By Kevin Wilcox
A CDC report reveals that employees in the architecture, engineering, and construction fields are at high risk for suicide. Assistance programs can make a difference.
Experts suggest that architecture, engineering, and construction firms develop employee assistance programs that include a robust mental health component and then train managers to publicize and encourage its use.
October 4, 2016—When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released suicide statistics by profession earlier this year, the nexus of vocations that make up the architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) professions ranked uncomfortably high on the list.
The architecture and engineering professions ranked fifth, with a rate of 32 per 100,000 workers. That rate is higher than for such emergency responders as police officers and firefighters, and nearly double the rate of many other office professions. The construction industry, which was grouped with mining by the CDC, ranked second with a rate of 53 suicides per 100,000 workers. Taken together, the AEC suicide rates are 85 per 100,000 workers, a number that matches the top category, forestry and agriculture.
Professionals who work in suicide prevention note that although there are marked differences between the construction industry and the architecture and engineering professions, there are a significant number of similarities, as well, especially when it comes to suicide prevention.
"We say that in many of the high-risk industries [it is] both the demographics of who is working there and also the nature of the work," says Sally Spencer-Thomas, Psy.D., the chief executive officer of the Carson J Spencer Foundationin Denver and the founder of workingminds.org, an organization dedicated to suicide prevention in the workplace. The group offers training to companies interested in making psychological safety a priority, and has published a free guidespecifically for the construction industry. (The foundation is named in honor of Spencer-Thomas's brother, Carson J. Spencer, who committed suicide in 2004.)
Spencer-Thomas says that the industries with the highest suicide rates share similar traits. They employ a high percentage of men, tend to value stoic behavior, feature work that leads to pain management issues, and include high-stress situations in which mistakes are unacceptable.
"Don't underestimate the pressure, the stress. Every day is a scorecard," says Calvin Beyer, an executive committee member of the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention, a public/private partnership headquartered in Washington, D.C. Beyer is also the director of risk management for Lakeside Industries, a hot-mix asphalt paving firm headquartered near Seattle. He notes that the pressure to avoid the time and expense of a defect and rework is intense in the AEC fields. "I think that pressure mounts over the course of a career, if you don't have outlets, if you don't have established protective structures and a way to diffuse that," Beyer says. "People feel the stresses and pressures and then bottle it up."
Beyer's work with suicide prevention hit close to home in 2015, when he learned that a close personal friend with whom he had worked at a previous employer had committed suicide. After grappling with initial feelings of guilt, Beyer put renewed effort into his work to shine a light on an issue that people often feel reluctant or ashamed to discuss. "When I spoke about it [in 2010], I'm sure people looked at me as a safety guy who is two bubbles off level," he quips. "I felt there was a wall of silence. And what I found as I started digging in was [that] there was also a moat of shame around this wall of silence."
Beyer and Spencer-Thomas have published articles in trade publications highlighting the issue and are now developing a series of AEC industry summits and executive roundtables on the subject.
Additionally, the Construction Financial Management Association, headquartered in Princeton, New Jersey, created the Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention earlier this year to draw attention to the importance of suicide prevention. "People don't want to talk about suicide," says Michelle Walker, the chair of the alliance and the vice president of finance and administration for SSC Global, a construction company specializing in subsurface structures based in Phoenix. "It's hard to talk about for many people. You [would] think that people who have had experiences with suicide…would want to share—and eventually they get to that point—but initially they don't want to talk about it."
Walker adds that the general public has many misconceptions about suicide—for instance, that it is a selfish act. "The journey people go through before they attempt suicide is not well understood" by the public, she says. Victims often struggle for some time and try many options, but eventually they "finally succumb to suicide," she says. "It's really the only answer that they see. [We are] building awareness that mental illness is real, it is an illness, and it's not a choice."
Spencer-Thomas notes that the AEC professions place a high premium on brave individuals who can solve complex problems—and these are the very people who are especially at risk for suicide when circumstances overwhelm them.
"People are generally resilient. They can handle a lot of stress," Spencer-Thomas says. "We can often get through to the other side of things, but at what cost? Sometimes, especially when things are really intense, if you throw one more variable into that mix—a car accident, a family member with a significant illness, separation, or divorce—the brain starts to shut down and more significant mental health challenges set in, like depression, panic attacks, or even suicidal thoughts."
At this point, stoic employees with a history of toughing out difficult situations are at a disadvantage. "The critical point becomes, do they reach out? That's often the difference between life and death for people," she says.
To tip the balance in favor of life, experts suggest that AEC firms develop employee assistance plans (EAP) that include a robust mental health component and then train managers to publicize and encourage its use. They note that a sudden deterioration in job performance, especially with increased irritability, are signs of potential mental health concerns.
"A big [sign] is a dramatic change in performance," Walker says. "So a high-performing employee who is suddenly not performing well…or even not suddenly, but progressing into a pattern of attendance or performance issues, making mistakes that they typically wouldn't have made, becoming withdrawn or becoming angry."
Beyer agrees, noting that if a manager does see such signs, it's best to address them simply as a matter or performance; avoid trying to make a diagnosis, as there may be any number of causes. But managers can refer the employee to the EAP, and in some cases, involve the human resources department. In extreme cases, offering the number of a suicide prevention hotline can be beneficial.
The Great Recession increased mental health pressures on workers across the AEC industry, the experts note. Initially, higher unemployment rates increased financial pressure on workers. And those workers forced to change jobs found themselves without their usual support network during difficult times.
The aftermath of the recession, however, has created a special opportunity to change the corporate culture at many industry firms. Construction companies in particular are now struggling to fill vacancies, Beyer says. "There are a number of companies that got stronger coming out of that recession," Beyes says. "They focused on…what [they needed to] do to be a better AEC integrated delivery company. The enlightened companies are always those early adopters."
And along with improving their company's prospects came an emphasis on attracting and keeping high-performing employees—and keeping them healthy. "A caring culture is integrating mental health and suicide prevention into your safety, health, wellness, and employee benefit programs," Beyer says.
Walker agrees, calling this an "open-door moment."
"More employers, especially in the construction field, are open to investing in their employees right now because they realize they are our most precious commodity," Walker says. "More owners and executives are open to the idea of making investments in many different ways to improve their employees' lives."
Fortunately, many resources are available for managers. In addition to its AEC-specific guidelines, WorkingMinds has published " A Manager's Guide to Suicide Postvention: 10 Action Steps for Dealing with the Aftermath of Suicide." Screening for Mental Health, Inc., a nonprofit organization in Wellesley Hills, Massachusetts, offer an Employee screening tool. And the National Institute of Mental Healthoffers suicide prevention hotlines for civilians and veterans, as well as myriad other resources.