Taking a stand against suicide in construction

One could argue that among the few positive developments to come out of the Covid-19 pandemic is a greater awareness and acceptance of the need to openly address mental health issues.

One could argue that among the few positive developments to come out of the Covid-19 pandemic is a greater awareness and acceptance of the need to openly address mental health issues.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, construction ranks #1 for suicides by career. The suicide rate for men in construction and extraction occupations is almost twice the total suicide rate for civilian working men and is five times greater than the rate for all fatal work-related injuries in the construction industry.

To find out why suicide is so prevalent in construction, and what can be done about it, CONEXPO-CON/AGG 365 talked with Michelle Walker, vice president of finance and administration of SSC Underground in Phoenix, Ariz, who helped start the Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention (CIASP) in 2015.

CONEXPO-CON/AGG 365: Tell us about the Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention.

Michelle Walker: The Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention was formed five years ago by a group of financial professionals as part of our association with the Construction Financial Management Association (CFMA). It was brought to us as a risk management topic, and we started doing some research and ended up forming this group in response to construction being rated by the Centers for Disease Control as the most at-risk industry for suicide.

We created this organization to get the message out to the entire construction industry to address this as a risk management and safety problem, as well as a health issue on the softer side of human resources management.

This issue has definitely been thrust into the spotlight due to the effects of Covid-19, which has given added attention to mental health and the reality of what the pandemic has brought to the entire population.

We’ve been trying to help other organizations and industries, and even just individuals, address this as a wellness topic in the workplace, how it should be talked about, and the tools and resources available to help with that. We’re focused on construction, but this has been the year for the message to get out more globally.

CONEXPO-CON/AGG 365: Why are construction workers at such risk?

Walker: First, there’s the male ‘macho’ stoic nature of the average construction worker. It’s just not a population that is typically willing to speak up or ask for help. Even just expressing emotion or that something’s going on hasn’t been highly supported in the past, so a lot those issues are internalized and swept under the rug by those individuals. When that happens, issues continue to grow bigger or are dealt with by self-medication, either through alcohol or substance misuse, which can exacerbate existing problems and create new issues.

There’s also the transient nature of construction work, which puts into question things like workers’ access to benefits, as well as their ability to build a strong network of peer support that would allow for open communication. Construction workers often work jobs that are away from home and have variable work schedules. Construction has an up and down nature in both the economy and the availability of work, so there’s some inherent instability.

A lot of those factors can build up and take somebody from having mild depression or anxiety to a more severe place on the mental health spectrum. Construction has a lot of those potential triggers that increase an existing struggle, and traditionally, there have not been a lot of safeguards in place to give workers the ability to reach out and seek help when needed.

CONEXPO-CON/AGG 365: What is the CIASP doing to help?

Walker: We try to reach the employer to put in place safeguards and protective factors for their workforce. Some of the things are as simple as posters that you can hang up on a job site or in work areas to start the conversation about mental health and suicide and begin to ‘normalize’ the topic. We have wallet cards that list warning signs to look for and refer back to when you’re thinking, hey, Bob has been doing this, this and this... maybe I should be concerned.

We offer Toolbox Talks and we also promote resources such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, and we’ve partnered with an organization called LivingWorks to offer a free, one-hour online training program that’s accessible anywhere, anytime. It’s designed help teams learn about the warning signs and how to have that conversation with somebody if they feel they might be a risk. If somebody suddenly shows a really negative change in performance, for example, we need to consider personal factors that might be contributing.

We also have a needs analysis tool for contractors to help them to determine if they’re providing the right protective factors in the workplace. There are a lot of tools to help equip the average construction company build this into existing practices. It’s not about starting a whole new initiative, it’s about addressing mental and emotional well-being, not just physical well-being, from a safety perspective.

There are a lot of touch points already there because the industry is already so safety focused. This initiative really fits naturally into that way of thinking.

CONEXPO-CON/AGG 365: How has the industry responded?

Walker: The past year has been good in getting people to buy into the importance of this topic because of everything that’s happened with Covid. Mental health is much more discussed as more people struggle with anxiety and depression due to the pandemic.

As it’s talked about more openly, we’re starting to see the light bulb go on for people who begin thinking about someone they work with and what might be going on with them. If they can make a personal connection to the issue, they start to see a need for this awareness and the adoption of suicide prevention practices.

CONEXPO-CON/AGG 365: How has your company incorporated this initiative into its culture?

Walker: At SSC Underground, it’s a part of every employee meeting we have. It’s addressed either from a training perspective, as in, here are some warning signs to look for, or just from an awareness standpoint, kind of building mental health literacy. We’re lucky to have top-down leader support at SSC, the owners are vocal proponents of suicide prevention.

A big part of this is helping people understand that mental health and suicide prevention are not things you shouldn’t talk about. We want our employees to know that if they need help, we’re here to help them get that assistance. And if we hear about any bullying or teasing because someone is struggling, that’s not tolerated.

From a performance management point of view, we’ve become very adept at recognizing that when an employee’s performance suddenly changes, there’s probably a backstory, so by just disciplining them, you run the risk of making the situation worse.

Employers need to ask questions, like hey, we’ve noticed you miss every Monday of work, or you’re late three times a week now, is there something going on that’s led to this change? Just asking a question can lead someone to share their story. Often, they just want somebody to ask, and by sharing their story, then we can help connect them to the care they need, and give them the time they need to deal with their challenges.

Every time we’ve had one of these situations that ends positively, that individual becomes a more committed, more loyal employee because they see that their employer genuinely cares about their situation and will help them get through it.

CONEXPO-CON/AGG 365: What’s your advice to construction companies?

Walker: Training is a big part of it, so putting frontline supervisors through some level of awareness training is a preventive move. We provide the LivingWorks training, but there are multiple resources out there that go through the warning signs and tell you how to have that basic conversation with employees.

There’s also ‘Gatekeeper Training’ which is longer, three to four hours, and goes more in depth to enable leaders to have a deeper conversation with people, and just feel more comfortable with the subjects of mental health and suicide.

Mental health care is a very underserved and understaffed segment of our healthcare system right now, so it’s a good idea to look at your group health benefit directory and find out who and where are the mental health providers in your area that are taking new patients.

If you or someone you know are thinking about suicide or are in need of help, please visit the Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention for a list of resources that provide confidential support 24 hours a day, seven days a week.