Suicide Prevention in the Construction Industry
Suicide is a leading cause of death for men in the United States, and 19 percent of all male suicides occur among construction workers. In a high-risk industry with often-stressful working conditions, suicide is an unfortunate symptom of mental illness. While any job can lead to debilitating anxiety and depression, the construction workforce is particularly prone to mental health issues — and worse, less likely to seek help.
In recognition of Mental Health Awareness Month, it's time to shine a light on the construction industry's suicide problem, particularly how it emerges from (and affects) the construction industry.
Key Risk Factors for Suicide Among Construction Workers
First, it's important to explain that suicide itself is not an illness but rather a symptom of poor mental health. Causes can be varied and complex, from pre-existing mental health issues to severe stress to certain antidepressants and pain meds. Those who misuse narcotics and alcohol are more likely to die by suicide. In any case, suicide typically happens after a period of ideation, but intervention has been shown to reduce the incidence of suicide. That's why it's crucial to break the stigma surrounding mental illness and get people talking about their mental health.
Construction workers are highly susceptible to suicidal ideation, which is why the rate of suicide in the construction industry is disproportionately high: 53.3 deaths per 100,000 people, as compared to the overall U.S. rate of 12.93 out of 100,000.
Several characteristics of the construction industry raise this risk:
Emphasis on Tough-Guy Masculinity
As with many hard-labor jobs, construction work is often associated with "macho" attitudes, stoicism, and varying attitudes about masculinity. Stress, anger, pain, and other negative emotions are often considered signs of weakness. While that's not true, the culture emphasizes "strong, real men," and some construction workers may feel shame or reluctance to seek help for mental or emotional issues.
Lack of Job Security or Sustainable Pay
Most construction work is done on a project basis. Once the project ends, construction workers must look for the next opportunity. This instability can lead to feelings of depression, anxiety, and futility. Switching worksites or roles is also isolating. Construction workers spend long days away from their families and friends, and they often lack a consistent group of coworkers for social-emotional support.
While construction jobs can be lucrative, the pay can vary widely — and it's not always enough to live comfortably. Financial worries have long been a primary risk factor for suicide. Low earnings also impact workers' ability to access medical care and healthy lifestyles that could reduce their risk.
Chronic Strain and Fatigue
Daily hard labor in a stressful environment can take a serious toll on workers' physical and mental health. Chronically elevated levels of cortisol have been linked to multiple pain disorders and mental illnesses. Both of these perpetuate poor mental health and increase one's risk of substance abuse — yet another risk factor for suicide.
Indeed, opioid addiction is on the rise in the United States and among construction workers. Dependence on these drugs creates further stress and often increases suicidal ideation. Add in the lack of support systems for addiction recovery, and they are much more likely to die by suicide.
Increased Risk of Bodily Injury
The construction industry has one of the highest rates of worksite incidents that result in serious injury. This can be financially and emotionally devastating for the victim, who may lose time and income from work, develop post-traumatic stress, or experience isolation, depression, and feelings of failure. Many workers equate their profession with their sense of self-worth, so being forced off the job can trigger severe depression and shame.
The Effects of Mental Illness on Construction
The appearance and effects of depression and anxiety vary by the individual, but they typically involve poor concentration, lethargy, low motivation, and trouble communicating with others. Obviously, none are ideal on a construction worksite.
Untreated mental illness creates a higher risk of safety incidents and productivity issues on the job. Both can lead to negative work situations that further increase the risk. It becomes a vicious cycle in which more workers experience a decline in their well-being, yet feel even less able to ask for help.
Preventing Suicide Among Construction Workers
Prevention starts with dialogue. The more people talk about suicide and mental health, the lower the stigma. Construction workers will see that other people experience despair and depression, too — and that it's okay to feel negative emotions. By opening a dialogue, construction firms can encourage their teams to seek help and identify warning signs in themselves and others.
Key Signs of Suicidal Ideation and Risk
Every member of the team should develop awareness about suicidal risk and how to spot someone who may be considering it. The first step is to know that suicide does not only affect weak or mentally ill people. Then, keep an eye out for warning signs:
Talking about feeling trapped, hopeless, lost, or constantly in pain
Behaving recklessly or manically
Using more alcohol or drugs
Showing constant anxiety or fear
Declining to interact with other people
Moving slowly or appearing lethargic or disengaged
Displaying mood swings
Talking about how they're a burden, how much better it would be if they were dead
Safety training and toolbox talks should educate everyone on these signs. If someone notices them in their coworkers or themselves, be sure they know how to obtain help.
Best Methods for Suicide Prevention
In addition to making psychological safety a core topic in your training, keep your employees engaged. Even if the assignment is short-term, provide opportunities for bonding and teamwork.
Display posters and other materials with suicide and mental health crisis hotlines and other relevant details.
Implement an Employee Assistance Program to provide free counseling to everyone who needs mental health support.
Start from the top: all worksite leaders should openly discuss mental well-being and demonstrate that it's okay to feel stressed, angry, or lost. Rather than shaming workers for their emotions or substance use, highlight the importance of good health and the resources available to help. Empathy is vital to destigmatizing depression and addiction — and opening the door to recovery.
Suicide is disproportionally common in the construction industry, but it doesn't have to be. Preventing suicide starts with creating a dialogue to help workers overcome their feelings of shame, identify risk factors, and seek help when they need it. It's also crucial to shift the culture away from machismo, independence, and risky behavior and toward one of compassion, teamwork, and safety.