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How to Take Steps to Combat Construction’s Suicide Epidemic in Your Own Organization

BY JOHN WALLEN
VICE PRESIDENT AND WISCONSIN CONSTRUCTION PRACTICE LEADER 
HUB INTERNATIONAL, A MEMBER OF MULTIPLE AGC CHAPTERS 

Mental health has been in the spotlight over the last year, with stay-at-home orders and school closures keeping many Americans at home more than the usual. But even before that, a mental health epidemic was already raging across America. Suicide has increased 40% in the last two decades. It’s the second leading cause of death among young adults aged 15 to 34. 

Among a young population already prone to fragility, extra job stress can be enough to push an individual over the edge. In construction, where there is a strong emphasis on getting the job done quickly and on maintaining a tough attitude, the situation can become explosive. 

Construction workers certainly have serious job-related stress. Whether it’s the lack of job security and the ever-changing schedules, an overabundance of high-risk activities or the health conditions associated with heavy labor, construction workers are at risk. It’s time for construction organizations to take proactive steps to support their employees. 

EDUCATE THE ORGANIZATIONS AND THE WORKERS

The average construction employer isn’t any more prepared to talk about suicide and mental health than the workers are. Generally, organizations have a more reactive response to employee suicide – they may bring in counselors to help coworkers with their grief in the immediate aftermath – but little is done in terms of prevention. 

When opening the conversation in your workplace, it’s a good idea to bring in some help. Your broker may be able to provide you with resources or recommend an organization that specializes in mental health and suicide prevention. 

The topic requires some focused attention, but you’ll have to tread carefully. Inviting all your employees to attend a company-wide seminar on mental health is likely to lead to much mockery and little impact. But offering a small group training or holding a break-out session at your annual meeting may lead to more positive interactions. 

MAKE A DIFFERENCE

Approximately 70% of those who die by suicide make direct or indirect statements that send a signal something is wrong. Construction managers and workers need to understand that a single person paying attention can make a difference – and could save someone’s life. 

Construction employees aren’t expected to be able to diagnose the problem, but that doesn’t mean they can’t pay attention. Learning about signs of stress, observable symptoms of depression and even suicide risk factors can all make a difference. 

CHANGE THE COMPANY CULTURE

It isn’t easy changing the culture of an entire company. It works best when the change comes from the top and trickles down. That’s why construction management teams need to lead the way. Begin with these steps: 

Normalize mental health struggles. Create opportunities for employees to share their struggles with mental health – and be sure the management team participates. Stories don’t need to be dramatic to be impactful. Just talking about a challenge is sometimes enough for a struggling employee to feel comfortable having the conversation about their own issues. 

Offer paid time off. For some employees, taking time off isn’t an option. But when employers offer paid time off for mental and physical illness, employees can get the help they need more easily – and employers get happier, healthier employees who can do better work for the organization.  

Advertise the EAP. Mental health struggles often require the help of a professional, which seems expensive and out of reach to many employees. But many organizations already have accessible mental health support in place through their employee assistance provider (EAP). Encourage all employees to enter the EAP’s phone number in their cell phone contacts to make it easier to reach out. 

Share information about risk factors and warning signs. Employees can help each other by watching out for each other. Educating employees about what to look for can help, including: 

  • Risk factors 
  • A family history of suicide or a history of trauma
  • Suffering from a serious physical illness 
  • Having attempted suicide 
  • Financial or relationship pressures 
  • Lack of support networks 
  • Cultural stigma over mental health
  • Indicators of mental stress 
  • Weight and appetite changes 
  • Chronic headaches 
  • A tight chest 
  • Anxiety and indecision
  • Loss of motivation 
  • Increased sensitivity 
  • Low self-esteem 
  • Increased smoking and drinking 
  • Withdrawal or aggression
  • Reckless behaviors 
  • Difficulty concentrating 

John Wallen is vice president and Wisconsin construction practice leader for global insurance brokerage Hub International, a member of multiple AGC chapters. He has more than 30 years of experience providing risk management consulting, effective insurance solutions and innovative risk and cost reduction strategies for the construction industry.