Last month, as a part of Continental Contractors’ Whole Health Initiative, we welcomed Greg Sizemore to our Annapolis office to discuss “Safety Under the Hardhat: Suicide Prevention in the Construction Industry.” Speaking to our Annapolis team in person, and our field teams and remote offices virtually, Greg not only provided us with a better understanding of the mental health crisis within the construction industry but also provided actionable steps we can take immediately to look out for each other. Representing the Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention (CIASP), Greg’s industry knowledge, personal stories, and passion for the topic made his presentation relevant and moving, and we were incredibly honored to be able to host him for the day.
Construction is one of the most at-risk industries for suicide deaths at all levels of the workforce, from laborers to management. According to a report by the CDC the suicide rate in the construction industry is 3.5x the national average, and even higher for equipment operators. Mental health claims currently make up one-third of all disability claims, and mental illness leads to 27 lost workdays and an estimated $193 billion in lost earnings per year.
The construction industry has several factors working against it in its battle to improve mental health. The physical demands of the job, along with the aging workforce, lead many to succumb to substance abuse to treat physical injuries. The nomadic nature of construction keeps many workers away from their home support system of friends and family for weeks, if not months, at a time. The industry also includes many veterans, including some that have experienced trauma during deployments that may not have been fully resolved since leaving the military. Compressed schedules and budgets, supply chain disruptions, and a demand that is outpacing the supply for laborers means those at all levels of the industry are facing unprecedented stress and anxiety.
Given all these challenges, how can we, as individuals, make a difference? “We have to learn how to be a friend again,” says Greg. He stresses that we have to remember what true connection looks and feels like and get comfortable with it. We must learn how to check in frequently enough that when something is “off,” we sense it: in tone, in language, in behavior, like hearing that an avid fisherman hasn’t been on the boat in months, or the frequent hiker hasn’t made it outside lately. And when we do sense that something may be amiss, we have to be OK with saying out loud, “If you have any suicidal thoughts, you call me. I know where to get you some help. OK?” It is not up to us to solve the root problems that may be causing suicidal thoughts – most of us are not equipped to do that. But we can keep an eye on each other and be a source of knowledge about where someone CAN go for help when they need it.
One of those sources is 988, the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. Greg encouraged all of us to call that number and ask the person on the other end of the line what happens when someone calls in crisis. He assured us that they would not mind, and in fact would welcome the opportunity to inform the public about it. We were given “homework” to call, and every one of us who did call learned something new. We challenge you to call too, so if someday you refer someone to call that number, you can confidently tell them what will happen when they do.
Here are a few more steps you can take immediately to help prevent suicide in the construction industry:
- Take the Pledge. S.T.A.N.D Up for Suicide Prevention by taking CIASP’s pledge and encourage your company leadership to do the same.
- Create a safe environment. Integrate mental health and safety talks into your Toolbox Talks topics. You can find some on CIASP’s website.
- Get to know your work family. Learn what people enjoy outside of work, how they spend their down time, and work to forge true connections. Make time for face-to-face conversations and be present for them.
- Know your resources. Talk to your HR department to learn what resources are available to employees and make sure others are aware as well.
- Know the warning signs. Talking about feeling trapped, extreme mood swings, expressing hopelessness, increased tardiness and absenteeism, conflict with others, loss of a loved one, financial difficulties, and misuse of drugs or alcohol are some of the warning signs that could be precursors to suicidal thoughts. Becoming familiar with your team’s baseline personalities will help make variations more visible.
Greg wrapped up his presentation with a story about a boy on a beach throwing starfish, one at a time, back into the ocean. A passerby asked what he was doing, and after hearing the boy explain that he was saving their lives, said, “But there are thousands of starfish. There is no way you are going to be able to make a difference.” The boy picked up another starfish, threw it as far as he could into the surf, and replied “I bet I made a difference to THAT one.”
I can honestly say that I walked away from Greg Sizemore’s presentation with a new perspective. CCI’s culture is that of a tight-knit family and is one of the important reasons I joined this company. Building relationships, particularly with our field team members, has been a joy and continues to fuel my passion for the construction industry. Daily, I see the passion and sacrifice our teams and contractors make to ensure a project is successful. But even with that love for the industry, it is so easy to move about our careers and daily routines with blinders on. Being “busy” all the time has become a norm for many. For much of my own life and many others in construction, we have been taught to “be tough” and “just deal with it” and not bother anyone else with our problems. However, this presentation forced us to pause, and take a moment to acknowledge that the “tough guy” mentality is no longer working. The time has come to offer support to those around us, to take the time to listen, and to utilize the support that is available. Let’s bring that same passion we have for our industry to others, by demonstrating kindness and appreciation, respect and understanding, and let’s make a difference to “that one.”
– Hailey Marchyshyn, Assistant Project Manager