By Michael Hudson, Occupational Health & Safety
Construction workers are at very high risk for suicide and need support from their industry leaders
Work-related stress is all around us and is exacerbated by stressors in our post-pandemic world as inflation soars and terms like "job burnout" become more ubiquitous, but in certain industries it has a stronger presence. In particular, the construction industry has been overlooked, often resulting in tragedy.
Construction workers today are under increasing pressure and stress. The industry must undergo a complete mental health overhaul and process improvement that identifies and supports those struggling workers to save lives. The CDC found that construction workers have one of the highest suicide rates by population – four times higher than the general population and the second highest of all workplace industries.
Mental health challenges are so pervasive among construction workers that the U.S. Department of Labor has intervened to increase awareness of the immense risk to the industry. OSHA also recently signed an alliance with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention to promote workplace mental health and implement suicide prevention measures, such as providing healthcare professionals, businesses, trade organizations and others with resources and training to raise awareness of issues related to occupational deaths by suicide.
Despite these meaningful steps, the suicide death toll in construction remains devastatingly high, and the industry is fraught with compounding pressures that adversely affect mental health. Long, hard hours and the daily risk of serious injury are embedded into the occupation and contribute to increased stress. In addition, construction workers face uncertain seasonal work and job travel that requires them to be away from their core support systems. The challenging nature of the industry contributes to anxiety, depression and, in some cases, substance abuse – factors that can lead to suicide and accidents if left unchecked.
According to a study by the Center for Construction Research and Training, two-and-a-half percent of male workers self-reported experiencing suicidal ideation and 30 percent cited regular psychological distress. Weak safety and inspection enforcement add physical risk to the workplace, and some construction workers struggle with substance abuse and are victims of the opioid epidemic. Together, these circumstances further worsen the construction industry’s mental health crisis.
Work-related injuries are a real risk, often resulting from distraction and overexertion. Plus, workers may power through their injuries due to insufficient paid time off or fear of unaffordable health care costs.
Forgoing medical treatment increases the risk of suicidal ideation and the likelihood that workers turn to substances to self-medicate. These effects are often seen in tandem – worker who misuse substances were almost twice as likely to report suicidal ideation.
Currently, the burden lies on the individual already in distress to seek out solutions, like enrolling in an employee assistance program or calling a suicide prevention line. Most corporate outreach efforts are limited to generalized awareness and centered around calendar-based campaigns. These outdated strategies are a byproduct of the current sub-optimized model of care. They leave workers isolated and companies out of step with their workforce.
We can’t put the burden in the hands of those who are already struggling. Simply offering access to generic, impersonal resources isn’t enough. To save lives, we must take a more proactive approach to suicide prevention and mental health intervention. We must ensure the offer of focused support to workers who need it most today.
Management can implement software that monitors real-time, evidence-based indicators of suicide risk. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), increased alcohol and drug use, aggressive and/or reckless behavior, dramatic mood swings and social withdrawal are among the warning signs of suicide. Privacy and compliance are the keys to unlocking the anonymous social determinants that are valuable in identifying a struggling employee.
Employers and employees should learn to recognize additional stressors, such as relationship issues, financial pressures, alcohol and drug misuse and troubling social media activity, and be empowered with ways to safely and constructively intervene when necessary. Simple measures such as creating a private and secure way for concerned colleagues to anonymously report if they see warning signs can be the difference between life and death.
As machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) continue to evolve, we should apply these cutting-edge technologies in the workplace to combat construction worker suicide. For instance, secure AI can be used to create a composite risk score that surfaces unusually high levels of suicide risk by aggregating social determinants. This possibility offers an effective technological solution that balances privacy with prevention and allows for timely intervention.
We must flip the current reactive model of suicide prevention. By leveraging technology and cultivating a work environment that encourages reaching out to struggling employees and by them, we can support our workers who are struggling, removing the burden of having to ask for help.