How to overcome the stigma so the 'S' word is never again taboo on your jobsite
by Cal Beyer
June 6, 2019

The suicide-prevention movement continues to spread like wildfire throughout the construction industry. It seems like there is a news story with an updated statistic almost weekly.

Articles are published regularly, and industry associations are sharing these and other resources with their members. Yet, it seems that only the surface has been scratched. The fact remains—the construction workforce remains at risk of suicide due to risk factors unique to construction and its demographics.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), construction workers remain four times more likely to die by suicide than the population at large—a rate equal to 53.2 per 100,000 workers. Male-dominated industries are most vulnerable, and especially so in a masculine, macho, tough-guy culture like construction. 

The already deeply rooted culture of alcohol and substance use became more problematic with the emergence of the opioid epidemic. In addition, the construction industry has the highest use of prescription opioids due to chronic pain from occupational injuries. 

Don’t Ignore the ‘S’ Word

Suicide is a personal issue, a family issue, a community issue and a societal issue. So, why isn’t it a workplace issue? For years, there was no mention of suicide in the workplace. In fact, the “s” word was considered too private and sensitive to talk about on the job. Yet, over 200 million workdays are lost annually due to mental illness. One in five Americans experience a diagnosable mental illness during their lifetime, with anxiety and depression the two most common. 

Again, this begs the question: Why has it been taboo to talk directly about mental health and suicide? The biggest obstacle is the stigma associated with talking about mental health, suicide and substance use, which results in workers and their family members suffering alone, in silence and, often, shame. Breaking this stigma is the key to unlocking help that can lead to hope, recovery and rehabilitation. 

Implement Safety, Health & Wellness Programs

The question remains a personal one for construction company executives and leaders: What has your company done to address suicide prevention? In fact, this question needs to be even more specific and inwardly focused. (i.e., What have you done to address suicide prevention in your workplace?)

Bold leadership is required of construction owners and executives to decide to address suicide prevention as a workplace issue, and addressing mental health and suicide prevention is an emerging leadership competency. Leaders in high-risk industries, such as construction, can no longer ignore the reality of distress among employees and their families. Action is required to help bring awareness, advocacy and accountability to address organizational gaps in knowledge, available resources and support for at-risk employees.

The following 10 steps help provide focus to a construction leader who wishes to proactively address this topic:

  1. Resolve to stop thinking about this topic and instead commit to tackle it in your company by discussing it with your leadership team. 
  2. Educate yourself and your leadership team on mental health issues, suicide prevention and addiction recovery. 
  3. Understand the behavioral health services available in your health plan. Your health benefits broker can provide you with additional information. If you’re a union contractor, check to see what benefits are available through the union health plan. Then, share this information with new hires, at health fairs and during open enrollment.
  4. Verify the resources available through your company’s employee assistance program (EAP). Ensure the available employee or union health benefits and referrals are considered in-network under your health benefits plan. 
  5. Identify local mental health and suicide-prevention organizations in your community available to offer training and provide resources, such as the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) and the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). 
  6. Display suicide-prevention posters in the areas where employees assemble. The Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention offers downloadable posters at preventconstructionsuicide.com that are helpful in setting the tone.
  7. Conduct a companywide safety stand-down, or time set apart for, talking about a respectful workplace and the need for sensitivity and acceptance of others. Specifically, mention that construction is a high-risk industry for mental illness, suicide and addiction and that resources are available. Talk about the steps you and your company are taking to make your workplace a safe zone and the mental health and suicide prevention resources available.
  8. Distribute refrigerator magnets with the company’s EAP or the union’s behavioral health contact information. Another way to reach employees is to distribute wallet cards for sharing with their spouses and children that lists numbers to call with resources like the Crisis Text Line or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. 
  9. Incorporate discussions about mental health, suicide prevention and addiction into your company’s new-hire orientation process and checklist. This is a good time to provide samples of two separate wallet cards. 
  10. Request that supervisors conduct periodic toolbox talks on the topics of mental health, suicide prevention and addiction recovery. 

Today’s construction business owners and leaders face the growing challenge of workers at risk of mental illness, suicide and/or addiction. And these problems are often comorbid. It is imperative for owners and leaders to understand the risk and take action to create awareness and advocacy within their organizations. It is no longer acceptable to ignore this reality. 

Become knowledgeable and equipped to address the issues and challenges posed by the threat of mental illness and addiction. Become better prepared and share resources for employees and their families. This will demonstrate that your people really are the most valuable asset in your company.

Additional Resources

  • American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (afsp.org)—State-specific suicide statistics, state chapter contact information for bereavement care packages and for requesting training resources
  • Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention (preventconstructionsuicide.com)—Links to articles, whitepapers, needs-assessment checklists, downloadable posters, tools and other resources
  • Living Works Education USA (livingworks.net)—Provider of various training programs ranging from 90 minutes to 2 days in length, focused on suicide prevention 
  • National Alliance on Mental Illness (nami.org)—Library of facts sheets and infographics; state chapter contacts and a listing of training programs
  • Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration (store.samhsa.gov)—Directory of publications and digital resources