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Win the Battle You Tell No One About: XL's Commitment to Normalizing Mental Health Issues

By Mike Popp

Hear from our own VP of Environment, Health, & Safety, Mike Popp, on his own experiences and XL's commitment to normalizing discussion about mental health and supporting each other.

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 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 our CEO, Richard, to share my experience, I was understandably 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? 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. They were all understanding and supportive. 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. 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 x 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 2x the national average. Around 15 percent of all construction workers in the United States have a substance abuse disorder, compared to 8.6 percent of the general adult population. Construction workers represent around 25 percent 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.


The XL Difference
XL has always invested heavily in the commitment to get people home safely every day. Employee safety is as much of a priority as delivering for our clients. That’s why XL is consistently ranked one of the safest commercial construction companies in the industry. And we understand that safety isn’t just about your body: your mental well-being is as important as your physical health.

Two years ago, we expanded our approach to XL safety to focus on health and well-being, not just job site 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. In some companies, assigning someone to the injured person’s case may function mostly for optics. But our claim manager is a seasoned veteran who understands what to watch for. She’s also personally invested, and as a result, highly effective. If any sort of mental health or substance-related issue does arise, it’s brought to my attention, and I partner with HR to develop a plan to help the person, be it medically or therapeutically.

During construction safety week, we dedicate a day to mental health and encourage people to share their stories. We’ll also start participating in mental health awareness week, and we’re planning a leadership off-site to address how to best support our teams as they manage energy and stress.  The goal of these events is to start conversations that normalize mental health issues. That is the kind of investment that XL leadership makes. It’s not about checking a box, but living our safety mantra: think safe, work safe, home safe.

The support and personal care that I received from our CEO is not the industry standard. We are fortunate to work in an organization where our senior leaders are supportive and concerned about our well-being — not just the bottom line.

Caring about people is part of our culture. From day one at the company, we’re invited to take an Enneagram assessment in an effort to better understand ourselves and our colleagues. From that moment, you realize that this is a company that is invested in humans. XL understands that we are complex, and everyone has different needs and challenges. I have experienced firsthand that the XL leadership is here to support us not only in our triumphs, but also through our failures and opportunities for growth.


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Everyone is silently dealing with something that most people don’t know about. Prior to writing this, few of my colleagues knew that I deal with anxiety. How many others amongst us look “normal,” yet are dealing with challenging situations? How might you approach them differently when filtered through that lens?

Anytime you feel like the only one suffering, remember: Feeling that way is common, and I promise you are not alone. There’s no reason to be ashamed. We care, and help is available.

Whether it’s a job site 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.

It’s not if but when we will each experience a mental health challenge — either personally or with a child, family member, friend, or colleague. We don’t hesitate to seek medical help for physical issues, so let’s be sure to apply the same care and urgency to mental health and ask for the help we need, when we need it.

Date Published: 05.31.2024

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