When you come to work for the Iowa Department of Transportation, especially in a maintenance garage, you take on a lot of responsibility to keep those who travel “your” roads safe. Whether that’s repairing guardrail, edge rutting or snow plowing, many of our employees feel a sense of responsibility for those traveling in their area. When bad things happen on those roads, especially when one of our folks is the first on the scene, it takes a toll that isn’t often recognized.
Shawn Havick, a 31-year veteran of the Iowa DOT, served as the supervisor for the Adair and Atlantic garages for many years. On Dec. 13, 2020, Shawn lost his battle with cancer. In the last few months of his life, he shared stories with his family of experiences on the road over more than three decades of service. Shawn’s wife, LaDonna, and their two daughters, Hannah and Chelsey, heard all about the good times and the hopes Shawn had for improvements, especially as it related to the mental wellbeing of the crews Shawn worked with for so many years.
Shawn knew that working on the road, whether in a summer work zone or behind the wheel of a snowplow, can be both physically and emotionally challenging. Facing the dangers of working just feet from speeding traffic in a work zone, being rear-ended by an inattentive driver during a snowstorm, or providing assistance at a crash scene, all take an emotional toll.
It’s not surprising to those who knew Shawn that his concern for his Iowa DOT family was one of the things he focused on in his last days. In his position as supervisor, he consistently stepped up to pilot new initiatives, test innovative equipment, and provide training to his crews to make sure they worked as safely as possible. When he passed away, his family was determined to keep that legacy going.
Hannah said, “When something happened on the road, my dad took it personally. It takes a toll on your heart and your brain. It was hard for him to talk about because he wanted to protect us.”
LaDonna added, “Throughout Shawn’s illness, we learned that the things he dealt with on the road built up like layers. The post-traumatic stress syndrome doesn’t just happen right off the bat, it builds up over time and can come out months or years later. Every time there’s another event, the trauma keeps building.”
Working with District 4 Engineer Scott Schram and other DOT officials, the Shawn Havick Memorial Response Program was initiated. Using donations from the family, funds are now available to the Iowa DOT to develop stress and resilience training for our frontline workers.
Chelsey said, “I think my dad would like this program. Seeing how much the events impacted him, hopefully through the program this will help the younger people not carry all the trauma with them. The training is more of a preventative to help work through issues as they happen, instead of letting the trauma build up over time.”
Here's a clip from an interview with the Havick family as they discuss the mental impact the job took on Shawn and his passion for focusing on the well-being of his co-workers.
Systems Operations Division Director Dave Lorenzen, who helped administer a similar program called Blue Courage for our Motor Vehicle Enforcement team, is leading the development. He explained, “We took a look at the Blue Courage curriculum and how it could be adapted. We also researched other similar programs and found the HeartMath Institute which looks at all levels of stress in today’s world. We contacted them to discuss training. They were very interested in working with us and we now have an agreement in place that we can provide their training at a very reasonable cost.”
The first training session was held on Oct. 13. In the three-hour session, six district employees who will serve as trainers, as well as representatives from the Human Resources Bureau, delved into the face-to-face sessions relating to positive psychology.
The curriculum includes modules to help employees identify:
“This program gives the employees tools to help mitigate the impact of situations they might come across,” said LaDonna. “It’s not easy to let your guard down, but we’re hopeful this program will encourage co-workers to look out even more for each other and suggest help when it is needed.”
The training emphasizes honest communication about your emotions and provides exercises to manage stress and process negative emotions in a healthy way. It is flexible and can be tailored to hone-in on specific areas for employees who have suffered a traumatic experiences or provide more of an awareness and overview for employees who are encountering day-to-day stresses. In addition, it provides an avenue for participants to request confidential follow-up with a mental health professional to help them with needs that might be specific to their individual situation. Lorenzen said, “Your mental state impacts your safety and the safety of the team you work with. As an agency, we are committed to doing everything we can to promote increasing mental health awareness and advocate for our employees.”
“Train-the-trainer” sessions have been completed and we are beginning to roll out the training to field locations. We are working on a plan for widespread deployment of the training to field staff across the state. There has also been interest in providing the training to other employees throughout the DOT who face stressful and traumatic situations in the course of their job. “As we continue to deploy and find success in the training, we will continue to find ways to assure that the training is available to all who could find it beneficial. This training is a prime example of how we can all live the DOT’s core values of Safety First and People Matter,” explained Lorenzen.
If you are a DOT employee and are interested in learning more about the Shawn Havick Memorial Response Program please contact Dave Lorenzen, Systems Operations Division director at David.Lorenzen@iowadot.us.