A predominantly masculine workforce, high-pressure environments, remote job sites and physical strain have long been trademark elements of the construction industry. But this combination often has tragic consequences, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) finds that men who work in construction have a 65% higher suicide rate than all other male American workers. For an industry that embraces workforce physical safety, it’s high time employers began addressing their workers’ emotional well-being, too.
To elevate awareness this National Suicide Prevention and Awareness Month and beyond, work apparel review and comparison resource Workwear Guru released the “Why Do Construction Workers Have Higher Suicide Rates?” report to help construction employers reduce suicides, and that begins with understanding why the industry is so particularly plagued.
The report highlights four key factors behind this alarmingly high rate:
- A pervasive “tough guy” mentality that often precludes emotional openness and amplifies fears of being perceived as “weak.”
- The cumulative effects of a high-pressure job environment and the strain of meeting tough deadlines, budgets and quality expectations increase suicide risk.
- Remote job sites and locations are common, but long periods of separation from the support system family and friends provide can intensify isolation and feelings of loneliness.
- Opioid dependency is a growing threat, as construction workers are injured 77 times more frequently than the national average, and hard physical labor frequently leads to chronic pain. To wit, the CDC found construction worker overdose deaths increased nearly nine-fold from 2011 to 2018 — more than twice the rate of growth for all industries.
The nature of construction labor is unlikely to change, so it’s up to industry leaders not only to recognize these risks, but also to create more open, emotionally supportive workplaces that actively provide resources to curtail these tragedies.
“Leadership in the organization must take a stand and be willing to address employee mental health in the construction industry with the same tenacious attitude that they address employee physical safety,” agrees Greg Sizemore, vice president of health safety and environment, workforce development with Associated Builders and Contractors.
A whole-health approach
But where to start? Construction companies must first make it clear that it is all right not only to have but also to discuss mental issues, and that often means overcoming the “tough guy” caricature to ensure workers feel comfortable seeking help.
Another effective means to mitigate mental health issues and reduce suicides is to offer employees Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs). In addition to helping overcome the stigma associated with mental health problems, these programs also encourage “employees to connect with mental health and substance abuse services,” adds Dr. Amanda McGough, Licensed Psychologist with BASE Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.
Other simple strategies include recognizing the warning signs outlined by the National Institute of Health (NIH), initiate open conversations, asking honest questions, posting hotline and assistance program information, and directing workers to professional care or other emergency resources.
If these changes start now, perhaps employers can make meaningful reductions in the shocking number of construction workers who elect to die by their own hands.