How Emotional Intelligence Can Transform Construction’s Hypermasculine Culture

Many workers in construction have the typical emotional profile that is a recipe for disaster when it comes to suicide and poor mental health. Here are a few techniques to improve workplace wellness.
By Brent Darnell
July 10, 2019

The construction/extraction industries have the highest suicide rate of any industry. Make no mistake about it: this is a real issue that is directly related to health and safety. But what is behind this statistic? Why are these industries struggling with the bleak reality of suicide? There are several reasons, and a few solutions, to explore.

The culture of the industry is a hypermasculine one, where it is frowned on to be vulnerable and to ask for help. This particular emotional profile is a recipe for disaster when it comes to suicide. There are also many alpha males in the industry, which can create an atmosphere that makes discussions of suicide prevention difficult.

Alpha males can unknowingly compromise health and safety on projects, but they can also create an environment of health and safety given the right approach and training. An article in the July/August 2008 issue of the Harvard Business Review, “Unmasking Manly Men” by Robin J. Ely and Debra Meyerson, focused on how roughnecks and roustabouts on oil rigs improved their safety by softening their approach and focusing on the safety and well-being of workers.

According to Ely and Meyerson, “Over the 15-year period, these changes in work practices, norms, perceptions and behaviors were implemented company-wide. The company’s accident rate declined by 84% while productivity (the number of barrels produced), efficiency (cost per barrel) and reliability (production “up” time) increased beyond the industry’s previous benchmark.” We have to wonder if this approach was ignored on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, the site of the worst oil disaster in the history of the industry.

They further state, “If men in the hyper-masculine environment of the oil rigs can let go of the macho ideal and improve their performance, then men in corporate America might be able to do likewise. Numerous studies have examined the cost of macho displays in contexts ranging from aeronautics to manufacturing to high tech to the law. They show that men’s attempts to prove their masculinity interfere with the training of recruits, compromise decision quality, marginalize women workers, lead to civil and human rights violations, and alienate men from their health, feelings, and relationships with others. The price of men striving to demonstrate their masculinity is high, and both individuals and organizations pay for it.”

The key to this approach to safety is the emotional intelligence of the people on the projects; therefore the typical construction worker profile must be addressed first. The following graph is the emotional profile for more than 200 people in the industry (mostly men) who manage the construction process. The scores are similar to an IQ test with a bell curve distribution where 100 is the mean (average). The test measures total EI as well as 16 individual emotional competencies.

Take particular note of high self-actualization (we love what we do), high problem solving and stress tolerance. The problem with high stress tolerance is that, as an industry, construction workers tend to take on more stress than is healthy. When this happens, stress can manifest itself in physical symptoms such as fatigue, trouble sleeping, stomach issues, headaches and other pains, allergies, skin problems, autoimmune maladies and irritability.

Now, take note of the lower emotional self-awareness, emotional expression, interpersonal relationships, empathy and flexibility (tendency toward perfectionism). Change must start with emotional self-awareness so workers are more aware of their surroundings, their bodies, and their levels of stress and fatigue. Then increase empathy skills and relationship skills so people will connect with each other. Emotional expression also must be increased so everyone is comfortable expressing emotions. That will make any safety program more successful. If these core issues are addressed, identified and improved on, the industry can create fundamental change that will help to take safety to a new level.

There is mounting evidence of this link between stress and general health. According to the World Health Organization, 80% to 90% of illnesses are either caused by or made worse by stress. They estimate that by 2020, the second leading cause of disabilities will be mental diseases, including stress-related disorders. And with the construction industry having the highest suicide rate, we better start paying attention.

When people actually make emotional connections and care about each other, they look out for each other and work safer naturally. They also support each other in their goals for good mental health. And when people work more safely, not only do they become healthier, more productive employees, but companies also will improve productivity and impact profitability by lowering insurance rates, reducing worker’s compensation claims and decreasing wrongful death lawsuits. As a caring culture in construction expands, there is reason to believe that suicide rates will drop.

How do companies start this culture of caring? One way is to incorporate the people side of the business at weekly toolbox safety meeting. Here are 52 ideas from Brent Darnell International’s Primal Safety Interactive Toolbox Safety Topics.

  1. Stretch every morning. Have fun music playing.
  2. Pair up. Have all employees introduce themselves and talk about their families (whatever that definition is for them).
  3. Pair up. Get back to back. Remove a piece of safety equipment. Face each other and see if you can guess what is missing.
  4. Get in small groups and discuss the potential dangers for the day and how to overcome them.
  5. Walk around in small groups and have everyone point out potentially unsafe areas and situations.
  6. Celebrate everyone’s birthday for each month and give each person a small gift. At lunch, have a big sheet cake for everyone.
  7. Pair up. Tell each other why it’s important that you go home safely that day.
  8. Tell a story about a near miss or a save and what it meant to that person.
  9. Hand out Primal Safety Coloring books and crayons. Have their kids color the pages, laminate the pages and put them up around the project.
  10. Discuss the importance of glucose in your brain and decision making.
  11. Tell everyone to take five deep breaths and relax. A non-stressed brain makes better decisions.
  12. Pair up. Tell each other a lifelong dream that you have.
  13. Pair up. Tell each other a family story.
  14. Pair up. Ask each other, “Why is it important that you work safely?”
  15. Pair up. Tell each other what would happen if they went to work today without any personal protective equipment on.
  16. Discuss how stress shuts down your thinking brain and keeps you from making good decisions.
  17. Hand out some healthy snacks for the day like some nuts or healthy protein bars.
  18. Show the group an unsafe situation or scenario and see if they can come up with an intervention and solution. Make it a contest.
  19. Actually show how a harness can protect against a fall.
  20. Tell everyone how dehydration affects them: Increased thirst, dry mouth, swollen tongue, weakness, dizziness, palpitations, confusion, sluggishness, fainting, no sweat, decreased urine.
  21. Celebrate a safety milestone with a short party with food.
  22. Read an obituary from someone who died on a construction project and what family was left behind.
  23. Have everyone take the Ghyst EI Test (available on and discuss how their profile can affect safety.
  24. Tell them that if they are working unsafely, you will send them home and they can’t return until they have a note from their spouse or family member.
  25. Discuss how their judgment can be impaired from lack of sleep.
  26. Discuss how their judgment can be impaired from drugs (OTC, prescription, recreational).
  27. Discuss how good nutrition will not only positively affect performance, but they will also live a longer, healthier life.
  28. Discuss why they are so tired at the end of the day: poor nutrition, poor sleep, not enough breaks, dehydration, holding muscles in tension, distracted thoughts, energy vampires (people who suck the life out of you). Also discuss how you can reduce these.
  29. Discuss safety and alpha males and how this hypermasculine environment is not good for safety. A caring environment yields much better safety and productivity numbers.
  30. Have everyone tell how they celebrate holidays.
  31. Have everyone tell how they celebrate birthdays.
  32. Have everyone tell how they celebrate becoming an adult.
  33. Tap into a larger purpose for your project and create a family work environment where everyone values and cares for each other.
  34. Have everyone tell about how their kids reacted to the Primal Safety Coloring Book.
  35. Have everyone tell each other that they want them to go home safely today.
  36. Pair off. Tell each other how you overcame a struggle during childhood.
  37. Have everyone jump up and down 10 times. Get the energy up for a safe day.
  38. Have everyone discuss how their mental state (stressed, angry, etc.) affects safety.
  39. Have everyone discuss the importance of taking breaks.
  40. Have everyone discuss the importance of not working while tired or hungry.
  41. Discuss how mobile phones can be distracting and unsafe while working.
  42. Use mobile phones during the meeting to call or text a loved one and let them know that you will work safely that day.
  43. Discuss how safety can increase productivity.
  44. Discuss how organization and cleanup can affect attitudes and safety.
  45. Have everyone get into small groups and tell a joke or good story.
  46. Show that multi-tasking is a myth. It’s really multi-switching and it is not good for high levels of safety. Tell them to count to 24 by 2s. Then spell multitasking. Time each one. Then tell them to alternate them: 2, m, 4, u, 6, l, etc. Time that. It usually takes two to three times longer.
  47. Have everyone shut their eyes and do a visualization of a safe day and what it looks like.
  48. Pair off. Have everyone tell a story about the kids in their life.
  49. Pair off. Have everyone tell a story about how they met their spouse or partner. If they don’t have a partner, tell them to tell a story about how they met their best friend.
  50. Have a discussion on what family means and what it means to look out for each other.
  51. Pair off. Have everyone discuss how they would teach their kids about how to use their personal protective equipment.
  52. Have a discussion about a future vision such as their life five years from now or when they retire and what they hope to accomplish.
by Brent Darnell
Brent Darnell, the owner of Brent Darnell International, has been teaching critical people skills and emotional intelligence to the AEC industry since 2000. In 2012, he was awarded Engineering News Record’s top 25 newsmaker’s award. His programs, books and online courses are helping to transform the industry.

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