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The construction industry is leading the way in death by suicide, and it has responded with determination to address this public health crisis. According to the 2016 Centers for Disease Control report, deaths by suicide in the construction industry accounted for 20% of the total number among all occupations reported in 2015. Translate that statistic to real people and that means 1,404 unique contributing members of the construction industry lost their lives to suicide in 2015. Compounding this tragedy is the fact that these figures represent data reported by a mere 17 states, which means the scope of this urgent problem is far greater than what is reported.

This problem is emerging as a devastating humanitarian crisis. The high number of deaths by suicide exacts a tremendous toll on construction organizations and presents a ripple effect beyond those most immediately impacted. The case for construction executives to pay attention to this issue is compelling. According to the National Institute of Health report, “Suicide and Life Threatening Behavior, Suicide and Suicidal Attempts in the United States, Costs and Policy Implications,” 2016 Jun, 46(3), 352-362, the average cost for one suicide is estimated to be $1,329,553. With 97% of that number attributed to lost productivity and the remaining 3% due to medical costs.

The epidemic of death by suicide in construction is dire and, without vigorous executive leadership, will most likely continue this disheartening trend. The encouraging fact is that executives have enormous potential to influence culture and associated attitudes and behaviors, which ultimately gives hope for saving lives.

Construction industry leaders have little time to lose in reducing suicides in the workforce. Industry leaders have made amazing progress with serious problems such as reducing workplace accidents and injuries. In the same valiant spirit, reducing death by suicide in an organization and throughout the industry can be tackled by forward thinking and bold leaders willing to exert their influence on the issue.

Develop a Culture of Prevention

Leaders are the architects of culture change in their organizations. Developing leadership competency for mental health and suicide prevention is within that scope and highly achievable with the right tools and mindset. To dig deeper in understanding a leadership competency framework, consider this scenario:

A site manager must address a long-term employee’s declining performance. This manager knows the team member has made statements such as, “Maybe it would be better if I weren’t around;” and “I’m so tired of everything and a burden. I could just go away.” Just prior to a holiday weekend, the employee clears out his personal locker and gives away gear saying, “I won’t need this anymore.” A couple team members bring up their concern. The manager fears the team member is suicidal but isn’t sure what to do.

This example illustrates the discomfort many leaders experience when faced with an employee suffering from mental health concerns or thoughts of suicide. This tension is fully normal and includes the entire continuum of leaders from front line supervisors to the C-suite. Bridging this discomfort requires a radical culture change along with powerful communication tools. A competency framework provides a strong foundation to build a mental health savvy culture and transform hearts and minds.

This leadership competency framework outlines strategic knowledge and tactical skills. Strategic proficiencies include the constellation of behaviors executives use to create and influence organizational culture. The key is embracing mental health and suicide prevention as a vigorous safety and social value. Tactical proficiencies include the basic knowledge to identify someone at risk and skills to respond effectively. Strategic and tactical proficiencies are necessary to succeed at suicide prevention. But without strategic leadership, this dangerous status quo will remain.

Construction executives have a tremendous opportunity to make a powerful impact by embracing three strategic competencies:

  • Communicate a vision: Decide that preventing suicide is an urgent priority and effectively communicate that vision.
  • Initiate culture change: Implement action steps to cultivate and maintain a suicide prevention culture. 
  •  Champion learning: Commit to continuous personal and organizational learning on mental health and suicide prevention.

Construction executives alarmed by the magnitude of this problem need first to determine the level of resources to invest to make an impact. Leaders must commit to building a caring culture and increasing empathy and understanding. Kevin Host, LICSW, is the executive director of Wellspring Family Services Employee Assistance Program (EAP) in Seattle, Washington. Mr. Host has deep experience at the intersection of mental health and workplace effectiveness. He has been a guide for organizational leaders as they navigate complex issues such as workplace trauma and how to help an employee with suicidal thoughts. The variety of issues encountered in a typical day at an Employee Assistance Program is mind-boggling. Many organizational leaders are not aware how EAPs can be their indispensable partner in tackling mental health in the workplace.

Host notes the importance of a comprehensive approach, “The difficulty from the EAP perspective is we often are in a position of reactivity instead of prevention. It really has to be a cultural perspective on the part of upper management. This is not just a poster in the lunchroom, but really a concern that’s felt up and down the hierarchy of the organization.” Construction executives must sincerely believe in the vision of an organization free from mental health stigma and one fiercely committed to reducing death by suicide. Any lack of authenticity or half-hearted support by executives will be sniffed out in a nanosecond. The first step in developing a vision is to self-educate and do a gut check that there is a passion to make a difference by incorporating suicide prevention into workplace safety, and health and wellness programs and practices.

Deneen Grant, SPHR, leadership strategist with Progressive Leadership Group identifies “creating and sustaining culture” as one of the four primary functions of a CEO. Possibly the greatest threat to influencing culture change is the will to see it through as a long-term commitment. There tends to be a lot of energy when an initiative is new, but will an executive culture champion continue to lead the charge when enthusiasm fades? Host stresses, “Leadership needs to agree that it’s a subject they want to address. The high level of suicide in the construction industry—that’s pretty shocking. Leadership would benefit from recognizing that it’s a problem and committing resources—time and finances to develop a strategy. Interventions and technology exist.”

ResourceS

There are many resources available to support the competency of championing continuous learning. For information, resources and consultation, executives can reach out to their account executives at their EAP and Medical Plan providers. Both may offer educational resources and training opportunities that can be used as part of a comprehensive education strategy. Host says, “I’m biased to recommend talking with their account executive at their EAP. Being attuned to mental health issues and how they manifest themselves in the workplace is really the expertise of a high functioning EAP.” This expert consultation can save busy executives valuable time in kick-starting the process.

Leaders can also look to online resources to build a knowledge base such as state departments of health and labor/industries. Washington State Department of Health is one that offers a robust library including detailed guides, checklists, and tip sheets to help leaders get started. Another excellent resource is Harvard School of Public Health and its Means Matter campaign. Finally, the Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention will provide the culture specific resources construction executives need.

Once the commitment is made to create an organizational culture that embraces reducing mental health stigma and preventing suicide, now what? Tactical competencies become the priority as leaders cultivate specific knowledge and skills to build confidence about how to advocate and respond. Executives eager to move the ball forward to create a suicide prevention culture should focus on nurturing three tactical competencies.

  1. Demonstrate leadership competency of instilling trust.
  2. Identify signs of emotional distress and know appropriate ways to intervene.
  3. Communicate with confidence and compassion.

Randi Jensen, MA, LMHC, CCDC, author of “Just Because You’re Suicidal Doesn’t Mean You’re Crazy” has spent decades guiding people out of the complex maze of suicidal thoughts. Her insights are a gold mine for the executive wanting to increase knowledge on the tactical skills needed to champion a suicide prevention culture. Jensen highlights the nuance that makes identifying suicidality so difficult, “A lot of people come to me with symptoms a little less demonstrative of suicidality. It comes as anxiety or difficulty in relationships. I find out later that anxiety is driven by a sense of perfectionism. And, if they are in a managerial role, they find themselves in a position of deep scrutiny.”

Jensen recommends leaders check out the Be the One to Save a Life campaign. They have links to posters that offer that explains a simple, five-step model that Jensen finds highly effective.

  1. Ask
  2. Keep them safe
  3. Be there
  4. Help them connect
  5. Follow up

As organization members gain knowledge, the stigma begins to dissipate and greases the process of culture change. The key is setting up a systematic and consistent means to train and develop people on this topic. At the same time, recognize that prevention really boils down to caring. According to Jensen, “Just be yourself and, if you care, then show you care. Don’t ask someone to reach out. They’re not going to reach out. You’ve got to make sure you’re listening and paying attention. You reach out to them.”

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