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By Gary Thill
Under normal circumstances, roofing is physically and mentally exhausting. But in the midst of a pandemic, spiking outbreaks and continued social unrest, roofers are more stressed than ever — and need more support than ever from employers.
“I don’t think enough people are talking about the mental stress contractors are dealing with,” said Trent Cotney, Cotney Construction Law CEO and NRCA general counsel. “We’re sitting on a powder keg right now.”
In fact, a recent Construction Dive survey found that dealing with anxious employees is contractors’ biggest challenge of the crisis so far, with 78% of respondents saying it’s one of the top ways that the crisis has affected their business.
“A pandemic crisis is not normal; none of us has ever experienced anything like this in our lifetime,” Executive Vice President of Risk Management Tricia Kagerer said in the Construction Dive article. “We need to tell ourselves that it is OK not to feel OK. It is completely normal." Even in the best of times, roofers don’t exhibit the healthiest behaviors.
For example, a recent NIOSH report shows that roofers are especially prone to binge drinking. Cotney said pandemic-stressed contractors are even more likely to “self-medicate” if they don’t have other outlets for stress reduction.
“Contractors need to do what they can to help their crews, because if they don’t, the crews will self-medicate, and it can blow up in bad ways,” Cotney said. “You want to create an outlet where work is a sanctuary."
Creating that sanctuary starts with revisiting employee assistance programs (EAPs) and determining what kind of support those programs offer. Cotney said many insurance plans include EAPs even if employers aren’t aware of those benefits.
“Most people think about EAPs for the purposes of drug or alcohol rehab,” Cotney said. “But I’ve seen a lot of companies who don’t even realize they have EAPs.”
Those with EAPs need to investigate what their programs offer. Cotney said some EAPs offer relationship, nutritional and financial advice. However, there’s a good chance EAPs aren’t included in benefits, especially among smaller employers. In fact, only 27% of employers with less than 50 employees offer EAPs, while 45% of employers with 50 to 99 employees offer the benefit. Meanwhile 78% of union workers have EAPs compared to 50% of nonunion workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Cotney recommended working with insurance carriers to determine cost/benefit of adding EAPs, which range from $12 to $40 per employee. While those are real costs, Cotney added that research shows a return on investment of $1.50 for every dollar spent thanks to the ability to attract new workers and maintain existing crews. “The biggest threat contractors face right now is a lack of skilled labor,” he said.
For those who can’t afford EAPs, Cotney recommended working with HR to develop stress-reduction measures at work. Some simple ideas include:
Another good idea is to engage crews in the process with surveys about what types of activities they’d prefer. Cotney said his own bring-your-dog-to-work policy came out of such a survey, and he’s surprised at how much it’s helped employees. “It’s night and day how much happier people are while they’re here,” he said.
Ultimately, Cotney said it’s in employers’ best interest to keep contractors physically and mentally healthy. “You can’t be so focused on production that you forget about production — you can’t forget who’s putting on those roofs and how much stress they’re under,” he said. “A happy employee is a productive employee.”