By {{Article.AuthorName}} | {{Article.PublicationDate.slice(6, -2) | date:'EEEE, MMMM d, y'}}
{{TotalFavorites}} Favorite{{TotalFavorites>1? 's' : ''}}

Suicide is a health and wellness priority for the general population, with rates increasing 28 percent between 1999 and 2016. In 2016 there were nearly 45,000 deaths by suicide, equating to more than twice as many suicides than homicides. In the construction industry, the issue is even more pressing, as the suicide rate among those working in construction is four times that of the general population, making it the most at-risk industry for the number of suicides and second overall for suicide rate.

When the CDC study identifying this industry risk was released July 1, 2016, a group already working to address the issue of suicide in construction unified as the Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention (CIASP) to align industry efforts and work to solve this crisis in the industry.

Addressing Suicide and Mental Health in the Workplace

Integrating mental health and suicide prevention programs into the construction workplace is critical to reach and save those at risk of suicide. There are key functions in each company that must get behind the initiative: leadership, safety, front-line supervisors are all key in any program.

Central to any effective integration effort, however, is human resources. Of any role in a company, HR can influence policies, processes, benefits, wellness programs and employee interaction. Equal to its importance is, sometimes, its resistance. With the range of compliance issues HR is required to consider in all elements of employee relations, a full understanding of their role, impact and how this type of program can reduce exposure to a company’s risk and liability can be beneficial to get them on board.

Compliance Concerns

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) can sometimes be viewed as a barrier to a company involving themselves in an employee’s mental health. The ADA requires that a company provide reasonable accommodations to an employee with a diagnosed illness or disability. At first glance, it would make an employer prefer to be unaware of an employee dealing with a mental illness. However, when identified early, most mental illnesses can be relatively easily accommodated, especially compared to the challenges faced if a mental illness is left untreated and allowed to progress to a severe state or, in worst cases, a suicide attempt or death.

Compliance with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act is another concern raised by HR when discussing suicide prevention and mental wellness in the workplace, but it is only a factor for self-insured companies. However, suicide prevention and mental wellness should be handled no differently than any other medical condition. HR will also want to consider the Family Medical Leave Act. FMLA can help guide an employer working with an employee undergoing treatment for mental illness by providing uniform guidelines for maintaining an employee’s position and benefits. It can be a starting point for employers in supporting an employee’s mental health treatment and recovery.

Conduct a Policy Audit

Policies are a key area of human resource involvement in an effective suicide prevention program. Traditionally, workplace policies have drawn a hard line, with termination being a likely result of a failed drug test, employee misconduct, poor attendance and performance or safety issues. The challenge is that all of these areas of concern—substance abuse, changes in behavior, increased tardiness or absenteeism, a decrease in overall performance or attention to safety—are signals of an employee dealing with a mental illness and at risk for suicide.

Knowing a company has adopted a zero-tolerance approach toward dealing with these issues can prevent employees from seeking help for themselves or coworkers. HR professionals should examine company policies and make use of second chance/last chance agreements for situations such as poor performance and unacceptable conduct, as well as for the more traditional failed drug and alcohol test results.

Use Performance Management as a Suicide Prevention Strategy

Approaching performance management with an awareness of mental illness is an essential HR function. When a performance issue is raised—especially when it identifies a change in behavior from a high-performing employee who is suddenly having issues—it’s important to implement a practice of talking to the employee about what is causing that performance issue.

Talking gives the employee the opportunity to share about struggles they may be experiencing and gives HR the opportunity to connect them to care. This can result in an employee receiving help, maintaining employment, and eventually restoring them to their role as a high-performing employee and a valuable asset to the company.

Benefits and Wellness Program Administration

Connecting employees to care is a necessity of a workplace suicide prevention program and an area in which HR can add great value through their benefits administration function. An employee’s ability to access quality mental health care in a time of need is critical. It’s also important for employees to know that  accessing mental health care is completely confidential and the company will receive no information about it. By ensuring group medical benefits offer quality mental health coverage (often referred to as behavioral health by insurers) and educating employees on how to access that care in times of personal or family need, HR is a crucial connection point. 

Of even greater importance in times of crisis is having a quality Employee Assistance Program (EAP) program in place or, if one is not available, information on community crisis centers. Having information readily available and consistently promoted to employees on company- and community-provided crisis resources, as well as educating supervisors and managers so that they can also promote these resources to employees, is a key role for HR.

For companies with workplace wellness programs, HR can deepen the benefit of these by including mental wellness along with physical wellness. Along with biometric screenings, mental health screenings should be promoted. Screening for Mental Health provides free general screening portals in addition to some state-specific options, and companies can work with them to develop custom screening portals with resources offered specifically to their employees. There are many screening options available through this portal that can benefit employees and their families, and even those not dealing with a mental health concern can use these as an awareness building tool.

In addition, including suicide prevention resources such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-7255) and Crisis Text Line (text Hello to 741741) in wellness resource kits equips employees for a crisis that they or loved ones might face.

Creating a Caring Culture

While all of these steps toward suicide prevention integration are important for HR to take a leadership role in, the biggest influence that HR can have in an organization is cultural. In today’s construction market where the workforce is in such high demand, promoting a culture in which employees are valued and cared for is a business imperative along with a moral obligation.

Creating a caring culture in which employees feel safe asking for help for themselves or coworkers will set an organization apart as an employer of choice. HR professionals influence hiring practices, performance management, policy creation, benefits administration and compliance—providing an opportunity to set themselves, their organizations and their employees on a path to success. It also will position them as leaders in changing the tide of the suicide crisis.


 Comments ({{Comments.length}})

  • {{comment.Name}}


    {{comment.DateCreated.slice(6, -2) | date: 'MMM d, y h:mm:ss a'}}

Leave a comment

Required! Not valid email!