Mental Health and Suicide Prevention in the Construction Industry
Suicide rates in the construction industry are extremely high. We can change that.
Stress and anxiety are having an enormous impact on the construction industry.
The job site itself is full of stressors, but those are compounded by factors that extend beyond the workplace, including the global pandemic, unpredictable weather conditions, and an uncertain economy.
Taken together, these stressors give us at least a partial explanation of the prevalence of suicide in the industry.
In this article, we'll look at some of these factors and consider what can be done to address them.
People and Emotions
Construction workers are not immune to the emotional upheaval that can come from receiving a request to return home. When that happens, there's usually fear, uncertainty, and doubt because the jobs they rely on might be gone by the time they return.
Working close to home doing maintenance projects might be a convenient alternative, but the pay is significantly less.
On out-of-town jobs, workers typically receive a per diem. On the home maintenance projects, the pay can be cut by as much as 50%, there’s no overtime, and workers do a straight 40 hours per week.
There’s no clear winning formula in either scenario.
Construction professionals are working harder and working longer hours.
(Learn more in 7 Ways to Create Healthy Working Environments for Construction Teams)
“During this pandemic I have not had one day off,” said Norma Evans, an HSE Trainer at JJ Safety. “I have worked overtime and heard of numerous customers of mine closing doors, getting sick, or being in the same boat as myself. The mental burden is very taxing. My heart aches for so many,”
On most construction sites, there’s no vacations or sick time. Life just goes on, which is very stressful and leads to frustration and anger.
“I’ve had to intervene to calm people down,” said Yorlanda Fisher, Warriors 4 Safety. “You’re told to leave home at the gate, but you don’t know where the next project is coming from. On the other hand, these are once in a lifetime events that you never get back, so you try to find ways to cope.”
“I’ve seen too many divorces because of the difficulty of managing the time/money balance in the construction field,” Fisher added.
Fisher manages the time/money balance by scheduling time to talk to family — typically on the way to and from work.
Her head is then clear to deal with everyday hazards because people rely on her for safety and protection. The safety person must be well-rested and mentally alert to protect others.
(Find out How the Construction Industry Can Benefit from Protecting Worker Wellbeing)
Statistics Tell The Story
Ben Snyman, CEO of SafetyVantage Inc, has a background in risk management, compliance, and occupational safety. He believes that the traditional focus in the construction industry has been on safety, not mental wellness.
Snyman shared some interesting statistics.
In Canada, there are approximately three workplace-related fatalities per day and 1,017 per year, according to OHS Canada, while there are 10 suicides per day and 4,000 suicides per year, according to the Government of Canada's website.
Though it is difficult to assess whether suicides are directly related to work-related stress factors, Snyman believes it is a contributing factor.
The stress, disruption, and uncertainty caused by the pandemic is also causing pronounced mental health concerns, including suicidal thoughts and feelings, according to the Mental Health Commission of Canada.
In Canada, 500,000 workers are off work due to mental health reasons, according to the Commission.
So the question is what can we do from an awareness and education perspective to deal with the increasingly complex problem of mental health and wellness in the construction industry?
Snyman said that Canada is the first country to create psychological & workplace standards, CAN/CSA-Z1003-13/BNQ 9700-803/2013 – Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace.
He said that anxiety and depression are costing the Canada economy $51 billion pre-pandemic.
Moreover, according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), construction has one of the highest suicide rates (49.4/100,000) across all industries in the United States.
In fact, more lives are lost per day from suicide than from all of OSHA’s Fatal Four Hazards combined.
Why Does Construction Have Such a High Suicide Rate?
Many share the belief that the type of workplace culture found in the construction industry directly correlates to the high rates of suicide among workers. There’s a culture of toughness, combined with a sense of fearlessness and thrill-seeking.
Things like family separation, isolation, extensive travel, sleep disruption and deprivation due to shift work, seasonal layoffs, and end-of-project furloughs are all factors that can be hard to handle.
On top of that, there's a prevalence of chronic pain and alcohol and substance abuse, coupled with performance pressures (schedule, budget, quality).
(Learn more in Substance Abuse in the Workplace: Know the Signs and Take Action)
Solutions & Suggestions
“We need to relook at the employer/employee relationship and create more of a positive impact in the workplace,” said Snyman.
“How we interact at work starts with little things, like civil discourse, but things can escalate quickly because workers are stressed, they’re thrown together and they have to evolve into artificial communities,” he said.
Snyman believes that reporting harassment to your supervisor may be a trap because the supervisor may be causing the harassment or the supervisor tries to play psychologist when they’re not qualified
Snyman recommends creating a mental health first responder position to create a psychologically safer workplace. This is an idea promoted by both the Red Cross and the Mental Health Commission of Canada.
One bright spot in all this is the Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention (CIASP). The CIASP was born out of necessity in response to the CDC statistics.
Established by the Construction Financial Management Association (CFMA) in 2016 to shatter the stigma surrounding mental health issues, CIASP became a standalone 501(c)(3) organization in 2018. Their goal is to raise awareness about suicide prevention and provide resources and tools to create a zero suicide industry by uniting and supporting the construction community.
But there are also things you can do at a more grassroots level.
The construction community needs to band together to recognize these critical issues. Talk to one another. Check in. Don’t assume the person working nearby is just fine.
Once we start really conversing and caring, then we can make some headway.
Written by Jack Rubinger
Jack Rubinger has 10+ years of experience writing about workplace safety, construction, lean manufacturing, warehouse management, visual communication, healthcare, agriculture, education, and technology. His articles have been published in a wide range of media, including ISHN, EHS Today, New Equipment Digest, Industry Week, and many others.