by Sean Clements
It’s been called the “silent epidemic.”
Suicide is a leading cause of death across the United States and the eighth leading cause of death in Arizona. In fact, the suicide rate for men in construction is 49 out of 100,000, nearly twice the suicide rate of working men in other industries.
And yet, no one is talking about it.
Is it the workers – or the industry?
Construction is a male-dominated industry, where discussions around emotional issues, stress, depression, or anxiety are few and far between. With a competitive, "macho" culture, seeking help or support from professional services may not even be seriously considered.
To make matters worse, the work itself can exacerbate any potential mental health issues. The labor is seasonal and irregular, so there isn't much job security. At the same time, when a project is underway, there is pressure to work long hours, leading to the kind of physical exhaustion that can impact life outside the workplace. And that doesn't take into account whether the paychecks stretch far enough to support a family.
The heavy labor can lead to injuries or even chronic conditions – and the drugs prescribed may help with the pain but also add to the industry’s drug abuse problem.
It all leads to a sense of helplessness and despair.
At the same time, working on a job site far away from home – or even just working long hours and not spending much time with your family and friends – may remove a worker from their social support network, the people who could do the most to recognize a mental health challenge and help to turn it around.
Another challenge is the pressure to perform risky activities for the sake of completing a job quickly. The relentless pressure builds and builds until finally, something happens.
What’s the Right Way to Respond?
Most construction employers don't discuss employee mental health until after a worker dies from suicide. Then there's the reactive scramble to make sure counselors are available for a short period.
Unfortunately, this is not an effective – or even a caring – response. It is essential to provide support to help coworkers with their grief. But it's even more important to take steps to prevent suicide.
Start by sharing information in an authentic, meaningful way. Suicide should be discussed in a small group format or a break-out session during annual training, not presented in a town hall meeting. The topic merits focused attention. If you aren’t sure how to provide this education, get help. Your broker can provide resources to support your efforts – or the broker can direct you to someone who can.
No one expects construction workers to be able to diagnose their coworkers. But they should be able to recognize a cry for help. Approximately 70 percent of those who die by suicide make a direct or indirect statement that sends a signal. Therefore, it may be helpful to provide information on signs of stress, symptoms of depression, and suicide awareness.
To read the rest of this article, you are invited to purchase the digital issue here.
This article originally appeared in the bimonthly Arizona Contractor & Community magazine, Nov/Dec 2021 issue, Vol. 10, No. 6.