How Suicide Prevention Is a Workforce Development Strategy

Through quality management training to help put these measures into practice, and developing strong teams and peer support networks, the construction industry can change the statistics on suicide risk and workforce shortages.
By Michelle Walker
April 8, 2020

Construction companies are facing two major issues: both related to the workforce:

  1. Employees in construction occupations are dying by suicide at a higher rate than any other group.
  2. The workforce available is insufficient to fill open positions resulting in a severe labor shortage.

On the surface these seem like two very different problems, but the underlying causes for each are more closely aligned than might be expected. By building in protective factors to reduce suicide risk, contractors may also be able to improve some of the reasons that potential workforce give for not wanting to join the industry.

The Perception of Construction

The media, television, and movies have created an image of the construction workforce as big and burly, dusty and dirty, rough and tough. Coarse language and even harassing behaviors may be associated with those in the industry. While this image may be exaggerated by the media, there is a definite stoic, macho, rough and tough mentality that still exists in the industry. This can result in a message of “suck it up” or “toughen up”—not beneficial for those experiencing mental health conditions or at risk of suicide and needing to be able to reach out to someone for help. This stoic nature is also a barrier to forming relationships and teams which are necessary to create a network of support for those at risk.

This same image and a possible lack of team atmosphere or rough, possibly harassing behaviors are a turn off for the new workforce that values relationships and has a higher level of sensitivity. It is also a major barrier to women, who are a large and untapped potential workforce, from entering the construction trades and occupations.

By encouraging more positive communication and healthy conflict resolution while having zero-tolerance for harassing behaviors, the industry can become a safer place from those feeling alienated when they are experiencing mental health issues or suicidal thoughts. By creating strong teams, a safe space can be created for people to ask for help, and workers can know each other well enough to recognize suicide warning signs. And through all of this, a more welcoming and positive image can be created which may encourage potential workers to enter the industry.

Life-Work Balance

Construction projects have requirements that place schedule and travel demands on those building them. It is not uncommon for jobsites to be run around the clock, or at night, which creates the need for shift work. Erratic schedules can be challenging for someone living with a mental illness or suicidal thoughts when sleep is already problematic. Construction sites may also be in remote areas, or far from home requiring travel. This can take at risk individuals away from their support systems at home and can also create unhealthy behaviors such as substance misuse to deal with loneliness and isolation.

These same elements of construction projects also remove some of the scheduling flexibility that today’s workforce is seeking, and pose a challenge to families, especially single parent families who are responsible for childcare. In fact, unpredictable schedules are a top reason given by eligible employees for not wanting to enter the construction industry.

While the scheduling requirements and locations of projects cannot be changed, the considerations given for staffing them can. Getting to know employees and their personal needs can help with this. For example, efforts can be made to keep the new father at home with his family instead of sent to the out of town project, and the single mother kept on day shifts so that she can work while daycare is available. This not only makes the industry more inviting but also protects workers from the stress of family needs not being met and potential relationship strain.

Safety and Injuries

Construction jobsites are filled with potential dangers and, despite an increased focus on safety over the past several decades, injuries do still occur. Even when injury incidents don’t occur, the physical nature of construction work can result in wear and tear on the body. Both of these can create chronic pain and future physical limitations, and each of these situations are risk factors for suicide. A true sense of hopelessness can result from feelings of “I will always be in pain” or “I can’t physically do the work or make a living.” And, the chronic pain issues can result in addictions—possibly of legally prescribed drugs like opioids, or by self-medication with alcohol or illicit drugs.

While some are drawn to the potential dangers in construction (another suicide risk factor is risk-seeking behaviors), others are scared away from working in construction because of these risks, and also the fear of physical wear and tear that could lead to problems later in life.

By promoting safety programs and all of the measures that are taken to keep workers safe, the perception of construction as unsafe can be changed. Return-to-work programs, proper management of workers compensation claims and education on the risks of opioids can all reduce the risk for suicide related to workplace injuries. Implementing stretch-and-flex programs, training on proper lifting techniques, and promoting physical wellness programs that encourage people to adopt fitness habits are all ways to help prevent overuse injuries and chronic pain, and are attractive tools for recruitment.

Career Path

When we look at the boomer generation that is starting to retire from the construction workforce, many of them have worked in construction for their entire lives. They may have held the same or similar position their full career, becoming true experts of their craft and having a deep sense of pride in what they have been a part of building. This deep but narrow skill set can have a negative side to it, though, if someone desires or needs a career change due to personal circumstances or physical limitations but cannot seek one due to lack of knowledge or experience. This can result in feelings of hopelessness and increase suicide risk.

The incoming generation views any type of stagnancy in role or lack of career path as a negative reflection on the construction industry. To attract new workers and deepen the talent pipeline, construction employers need to create clear training and advancement plans and show how construction occupations provide opportunity for continued growth, development and increased level of responsibility. This not only helps with attracting employees but, as they grow in other areas of knowledge, it also allows them to work longer into positions with less physical demand—removing the element of getting “stuck” in a position they can no longer do and improving the succession and knowledge transfer in positions in the company.

It All Comes Down to Creating Caring Cultures

There are multiple risk factors driving the suicide rate in construction to more than three times the rate of the general population; many of those risk factors align with barriers to a new generation of workforce and discourage women from pursuing construction occupations. There are many ways addressing these issues can reduce the risk of suicide and the negative perception of careers in construction, but they all boil down to one thing: creating caring cultures.

By creating caring cultures, construction jobsites become safe spaces for those at risk of suicide to seek help as well as being more welcoming to new team members. By considering the person in assigning shifts and travel assignments, the families of the workforce can be preserved and it can be shown that healthy life-work balance is possible. By emphasizing total worker safety and promoting steps for lifelong well-being, the current workforce can be protected and construction occupations can be viewed as safe. And by creating ongoing career development opportunities, employees can have a path for growth and see that it’s possible to have a fulfilling career in construction.

Through quality management training to help put these measures into practice and a focus on developing strong teams and peer support networks in construction companies, the construction industry can change the statistics on suicide risk and workforce shortages.

by Michelle Walker
Michelle Walker, CCIFP, SPHR, is the Vice President of Finance and Administration at SSC Underground, based in Phoenix, Ariz. She is responsible for the accounting/finance and human resource/employee benefit functions of the company with a primary focus in workforce planning and development. She works as a member of the executive team on strategic planning, succession, compliance, safety and IT matters. Michelle’s combination of business acumen and passion for people have merged together as a founder and current chairman of the Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention. The CIASP exists to create awareness and provide resources to the industry in an effort to decrease suicide rates.

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