The construction industry is well known for having a high physical injury rate. Perhaps less well known is its elevated risk for mental illness — specifically, high suicide rates. Recently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) studied more than 22,000 individuals working in different market sectors. The CDC found that construction workers had the highest suicide rate, at roughly four times the national average. Clearly, this is an issue that construction company owners and managers need to know about so they can take steps to prevent loss of life on their own crews.
Small Company Blues
Construction businesses face several challenges when it comes to their employees’ well-being. First off, most are small companies. More than 90% employ fewer than 20 workers, and only about 1% employ more than 100 employees. These smaller operations typically don’t have the HR staff to, for example, mediate disputes, direct disciplinary actions or provide crisis management resources. What’s more, owners and managers of smaller companies usually don’t have the training — not to mention the time — to handle HR functions.
What’s the owner of a smaller business to do? Implement an effective suicide prevention program, which may be relatively easier and less expensive than you might think. The key to success depends on fostering a friendly and supportive environment.
Here’s where small construction companies may have an advantage over their larger peers. With a compact team, your leaders are more likely to interact frequently with workers and get to know their personalities and work habits. An owner who regularly visits jobsites and participates in safety training with crew members opens the door to conversation. Even if an employee doesn’t feel comfortable approaching the boss about his or her problem, other workers may be more willing to discuss coworkers who seem to be in trouble.
Of course, being personally supportive of your workers isn’t enough. You also need to provide benefits. Make sure your employee health insurance plan provides adequate mental health benefits. With many plans, mental health coverage (including copays and deductibles) is less generous than coverage for physical maladies. Some plans also require more stringent referral requirements and place limits on the number of office visits and lengths of hospital stays. Try to ensure that,
if one of your workers needs mental health services, he or she can afford the cost. Otherwise, a suicidal worker may go without.
Research mental health services in your geographic area. Contact providers about whether they accept your employee medical insurance and whether they’re taking new patients. Then create a directory of these qualified providers and give employees a copy. They’ll be more likely to take advantage of such services if they have a list of vetted providers handy.
Also post community counseling and local crisis services information (provided, for example, by your city or county) in a public area, such as a break room or in the job trailer. National suicide prevention hotlines, such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-7255) and Crisis Text Line (text 741741), give employees someone to talk to any time, day or night.
Know the Warning Signs
Would you recognize the warning signs of a potential suicide? These types of employees could be at risk:
A star employee who’s suddenly underperforming.
A usually reliable worker who starts making mistakes.
A careful crew member who experiences several near accidents.
An individual with perfect attendance who begins missing work.
A former “team player” who’s suddenly uncooperative or disgruntled.
Any worker who has recently experienced a disruptive life event such as a divorce, death in the family or big financial setback.
Any employee who appears to have an alcohol or substance abuse problem.
Do Good and Do Well
An effective suicide prevention program doesn’t have to be elaborate or expensive. Cultivating a supportive “family” atmosphere and making yourself available to workers can go a long way to preventing tragedy.
Of course, establishing your program isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s also good business. When workers feel respected and cared for, they’re more willing to work hard and remain loyal over the long haul. And investing in good health care — both physical and mental — can reduce absenteeism and disability claims.