta Health Services.

Through its presentations, the program teaches workers the symptoms of depression and anxiety, offers tips on how to help yourself and others, and tries to reduce the stigma of mental illness by sharing the stories of others in industry who have struggled with those very issues. The material applies across gender lines, but there is special attention to the challenge of reaching men, explains Campbell, the program coordinator.

“We use the men-at-risk angle because of the number of suicides that happen in the male population in Alberta. Roughly about 75 per cent of the deaths by suicide are men,” she says. “Middle-aged men are the focus as well. Again, that tends to be a higher risk group for death by suicide here in Alberta.”

Other programs are following Men at Risk’s targeted approach to help build awareness of mental health in the construction industry. Currently, CLRA and the Building Trades of Alberta are working on an industrial construction pilot with the Mental Health Commission of Canada. The Working Mind program, which has been used in the military and with first responders, is designed to change the discussion around mental health in the workplace and encourage people to discuss these issues more openly. Drawing heavily on peer support, it will offer coping strategies and provide information on resources.

The program is expected to launch soon, once organizers have sorted out the difficulties of adapting it to a construction setting. “There is a great deal of transience across our industrial construction work sites,” CLRA’s Tidsbury says. “As people arrive, their term on the site can be relatively brief, so it will be a challenge to ensure that they’re well equipped in terms of training even when they’re there for short periods.”

It’s no accident that Tidsbury’s description makes the program sound like a safety orientation. Cultural shifts are slow in the making, but the industry is steadily moving toward treating mental health as another component of physical health and general wellbeing. After all, construction companies widely agree that physical safety of their employees is important. So why not mental health as well?

“There are so many regulations in place because we want employees to get home safe and healthy,” says Chénier of the Conference Board. “It’s the same ethical duty that employers have to ensure their employees are going back home psychologically safe as well.”

Troublingly, she notes that one-third of Canadian employers across all industries still don’t believe mental health is an issue in their workplace. They think it is a problem everywhere else but their own business. Given the prevalence of mental health issues throughout the general populace, that is highly unlikely, if not outright impossible. More likely, there are workers at those companies who are struggling—they just haven’t found the words to ask for help yet.Screen Shot 2016 06 02 at 8.38.55 AM

Calling for help

These days, Don Rowan works as a community relations adviser at Encana, one of the sponsors of the Men at Risk program. During a trip to one of the company’s gas plants, where Campbell was slated to give a presentation, he opened up to her about his own struggles with mental health. For the past four years, he has shared that same story with people across the province as one of the program’s facilitators.

He is seeing industry’s attitudes toward mental illness change one talk at a time. True, there are some who will still dismiss all this talk of feelings as fluff. But the majority of people who come to the presentations seem to get it, Rowan says. After each session, he stays behind for a little while in case someone wants to talk privately. Invariably, one or two people will hang back, and they almost always have the same question: how difficult was it to make that phone call to get help?

“I always tell them that it’s probably the most difficult phone call you’ll ever make,” he says. “But it’s also the best phone call you’ll ever make.”


Mental health resources


Call the Alberta mental health helpline at 1-877-303-2642. This 24-7 service offers crisis intervention support and information on available resources. Health advice is also available through Alberta Health Link: just dial 811 anywhere in the province.


Many companies offer an employee family assistance program (EFAP), which can provide confidential counselling on a range of issues, including addictions, mental health, financial and legal matters, workplace stress, and general health.

Suicide Prevention Resource Centre

This Alberta-based organization offers a variety of resources, workshops and programs, including the Men at Risk presentation, which is geared toward those working in trades and industry. Information is available at


There are numerous websites that offer mental health strategies and additional resources, including some aimed specifically at men.

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