Talking about suicide
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2016 found that the construction industry has one of the highest suicide rates compared to other sectors, with nearly twice the total suicide rate for civilian working men ages 16 to 64 across 34 states.
In 2018, the CDC reported that suicides in the construction industry were five times greater than the rate for all fatal work-related injuries. The CDC noted that more research is needed to understand why people in the construction industry die from suicide at a higher rate than other industries. At the same time, the CDC suggested that schedule pressures, long hours, time away from families, sleep problems, and injuries could add to some workers' stress, anxiety, and depression.
The agency also suggested that increasing worker job control and ensuring a work schedule of 40 hours a week or less would be an optimal way to minimize occupational risk factors for suicidal thoughts and create and maintain a healthy work environment in the trades.
"Maintaining work hours of 40 or less in the construction industry can be challenging due to financial incentives to work overtime and labor shortages in certain skilled trades," the CDC stated in its report.
Steven Frost, LEED AP BD_C, CHST, ASP, CSP, is among those working in Oregon's construction industry who saw those statistics and felt a deeply personal calling to reverse the trend through a dedicated focus on mental health. Frost is the site safety, health and environment manager for Howard S. Wright, a Balfour Beatty company. He started the push by handing out stickers at job site orientations and hanging up a few suicide prevention posters provided by the carpenter's union.
"If we're not talking about it, people aren't going to say anything about it," he said. "They don't think they will have someone there that they can talk to. Through my job site and orientations, they understand that I'm here to listen. We also have these resources available if you're in a crisis moment."
As Frost searched for a suicide prevention program or organization he could adopt for Howard S. Wright's Portland team, he partnered with its Seattle office to implement the "Need to Talk? Talk to Me!" program. Through the program, project leaders participate in training to become a designated listener and provide immediate access to resources for responding to mental health situations.
Frost launched the program locally during Construction Week in September 2019 and received an overwhelmingly positive response. After his presentation, a tradeswoman stayed behind to talk. Over their hour-long conversation, he provided her with the information she needed to receive care and support.
The following month, Frost and others attended the Construction Financial Management Association's Suicide Prevention Summit. He brought one of his company's project banners to the summit and gave feedback from a general contractor standpoint. He also had lunch with a group of counterparts about a suicide prevention organization formed in Washington. They created the Oregon Construction Industry Suicide task force and held their first meeting in December 2019 at the Lines for Life office in Portland.
"We had a great turnout, and there was representation from a lot of different organizations within our industry," Frost said.
Now called the Construction Industry Suicide Prevention Partners, a Service of Lines for Life, the task force launched a strategic plan to outline stakeholders, initiatives and an approach to developing a comprehensive mental health and suicide prevention program. It is now working on an action plan to provide resources to organizations that want to create a suicide prevention and mental health culture within their company.
"We are filtering and formulating things like toolbox talks and logos with our marketing and branding. And it looks to be coming together nicely. Through the task force, there has been a significant increase in 'Question Persuade Refer' training, which is an evidence-based training to help people ask the question and have the conversation," Frost said. "It really is the ripple effect that we can't measure, all of the training initiatives, conversations, and outreach that have helped bring this topic into the spotlight."
Other new initiatives include the "We Are Here for You Program," which is designed to give organizations a starting point to roll out a suicide prevention program. The program also asks people to be active listeners.
"It does not make counselors out of anyone. Instead, it provides individuals with resources that connect someone in need to a mental health professional," Frost said. "Most of all, it says 'You're not alone' just by having banners on-site, stickers on hard hats, and toolbox talks that discuss mental health and suicide prevention. We are letting the construction industry know that we are here and we are not alone."
Industry leaders who promote mental health awareness and suicide prevention are also focused on physical health and how it correlates to anxiety, depression, and substance misuse. Frost recently filmed a video with the American Heart Association, which has an initiative called "Hard Hats with Heart."
"They have put together some great resources that people in the construction industry can use to enhance their physical and mental health. They even have a video about financial well-being that offers tips on planning and saving strategies," he said.
Frost acknowledges that many people working in construction are hesitant to share information about their personal life or if they need help through a crisis, adding it can be difficult for some people to express themselves in an environment where they can be vulnerable or even be vulnerable at all. Still, conversations about the resources that are available are happening more frequently now.
"We are hearing success stories from people who reached out for help. We are training more people and taking away the stigma of having a conversation about mental health, well-being, and suicide prevention," he said. "The statistics being what they are for the construction industry, someone knows someone who has been impacted by suicide. By talking about things both directly and indirectly, we are defeating the stigma that keeps this topic in the shadows."
People experiencing thoughts of suicide can reach Lines for Life 24 hours a day, seven days a week, at 800-273-8255. Highly trained staff and volunteers provide free, confidential and anonymous help, and interpreters are available.
SAIF leader provides tips for employers to address suicide in the workplace
Bill Barr, SAIF's chief operating officer, recently shared with the Associated General Contractors of America Oregon-Columbia chapter some recommendations on how employers can start conversations about suicide and other mental health concerns with employees. Barr, who leads SAIF's claims management, policyholder safety services, IT, and administrative services, serves on the Construction Industry Suicide Prevention Partners task force.
Talk about it — and listen
There are many ways to support a culture of well-being, but an easy place to start is simply bringing up mental health. Daily check-ins with your team, either one-on-one or in groups, can go a long way, as well as asking thoughtful questions about how they are doing and truly listening to what they have to say.
Offer helpful resources
We recommend promoting mental health services and resources, including remote access to an Employee Assistance Program. Beyond just asking about mental health, ask employees how their equipment, tools and resources are working for them. Listening for ways to provide training, equipment and flexibility can help employees feel supported.
According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, when supervisors support workers and encourage them to manage work and non-work demands, "workers report lower levels of work-family conflict and improvements to their sleep, schedule control, job satisfaction, well-being, and physical health."
Reduce workplace stressors
Employers can seek ways to reduce harmful stress, especially during the pandemic. This includes allowing flexible schedules when possible, encouraging employees to take breaks and available paid time off to take care of their physical well-being while showing they are valuable to the organization's mission.
For more ideas on creating a healthy workplace for mental well-being, visit SAIF online (saif.com/wellbeing). It's also important to learn how to recognize the warning signs of suicide and ways to prevent suicide in the workplace.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.