Construction is an industry where you are more likely to self-destruct.
That’s according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. The agency examined the frequency of suicides across different occupational groups and found that construction had the second highest rate, with 53.3 suicides per 100,000 workers. (Those in forestry, fishing and farming are most at risk, with 84.5 suicides per 100,000.)
The findings, published in the CDC’s July 1 “Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report,” came as no surprise to the Construction Financial Management Association. In the past year, the group of approximately 7,500 accountants, controllers, CFOs and HR professionals — some within the pool industry — has committed itself to eliminating self-inflicted deaths by promoting mental health services and encouraging construction firms to create cultures of care.
CFMA recently launched the Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention, which is sharing information, resources and programming across the organization’s 94 chapters. It may sound like an unusual cause for financial experts to rally behind, but the association’s president/CEO makes a strong argument showing why suicide prevention falls firmly under their purview.
“Our rationale is that CFOs are responsible for the financial resources of the company,” Stuart Binstock said. “And one of the most valuable resources is human capital.”
The alliance’s stated goal is to “shatter the stigma surrounding mental illness.” That is especially prevalent in construction, a field that tends to breed a tough-guy stoicism that makes some workers reluctant to seek help, CFMA officials said.
As the link between the field and the office, controllers and finance officers are uniquely positioned to help change this mentality. They hold sway with decision-makers to get executive buy-in on mental health benefits such as an employee assistance program (EAP), which provides counseling and other emotional support services.
Though EAPs typically are included in employers’ health benefits packages, few personnel use it or are even aware of it. “Contracting companies haven’t done a great job promoting those services,” said Cal Beyer, director of risk management at Lakeside Industries, an asphalt paving company in Issaquah, Wash.
Beyer spearheaded the initiative after discovering some distressing statistics long before the CDC’s latest report. He was alarmed upon learning that the suicide rate was particularly high among white middle-aged men without college degrees — a demographic that dominates construction.
A competitive, high-pressure environment, a relatively higher prevalence of alcohol and substance abuse, furloughs, end-of-season layoffs, and separation from family are some of the factors that can challenge a laborer’s mental stability, said Beyer, who also serves the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention as an executive committee member and co-lead of its Workplace Task Force.
Saving lives is no doubt front of mind for these professionals. But there is a pragmatic purpose for this cause as well. It wasn’t hard to garner industry support when Beyer framed mental health as a risk-management issue.
“This is a human risk that deals with safety and productivity, and the impact on quality construction,” Beyer said.
Sudden, unexpected deaths can result in a loss of productivity due to hindered morale or because investigators shut down a job site.
“There is a financial impact that you don’t think of because it’s not something that’s covered under your insurance,” said David James, CFO at FNF Construction Inc., a road and bridge builder in Tempe, Ariz. “Certainly an occurrence that severe has a very large impact on how the project proceeds going forward.”
In April, CFMA’s largest chapter held its inaugural Suicide Prevention Summit, bringing together more than 100 construction professionals and mental health practitioners in Phoenix. There, construction executives shared firsthand accounts of losing employees to suicide and were advised to watch for certain red flags that suggest when a worker may be at risk. These include:
- A change in behavior or attitude (i.e., becomes withdrawn or appears sad)
- Wanting to work in isolation
- Sudden outbursts
- Giving away their tools
The summit’s impact was immediate, said Michelle Walker, vice president of CFMA’s Valley of the Sun (Ariz.) Chapter. Within two days of that meeting, one company had a successful intervention with an employee who was exhibiting signs of severe depression. Another gave an at-risk worker an eight-week leave of absence. That employee is back at work and well adjusted, Walker said.
More CFMA chapters are expected to hold regional workshops, and the national organization expects to team up with other groups. There’s talk of a collaboration between the Grand Canyon State’s Department of Health Services and Arizona State University to raise awareness among the school’s construction management students.
And CFMA anticipates working with other construction-related associations to advance suicide prevention as a health and safety priority.
As Beyer put it: “It’s not enough to get employees home safe at the end of the day; if they’re at risk, it’s just as important to get them back to work safe from home.”