Anyone who has worked in construction knows that there are many risks faced each day, and all responsible companies work hard to take steps to minimize those risks. Sometimes those risks are hidden — the risk of construction workers dying by suicide was one of those hidden risks until recently. This past summer, the CDC released a study listing construction as the industry with the second highest suicide rate — 53.3 deaths by suicide per 100,000. In an industry driven by safety and a zero-accident/zero-injury mission with constant investments in processes to protect our workers, this statistic should be startling.
What Makes Construction Such a High-Risk Industry?
Think about the last construction site you were on. Chances are the majority of workers you saw were male. Risk Factor #1 — males, specifically between the ages of 25-44, are the demographic most at risk for suicide. Consider the conversations that were taking place. Workers were talking about the job or the weekend’s game scores, but the odds that they were sharing personal issues or emotions is non-existent. Those types of discussions are not only unlikely, but also would be frowned upon. Enter Risk Factor #2 — the macho “tough guy” mentality that speaking of personal struggles is weak and most definitely private.
Now identify workers in your company that you know go home at night and have a few beers to unwind or use pain medicine to cope with chronic pain resulting from years of physical labor or the lasting effects of a workplace injury. These situations create Risk Factor #3 — self-medicating to deal with personal situations or for pain management that result in substance abuse and addictions. What if now those same self-medicating individual’s schedules change and their sleep patterns are disrupted? Or, if they are sent out of town, away from their family support system. We’ve now identified Risk Factors #4 and 5 — sleep deprivation and isolation.
Isolation can also result from normal day-to-day work — when crew assignments are put together at your company, are friendships and relationships considered? Or does the project and schedule demands pull different people onto different crews each day, making it difficult for workers to build bonds with each other. This is double-whammy Risk Factor #6 — transiency of workers, even within the same company — that results in employees feeling lonely, lacking support and without close relationships on the job. Many are left with no one who knows them well enough to notice the warning signs of depression or suicidal thoughts.
Add to each of these risk factors some other realities of the construction industry — seasonal or shifting schedules and work availability, which can lead to financial struggles, and the pressure of “no margin for error” demands of many projects and positions. When all of these realities are put together, it does make sense that workers would be at risk for suicide. However, just because it has reason doesn’t make it reasonable. Now that the problem is identified, action must be taken.
Why Should Suicide Be Addressed in the Workplace?
“The workplace is the last crucible of sustained human contact for many of the 30,000 people who kill themselves each year in the United States. A co-worker’s suicide has a deep, disturbing impact on work mates. For managers, such tragedies pose challenges no one covered in management school.” This quote from Sue Shellenbarger, staff reporter for the Wall Street Journal in 2001, raises two key reasons that the workplace is exactly the place to address suicide.
First, co-workers and supervisors may be the only people in an at-risk person’s life with whom they have any personal connection or relationship. They may be the only person to know them well enough to notice a change, a hopelessness, and if they don’t intervene, then who will? By bringing this into the workplace, permission is given to employees to speak up if they have concerns about a co-worker and basic training can be given to make employees aware of warning signs, and what to do if they see them.
Second, the effects of a death by suicide on their former co-workers and supervisors can be devastating. They become the survivors of a suicide, but without the support that family or close friends might receive. The questions of how and why can become overwhelming.
As stated by Al Berardi, vice president of McCarthy Holdings Inc., “There aren’t many things more traumatic at work than learning that a co-worker has taken his or her life. While devastating for any group to deal with, construction project teams are often completely dependent on one another, working remotely depending on the location of the jobsite and developing close friendships. It can feel like losing a family member.” McCarthy experienced the suicides of two employees, brothers, in short succession, and has become an industry voice for the importance of talking about suicide in the workplace.
The ultimate reality is that addressing the topic of mental health and suicide prevention is an effort to protect every business’ most precious asset — their people. When asked why his association has become a leader in addressing this topic, Stuart Binstock, president and CEO of the Construction Financial Management Association, responds, “If one accepts the premise that our members are responsible for the financial resources of a company and that the health and safety of human capital is one of the most important financial resources, then how could we not get involved in educating the construction industry about this topic?”
What Can Be Done?
The good news is that any effort can be meaningful. One of today’s most impactful speakers on suicide is Kevin Hines, who in 2000 attempted suicide by jumping off of the Golden Gate bridge and survived. Hines recalls weeping on the bus on the way to the bridge, and as he walked to the bridge, he continued to weep, passing other travelers. No one intervened. He understands that they may have been frightened or uneasy, but believes that if one person had stopped him and asked “Are you alright?” that he might not have jumped.
Building Awareness Is Key
Creating a caring culture where it is not only acceptable, but encouraged, to speak up can truly save lives. There are also tools that many companies already have in place that can benefit employees suffering from mental illness or addiction issues. Educate employees on the mental health benefits included in group medical plans (part of the Affordable Care Act requires behavioral health coverage equal to medical coverage). Make employees aware of your Employee Assistance Program (EAP) and how to use it — include special training for supervisors to understand the referral process that they can use with employees in need.
There is hope.
Prevention is possible and the resources are available without huge investments of time or capital. Open minds — constructive conversations and a caring culture can save lives. To learn more, consider studying the Construction Industry Blueprint for Suicide Prevention in the Workplace, available online at: www.constructionworkingminds.org.
Michelle Walker is vice president of finance and administration for SSC Global and Marj Weber is CFO of Irontree Construction.