The following is a guest post from Aaron Wilson, M.D., chief medical officer at Sierra Tucson, a treatment center in Tucson, Arizona.
In a profession where showing your vulnerability could be condemned as a weakness, it easy to see how the country’s construction industry suicide epidemic has multiplied into what could be considered a modern-day behavioral health plague. Known for its “tough guy” façade, men in the construction and related trades are becoming statistics in a pandemic that once silent, is now resonant with alarming data showing an increasing victim count.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the construction industry has the highest male suicide rate of any industry. The suicide rate among the U.S. working age population increased 34 percent from 2000 to 2016, to 17.3 per 100,000 people.
It’s important to remember, though, that the rates are more than cold numbers on a page. They represent real lives that could be our employees, our friends or our neighbors, who didn’t call out when they were in need, and instead took matters into their own hands. The real hope, however, is that while the numbers are escalating, the education about it is as well. With awareness comes hope.
Construction workers are vulnerable for a variety of reasons. The work is isolating, involving long blocks of time away from family and friends on jobs sometimes far away from home. The industry is also prone to swings in the economy and costs of materials. Last, but certainly not least, many laborers suffer from chronic pain, stress, exhaustion and lack of sleep and often self-medicate with alcohol and drugs.
For construction contractors and managers, who are beholden to their clients to provide spot-on estimates, economical sourcing of the right materials for the project, accurate supplies and necessary equipment, and precise scheduling to get the job done — all while pressured to meet deadlines, it’s no wonder that the emotional health of their workers may not be top-of-mind.
If not, what signs are being missed? Heavy workloads notwithstanding, supervisors sometimes simply aren’t aware how to spot the warning signs of troubled workers. Or, unmasking employees’ emotional burdens may be the most intimidating payload they've ever had to encounter.
It’s easy to understand that when employees are healthy and engaged, they are more likely to be satisfied and productive at work, which ultimately creates a quality end product and happy clients. Knowing what we know about the swelling suicide rates in the construction industry, there’s no better time than now to sit down and learn how to recognize what you can do to make your employees’ mental health a priority. So, what should you be on the lookout for? And how can you create a supportive environment where people are able to bring their best selves to work every day?
First, the signs:
Chronic tardiness/absenteeism — Not being aware of responsibilities is common when individuals are depressed. Their world is closing in on them and what’s happening outside the confines of their innermost world bears little consequence to them. Take note of those who are continually showing up late or developing a pattern of racking up sick days.
Isolating from peers — When someone has a plan to withdraw from life, they often withdraw from others. They feel like a burden to their own family, friends and coworkers and develop a pervasive feeling that “everyone would be better off without me.”
Increase in alcohol and substance abuse — Too often individuals turn to drinking to self-medicate through hard times, or just to escape reality. Unfortunately, with its sedative-like effects, alcohol can actually increase depression and lower inhibitions, which can be a dangerous combination when someone is already pushed to the emotional brink.
Mood swings/changes in behavior — Mood swings happen, but extreme fluctuations and becoming quick to anger are sure signs of trouble. While everyday home life and highly demanding work environments can be stressful, be on the lookout for changes in how individuals react to seemingly small stressors. Men, especially, manifest their anguish and worry in the form of anger and loud outbursts.
Inferior work performance — Perhaps there’s no more dangerous industry to work in when depressed than the construction industry. Working with heavy equipment and the responsibility for the safety of others is a big reason why employers need to be ultra-aware of their employees’ emotional state. Not noticing who’s become more accident-prone on the job can have huge consequences.
Chronic physical pain — The spiral of substance abuse many times starts with the abuse of painkillers such as opioids. The physical labor associated with construction isn’t uncommon and many get hooked to substances to help them survive their pain.
How to help:
Now that you have an idea of the signs of a troubled worker, here’s what can you do to help:
Create a nonjudgmental atmosphere — There should be no shame in seeking help. Educate your team. Encourage them to come to you when they are stressed or need help.
Confront the issue — Don’t tiptoe around the problem. Instead, have direct conversations. Expect to hear denials or minimization of their woes but keep digging.
Stomp out the stigma — Remove the perception that they will be admonished or shamed for their openness with you.
Be empathetic — Let your workers know that this is not going to end their career or damage your respect for them. Emotional pain is as real and as debilitating as physical pain — and often, more so when it comes to suicidal thoughts.
Suggest help — Have them consider seeing an Employee Assistance Program counselor, therapist or even finding a residential treatment program. Professionals are trained and ready to help. They can open the door to a new life.