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The construction industry employs more than seven million people in the U.S., and it is estimated that 92 percent of construction companies have fewer than 20 employees. In fact, only one percent of the estimated 670,000 construction employers have 100 or more employees. This means that the vast majority of construction workers are employed by small companies. This also means that it is imperative that small construction companies address suicide prevention, since construction is the leading industry in number of suicide deaths and suicide rate with a suicide rate of four times the national average. A great way to get started is by using the Needs Analysis and Integration Checklist available with many other resources from the Construction Industry Alliance for Suicide Prevention website.

Turning Challenges into Advantages

Often, small construction companies feel that they are less equipped than large companies when it comes to implementing employee training or benefit programs. It is common for the staff and leadership of small companies to wear many hats and they may feel that it is too much to take on one more thing.

While it may seem like large companies have greater resources to devote to suicide prevention, the reality is that it doesn’t require a great amount of resources to implement an effective program. The key to any suicide prevention program in the workplace is creating a caring culture. Effecting culture change is more possible in a small company where leadership can interact with employees on a frequent basis and more closely than in a large organization. Bold leadership is a critical component of suicide prevention and mental health–having leaders who can share stories of hope and promote acceptance are paramount in reducing the stigma. 

Smaller Numbers Mean Greater Relationships

Many of the warning signs for an individual at risk of suicide focus on changes in behavior and actions:

  • the “top performer” who starts making mistakes;
  • the “safety star” who has a series of near misses;
  • the punctual employee who starts arriving late regularly;
  • the crew member with perfect attendance who calls out repeatedly; and
  • the “team player” who is suddenly angry or combative. 

Part of being able to recognize these warning signs is having relationships between employees, and between supervision or management and their employees. In large companies these warning signs may go unnoticed due to an individual at risk being one of many – but in a small company, creating relationships where these can be identified is much more possible. Once managers, supervisors and crew members are educated on what to watch out for, it does not require a lot of restructuring or change in processes to be able to pay attention to these in their coworkers. 

In addition, life events that may elevate suicide risk, such as divorce, death in the family, financial challenges or family/relationship issues, are able to be recognized in a small company where employees can be more connected. When these events are known, the team surrounding the impacted individual can be more alert to other warning signs and form a support network for them. 

The Leadership Connection

In a small company, it is much more probable that company leadership interacts frequently with the employee team. Whether it’s the owner who visits jobsites or the human resources director who also oversees safety and training, it’s likely that people in positions of influence have a level of familiarity with the majority of the employee group. This elimination of barriers between leaders and the employees at large opens the door for conversations with individuals who may be at risk, and also provides access for team members who may be concerned about a co-worker to report the issue and seek assistance. While all levels of employees from laborers to leaders should be trained on how to help an individual at risk, there is power of someone at the top reaching out to a person in need.

Overcoming the Resource Gap

One area that many small construction companies do fall behind large companies in equipping employees dealing with mental illness or at risk of suicide is in access to care and resources. Many large contractors have an Employee Assistance Program available to their employees to call when they are in need of help. EAPs are less commonly offered by small contractors and if they are available, the benefits they offer may not be as robust as large employer programs. 

Not having an EAP can be overcome with some effort on the part of small contractors. Here are some ways to ensure employees still have access to care in times of need:

  • If the company offers group medical insurance, be sure that it offers quality mental health (often referred to as behavioral health) benefits. Know what these benefits are and educate employees on them (co-pays, limits on number of visits, any referral requirements). A review of the mental health benefits offered by the plan should be a standard portion of the annual open enrollment meeting and used as an opportunity to build awareness that mental health is no different than physical health. 
  • Do an audit of the provider directory for behavioral health. Create a list of providers in the geographic area near the company or near where employees live. 
  • Call providers to determine if they accept new patients and what average wait times are. Create a directory of these qualified providers and make available to all employees. Having access to care quickly and without a lot of effort will greatly increase the likelihood of employees using them. 
  • Become familiar with local community counselling or crisis response services that employees can call to talk to someone in case of emergency, for a family member or if they do not have group health benefits. 
  • Make the phone numbers for these local resources along with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-7255) and Crisis Text Line (Text home to 741741) available to all employees on wallet cards along with posting them in employee work areas. 

It Doesn’t Have to Be Fancy

Small companies can be just as effective as large contractors when it comes to implementing a suicide prevention program in the workplace. Creating a caring culture promoted by bold leadership and strengthening employee relationships are two of the biggest factors in any effective suicide prevention program and paramount for reducing stigma. These steps are not only possible in small construction companies, but they may actually be easier to achieve than in large companies. Training is necessary but can be adapted to the level and needs of the particular employee group and be much more customized than in a large contractor. While some access to care may be less than what is provided by a large employer, small companies can take some steps to ensure that their employees can still access care during times of need.

In the end, it’s all about the people. Creating an environment where people feel cared for, respected and a part of a team not only helps build protective factors for those at risk of suicide, but also can set a small contractor apart as an employer of choice. In an industry struggling with workforce shortage and a need to attract a new generation of worker, it’s simply smart business for small construction companies to adopt a suicide prevention program. 


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