For years, every time Larry Taylor left the jobsite, he felt an “impending doom,” as he describes it. Just the thought of stepping off the site almost brought him to tears.
Some days, he couldn’t leave at all. For a while, he parked his RV on whatever site he was working on at the time so he could spend the night. Staying around the clock made him feel more secure. Once, he went a full year without going home.
“That was my safe spot,” says Taylor, who is a senior superintendent at Nabholz Corporation. “If I was going to be off the job for a while, I just knew something was going to happen, and I wouldn’t be there to take care of it. It was a terrible feeling.”
Taylor, who has worked in the construction industry for more than 40 years and is based in Oklahoma City, says he experienced anxiety and panic attacks for more than 20 years. He says it was all driven by stress.
The symptoms of a generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) can vary from person to person. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, people with GAD experience excessive worry, as well as some or all of the following signs:
- difficulty concentrating
- muscle tension
- sleep disturbance
Taylor says he experienced short-temperedness, irritability, and had trouble sleeping. In extreme cases, when he had a panic attack, he felt like he was having a heart attack or was gasping for air.
“Construction is a stressful industry,” he says. It comes with constant deadlines, safety risks, and the job of overseeing subcontractors and other aspects of the build.
Anxiety and mental health issues are fairly common among those in the construction industry. A study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine has found that mental distress was 16 per cent higher among construction workers than the general public.
Anxiety disorders affect 40 million U.S. adults, or 18 per cent of the population, making it the most common mental illness in the country. While most anxiety disorders are treatable, only about 37 per cent actually receive treatment.
Over the years, Taylor says he went to the doctor and was put on medication for his anxiety. However, many of the medications made him feel worse. So, he learned to cope with it all himself by recognizing when a panic attack may be coming on.
“I taught myself to ease into things and to step away when things get too much and think things out,” Taylor explains.
He encourages others in the construction industry to do the same. While he suggests that people experiencing anxiety should seek treatment, Taylor says he also realizes people who work in the industry are unlikely to get it.
His best advice for dealing with stress and anxiety: “Find a quiet spot and think about something different than that problem and then ease back into it. Don’t take big bites of your problem; take a little at a time. And, find what works for you.”
Today, Taylor takes medication for his anxiety but says learning to take things one step at a time is what helps day to day. He still has trouble sleeping, but he hasn’t had a panic attack in a while.
Though he says it’s hard to talk about issues related to mental illness in the construction industry, he is open about his experiences in order to help others who are going through it.
As a superintendent, a role Taylor calls part referee, part counselor, he encourages his teams to talk about any problems or issues—work-related or personal.
“Don’t let it fester and blow up,” he suggests. “Don’t let it overtake you. If you try to take a whole big bite of the problem, you’re going to choke.”
The open-door policy that Taylor maintains with his team is something he believes should be embraced industry-wide to help construction workers deal with anxiety, stress, and other mental health issues.
“Let’s talk about it,” he says.