September is Suicide Awareness Month, and with more focus being given to mental health across the board, it is important to understand its role and impact within the construction industry. Unfortunately, construction has the highest total number of suicides, and is ranked second highest for suicide rate in comparison to other industries. The overall U.S. suicide rate is 13.26 per 100,000, while the construction industry suicide rate is 53.3 per 100,000 – more than four times the overall rate. But why are construction workers disproportionality affected by mental health issues? What are the underlying causes driving this upsetting statistics? Construction suffers from a number of risk factors:

  • The nature of the work. Because of the seasonality of the construction industry in many regions of the U.S., the work can be cyclical with regular periods of lay-offs followed by rehiring. This transitory employment can compound on a sense of isolation for some workers. On the other hand, there can be workforce and skill shortages, leading to higher-pressure atmospheres that can overwhelm employees that have to clock excessive hours.
  • Certain jobsites. Construction sites that include bridges or tall buildings are sometimes the scene of a suicide because they trigger suicidal and other dangerous thoughts.
  • Sleep deprivation and disruption. Some jobs require construction workers to work long or abnormal hours, disrupting their regular routine and inhibiting their ability to get a full night’s rest. This can affect performance, but also exacerbate existing mental health issues and conditions.
  • Fearlessness attitude. There is no doubt that construction is physically demanding work and often workers are rewarded for being brave, even in light of reckless behavior. This kind of environment may deter employees from reaching out if they feel like they need help.

Unfortunately, we can’t change some of the risk contributing to the problem, but we can work to better recognize the signs of distress and put processes in place that prioritize mental health. Stressors typically manifest in three ways, with different tells that we need to keep an eye out for:

  • Physical. These symptoms affect a person’s health and stature, and include chronic fatigue, headaches, dizziness or vertigo, indigestion, change of appetite, weight gain or loss, joint or back pain and chest tightness.
  • Psychological. These symptoms affect a person’s overall demeanor and outlook, and include anxiety, mood swings, loss of motivation, low self-esteem, increased sensitivity and depression.
  • Behavioral. These symptoms affect a person’s daily routine, and include an increase in smoking or drinking, lateness, recklessness and increased aggression.

Educating employees on how to recognize these symptoms is the first step in helping reduce the suicide rate in construction and increasing awareness around mental health in general. If your employee or colleague seems to be exhibiting one of the symptoms above, encourage discussions around stress to legitimize and acknowledge these feelings. Additional ways to foster an environment of safety and wellness on the job include:

  • Teamwork. Emphasize teamwork on the job in order to create a sense of connectedness at work. Encourage employees to engage with one another and work together so they feel a sense of “brotherhood” while working on high-risk projects. This kind of culture will also promote wellness in respect to mental health.
  • Benefits. Make sure your employee benefits program offers access to health insurance and mental health care. This allows construction workers to seek professional assistance when they may need it, without incurring high costs that could deter them from seeking help at all.
  • Training. Provide training to all employees to make them aware of the risk factors and stress they may encounter on the job, and how to deal with it themselves, or when they think a colleague is going through a tough time. Toolbox Talks are an effective way to help present this information to employees in a casual group setting.

Together we can all work to reduce the stigma around mental health, and the impact of suicide on the construction industry. CFMA has established the Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention with the goal of providing and disseminating information and resources for suicide prevention and mental health promotion in construction. Learn more about their efforts here.

If you or someone you know are demonstrating behaviors that indicate suicidal tendencies, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline immediately at 1-800-273-TALK, or a mental health professional.

Jen Caesar