Employers Can Help Reduce Alaska’s Suicide Rates by Fostering Conversation
AGC of Alaska leads discussion on workplace mental health and suicide prevention
By Rindi White

uicide: It’s a subject that once was taboo to talk about, and one that has not typically been part of job site safety meetings. But not talking about something doesn’t make it go away. Addressing suicide and shining a light on the underlying causes and signs that workers are at risk of suicide might mean saving lives.

Construction industry workers are at higher risk of suicide attempts and death by suicide than those in many other industries. A study released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in July 2016—the first of its kind—shows that the construction industry in America had the highest number of suicides of any industry category, with 45.3 workers per 100,000 dying by suicide, as compared to a national average suicide rate of 14.21 per 100,000, data that was confirmed in 2018.

In Alaska, which has the fourth-highest rate of suicide in the nation, creating awareness of suicide risk factors and reducing the stigma associated with suicide is crucial. During the COVID-19 pandemic, mental health issues, substance abuse, and suicide have all been exacerbated.

Cal Beyer Headshot
The Associated General Contractors of Alaska Safety Committee has placed an emphasis on helping member companies learn about and incorporate mental health awareness into jobsite safety plans. To help deliver those tools, AGC of Alaska, the Alaska State Suicide Prevention Council, and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention—Alaska Chapter held a free webinar September 16. The groups welcomed Cal Beyer, a member of the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention executive committee and vice president of Workforce Risk and Worker Wellbeing with CSDZ, a leading construction insurance company, to speak on the issue.

One of the most important tips Beyer shares is that suicide prevention is not a one-and-done discussion. Mental health must be as much a part of workplace culture as wearing proper protective gear.

“A lot of people still kind of view this as a stigma—not something we typically talk about in the workplace,” Beyer says. “If we can focus [in the workplace] on wellbeing and bake it into our health and wellness functions, we have a better chance to get people help sooner.”

Pandemic Sparks Focus
One side benefit to the global pandemic that has caused workplaces to be shut down, team meetings to go virtual, and other changes to the routine work environment, Beyer says, is that mental health has become top of mind for many employers.

“I think there has been this realization that we as employers really need to create a caring culture,” he says. “[They say] ‘We’re going through a pandemic—we want to communicate that we’re here with you.’”

Risk Factors Abound for Construction Workers
It’s no secret that working in the construction industry takes a physical toll. Talk to any middle-aged construction worker and you can bet you’ll be regaled with stories of injuries, near-misses and, probably, a lengthy list of daily aches and pains attributable to hard work in extreme conditions. But none of this factors in the mental toll that can also come with the job—and is not as easy to talk about for most workers.

Beyers says this is due to several factors including:

  • A tough guy/gal culture where feelings are bottled up.
  • No pain, no gain mentality, sometimes expressed as “if you’re not working, you don’t get paid” or having no time to go to the doctor, or “playing through the pain” when injured.
  • Long hours and demanding work conditions.
  • Unscheduled overtime to get jobs done on a tight schedule.
  • Pressure to perform—“on time, under budget, high quality” work focus.
  • High rate of injuries that lead to chronic pain and potential for opioid and other pain medication misuse.
  • Culture that has historically been tolerant of substance abuse.

Dustin Morris, the statewide area director for the Alaska chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, also spoke at the webinar. His organization provides resources to clients and employers with the goal of helping employers understand where they can turn for help locally when having conversations about mental health and where they can direct employees who need assistance. Ultimately, he says, he wants conversations about mental health and suicide to be woven seamlessly into workplace safety talks.

Dustin Morris Headshot
“We’re really reframing the conversation to be a part of a culture of safety. This culture already exists in [the construction] community. Bringing in mental health as a part of that safety culture reduces the stigma and might allow people needing help to find it,” he says.

One of the most readily available tools employers can use is the Employee Assistance Program, or EAP, which many employers already provide as a free service to employees or as part of their benefits package.

“They are underutilized, and they are confidential—when you use those, they’re not calling your employer to tell them that you are struggling with mental health.”

The webinar was held in September as part of National Suicide Awareness Month, but Beyer and Morris say they hope employers will use what they learned to normalize conversations surrounding mental health and implement strategies to prevent suicide as part of their overall safety plan.

“We want every month to be suicide prevention awareness month,” Beyer says.

Photos courtesy Cal Beyer and Dustin Morris.