In 2020, the CDC found that the construction industry has the second-highest suicide rate in the country, and construction workers are 3.5 more likely to die by suicide. With the suicide rate in construction ranked as one of the highest by occupation, industry leaders and members must take the necessary steps to educate and support those at risk. In addition to spreading awareness and education around the topic, something more sustainable and lasting must be done to help prevent and reduce suicides in construction.
To confront this mission head-on, a group of dedicated volunteers founded the first-ever initiative to prevent suicide in the industry shortly after the findings were released. This year, Construction Suicide Prevention Week is September 5 – 9, which coincides with National Suicide Prevention Month. Aimed to spread awareness, garner education, and prevent more lives from being lost, this vital week shines a light on a heartbreaking industry issue.
Why are Suicide Rates Higher in the Construction Industry
While a handful of root causes and factors leave construction workers more at risk than other occupations, most seem to be traced back to the overarching theme of mental health and job strain. Issues such as undiagnosed mental illness, overconsumption of alcohol, drug dependency, high-stress levels, and the stigma surrounding mental health, especially in men, are all too common in this male-dominated industry. Additional risk factors to consider when contemplating why suicide rates are higher in the construction industry include work-related access to lethal means, lack of leadership and support at work, and job insecurity. All of this was also exasperated by the covid-19 pandemic, which magnified many of these factors and created new stressors and challenges.
Tips to Promote Wellness in the Workplace
1. Reduce Stress
Unmanaged and high-stress levels can wreak havoc on your life, whether physically, emotionally, or psychologically. Construction is considered a high-stress job for reasons such as long work hours, physical labor, weather conditions, labor shortages, living through a pandemic, and more. Overall strain and stress from work carry over into home life, and these occupational factors increase the risk for depression, alcohol and drug use, and suicidal thinking. To combat and reduce stress at job sites over the country, there is a wealth of knowledge to combat and reduce stress in your life.
To reduce stress, specifically in the construction industry, there are a few tips and tricks to implement in your day-to-day life. Eliminate stressors by removing yourself (when you can) from taxing encounters, take care of yourself by eating healthy and getting plenty of rest, participate in activities that bring you happiness, communicate your feelings with trusted confidants, and finally, don’t be afraid to ask for help if you notice your stress levels may be too high.
2. Monitor and Moderate Alcohol & Drug Use
For many reasons, the construction industry reports higher drug and alcohol use rates. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration conducted a cross-industry study where 16.5% of full-time construction workers reported drinking heavily in the last month, regardless of age or gender. Between 2008 and 2012, the industry ranked second highest with heavy alcohol use and fifth highest for employees with a substance use disorder.
To combat this issue, the Construction Coalition for a Drug- and Alcohol-Free Workplace was founded to provide organizations and businesses with the resources necessary to implement substance abuse policies. In addition to companywide incentives to reduce alcohol and drug use, those struggling with addiction can also benefit from rehabilitation programs, cognitive-behavioral therapies, and other evidence-based services that help get to the root cause of drug and alcohol abuse.
3. Communicate Openly About Mental Health
Because mental health disorders have such a stigma, it can be challenging to speak up in such a “tough guy” industry. However, valuing emotional health just as much as physical health can help remove the stigma around mental health and diagnoses such as depression and anxiety. One in five workers in the United States experienced an existing diagnosed mental illness in their lifetime; less than 50% of those people actually seek help and support. This leaves room for an 80% success rate with early intervention and treatment, but that’s only if people feel comfortable talking openly about what is really going on.
Having an open-door policy in place for communication in the workplace not only removes embarrassment or shame around common human issues but also cultivates a stronger feeling of belonging and connectedness between employees and employers. Talking about mental health can seem frightening and very vulnerable. However, we must normalize communication about these complex topics that are the reality in the construction industry.
4. Seek Professional Guidance & Utilize Resources
A massive component of promoting overall wellness in the industry is ensuring programs and resources are in place to get those who are struggling to get the help they need. Having Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) and union Member Assistance Programs (MAP) that cover the cost of mental health care and provide access to therapists and related services should be the industry standard. If you do not have access to work-based programs surrounding mental health, there are lifelines and text lines you can reach out to 24/7 to talk to a trained crisis counselor. This includes the brand-new 988 Suicide & Crisis Hotline, available via text or phone call 24/7, 365 days a year.
5. Foster a Positive Workplace Culture
Lastly, employers are the ones who can create even more opportunities to enhance workplace culture regarding mental health. More innovative outlets like toolbox talks on mental health safety, mental health first aid education, and lunch and learn sessions on topics on reducing stress or coping mechanisms can be highly beneficial for employees. When we learn to integrate mental health practices into overall health in the workplace by incentivizing and promoting wellness, we build a more caring and compassionate culture.
Feeling heard, seen, and valued in the workplace can create long-lasting positive effects on workers. Ideas like bi-weekly check-ins, mental health buddy systems, reduced access to lethal means, and strategic plans for crisis response in workplace suicides can be constructive to create a safe and healthy work environment.