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The Mental Health and Suicide Epidemic in Construction: Why it’s Happening and How You Can Help

The suicide rate for those with a career in the construction industry is nearly 4 times higher than the national average. Read that again. If you work in the construction industry, you are four times more likely to die by suicide than someone who does not.

We all know construction is a hazardous job, yet construction workers are more likely to die by suicide than all the other job site hazards, combined. There are on average 3 construction-related fatalities per day, compared to 10-12 construction workers who die by suicide per day.

Yet, for some reason, mental health is not a standard part of the health and safety program of most construction companies.

Why is Mental Health and Suicide Such a Problem in Construction?

Men, in general, are at higher risk of suicide than women, and they dominate the industry. They also typically refrain from discussions surrounding their feelings with their peers, adding to the feelings of isolation. The industry also employs a lot of veterans, who are even more at risk than men in general.

However, there are many other industries dominated by men which do not have the same mental health statistics, so there has to be more to it than gender.

In the past, suicide has solely been linked to untreated (or mistreated) mental health issues. However, studies now show the workplace environment is a major contributing factor.

Employment is supposed to offer us a sense of purpose and provide us with social interaction and stability. On the other hand, negative or toxic work environments can lead to disconnection and despair.

Below is a list of factors that tend to lead to negative employee perceptions of their workplace:

  • Work that isn’t meaningful or rewarding (little exposure to the finished product or effect)
  • Work-family conflict (demands at work spill into family life, hours, pay levels, etc)
  • Low job control (lack of decision-making ability, lack of variety in job tasks)
  • Excessive pressure and expectations to work overtime
  • Prejudice and discrimination at work
  • Work-related sleep disruption (early and or late shifts)
  • Exposure to dangerous elements at work (jobs with a high risk of fatalities)
  • A culture of poor self-care and coping strategies (bottling feelings, drugs, alcohol)

Many of these factors are rampant within the construction industry, thereby leading to a higher rate of mental health issues and suicide. Regardless of the reasons why it is this way, it has to change. We need to take better care of our construction workers.

What Can Construction Employers do to Combat the Mental Health Epidemic?

There are two major ways that construction companies can proactively reduce the chances of mental health issues and suicide among their employees.

1. Fix Your Company Culture

Take a good hard, honest look at your company culture and ask yourself if the factors listed above are existent there. If they are, the first step is to eliminate them, or at least reduce them. These changes need to directly reflect the areas your company needs improvement with but here are some ideas to get your creativity flowing:

  • Email your staff with pictures of the final products they were a part of constructing, so they may feel a pride in their workmanship
  • If the days are too long, implement shifts or shorten the number of working days in a week (half get Monday’s off and half get Friday’s off)
  • Include your employees in decision-making opportunities, even if it’s not their field of expertise, ie, have a vote on the new company logo
  • Have conversations and provide coaching surrounding discrimination, work-life balance, healthy eating, coping strategies and more

2. Implement a Suicide Prevention Program

You should already have a formal health and safety program, now is the time to add a section on suicide prevention. Below is how to do that.

What is a Suicide Prevention Program?

The Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention uses the acronym STAND to advocate for construction companies to address suicide prevention as a health and safety priority by:

Creating SAFE cultures

The first step is to understand mental health issues, recognize your company’s part in it and commit to making improvements by adding them to your health and safety program. A culture of safety as a priority is best achieved from the top level of management down and must include actions, not just empty promises.

Providing TRAINING to identify and help those at risk

Just the same as you have dedicated First Aid / CPR trained employees on your sites, so should you have employees formally trained in suicide intervention. Additionally, conduct company-wide training on typical warning signs and how to refer a coworker who you are concerned about.

Raising AWARENESS about the suicide crisis in construction

This should be conducted internally through individual check-ins, toolbox talks, and team meetings as well as externally through newsletters and social media. Ensure the families of your employees also receive this information so they can educate themselves and watch for signs as well.

NORMALIZING conversations around suicide and mental health

Talk about the importance of mental health, hang posters, make it normal and acceptable to ask for help, and to take a ‘mental health break’. Encourage other contractors, distributors, and trade associations to do the same.

Ultimately DECREASING the risks associated with suicide in construction

Provide access to mental health care through employee benefit packages, offer self-screening tools, and provide access to crisis support hotlines via phone and text.

How Harness is Committed to Help

At Harness, we have recognized that, as leaders in the construction health and safety industry, we have a responsibility to raise awareness of this issue. In response to that, we have committed to providing all contractors with FREE access to construction-specific toolbox talks focused on mental health and suicide prevention.

We have included these toolbox talks as a downloadable resource at the end of this article and have also added them to the selection of digital toolbox talks included in the free version of our safety app. Learn more about our FREE Plan or download the paper resources by clicking the button below.

By Sue Drummond

Sue Drummond knows that learning new technology can be intimidating and overwhelming sometimes. That's exactly why her role at Harness Software is to teach, guide and customize that fear away. Together with our clients, she sets project priorities, exchanges resources and shares best practices, all in an effort to achieve happier and healthier employees and safer job sites.