Brendan Bechtel: Construction’s suicide rate is ‘a shameful statistic’

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The high rate of suicide in the construction industry is a ‘shameful statistic’ but the stigma around it is finally being broken down.

Bechtel and AFSP held an event in Washington, D.C., unveiling the partnership, focused on raising awareness, educating stakeholders on the construction suicide crisis From left to right: Ylan Mui, managing director, strategy, Penta Group; Sean McGarvey, president of North America’s Building Trades Unions; Christine Moutier, chief medical officer, AFSP; Bechtel chairman and CEO Brenda Bechtel; Robert Gebbia, AFSP CEO.

That’s according to Brendan Bechtel, chairman & CEO of Bechtel, and Robert Gebbia, chief executive of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), who struck a five-year, $7 million partnership in March to tackle the issue.

It is the largest pledge AFSP has ever received and the single-largest donation the Bechtel Group Foundation has ever made, with the intention of providing resources and programming to 500,000 US construction workers.

Speaking to Construction Briefing, Brendan Bechtel and Gebbia explained more about how the partnership came about and how it aims to offer to support to the workers on the ground who need it.

‘Something has changed’

“This is groundbreaking. There hasn’t been anything similar in the US for any occupation before on such a scale,” says Gebbia. “I feel strongly that this wouldn’t have been feasible 10 years ago. The stigma surrounding mental health and certainly in terms of suicide just wouldn’t have made it possible – there would have been such resistance.

“But something has really changed. In the US, we know that about 90% of the public now believes that suicide is a preventable cause of death, according to surveys. With that as a backdrop, you say wow, here’s an industry that has high rates. The rate of suicide within this occupation is four times higher than the general population.”

In fact, Gebbia says, five times more construction workers die by suicide than as a result of jobsite accidents.

In light of that, construction employers are starting to view mental health as a safety issue, he asserts. “It just cuts across all of the stigma, all of the misconceptions and myths.”

Brendan Bechtel “will not rest” until the situation changes.

“This industry has proven that it excels at doing hard things that no one else can do,” he says. “There’s a playbook – a set of strategies and tactics – that our industry knows how to execute really, really well. We’ve done that with physical safety, and once we get the right expertise and get pointed in the right direction, there’s no reason why we couldn’t do the same with mental health. Particularly since the construction business has one of the highest rates of suicide for any industry out there. That is a shameful statistic for us.”

Gebbia is keen to work with Bechtel to create a programme that is tailored to the construction industry.

“We don’t just want to take what we know works with schools and other settings and just apply it. We know that the culture and the environment really matter to how you message this and how you carry these programmes forward.”

AFSP has already undertaken some work with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to look at mental health and suicide prevention in the workplace more generally. And it was this that Gebbia thinks encouraged Bechtel to reach out to the organisation.

“Fundamentally, it’s about saving lives, “ says Brendan Bechtel. “This issue is personal for us. The people it affects are our friends and our colleagues. And the impact is devastating. 

“But it’s also about improving lives by restoring something that has somehow gotten lost along the way, which is the sense of dignity and purpose within the construction trade. There’s a special kind of person that chooses to make this industry their career. It’s really hard work. It’s very stressful. It’s very demanding. And one of the reasons people in our industry choose to take their life is they don’t feel like they’re getting that dignity and respect that they deserve.”

How the partnership will work

In terms of how the programmes that result from the partnership will operate and how they will help the people who need it, the first step will be to do a lot of outreach, says Gebbia.

“We know suicide prevention, but there are folks in the industry that know their industry. We don’t live in the world of construction. So we are reaching out to leaders not just at Bechtel but to other companies, their health providers, and the trade unions to understand from them what would be a good way to approach this.

“The target is to reach 500,000 construction workers [in the US] over five years with information, education and tailored messaging materials on how to help a colleague. One of the things that we know from other fields – and we know this even with students – is that peers know when something is going on with somebody. They see it. They can see when someone is not being themselves or becoming withdrawn.”

A lone construction worker hearing PPE stares at his phone while sitting on a stone window sill Image: Adobe Stock

The challenge is not necessarily identifying that there is problem but knowing what to do with that information, and doing so in a way that doesn’t violate their confidentiality or hurting a friendship.

“Sometimes it is very difficult to engage in those conversations. So it is about training people what to do with that information. How do you engage in a conversation that’s constructive and not just: ‘You’re not being yourself, what’s wrong with you? Get your act together!’ That only turns people off. So it’s about trying to have a meaningful conversation and then how to connect them to help.”

In addition to training individual workers in these skills, Gebbia also advocates more intensive training for leaders as well.

“We know from some work with the US Air Force that it wasn’t just the work on the ground, it was also creating a culture that says it’s okay [to be struggling with mental health]. Because what do people think if you’re in the military, or law enforcement, as another example? ‘If someone knows I’m not doing well emotionally or I’m struggling with mental health problems, I’m going to lose my job.’ When you change that mindset [you can teach people] it’s actually the opposite – if you get help, you are going to function better, be more productive and that is going to help your career.”

“We want to make sure that the culture makes it okay for workers to get help. So it’s really about education, training, linking people to services when they need it, and making it okay to get help.”

The AFSP is also considering a tailored screening programme that would allow workers to obtain an anonymised self check that flags up if they are struggling emotionally or with their mental health before directing them to help.

“That’s not part of the initial work, but that’s something we’ve talked about,” he says.

An industry-wide initiative

Brendan Bechtel says that he wants the initiative aims to reach well beyond Bechtel workers to offer support across the US construction sector.

“We want to change the mindset and understanding around mental health. We want to make available the best resources possible. We want to lift up the whole construction industry, so that we can change the conversation and save lives,” he says.

Gebbia adds, “To Bechtel’s credit, when we entered into the conversation this wasn’t about them. Certainly they are part of it but they wanted this owned by the industry with an advisory made up of other industry leaders.

Looking further into the future, Gebbia sees the opportunity for replication of what comes out of this partnership for other occupations.

“It’s very exciting and it fits with our organisation’s strategy to work more closely with high-risk populations like certain industries like construction, veterans, people in rural communities or people from different ethnicities. We have seen trends in the US that are not good in terms of suicide risk and completed suicide. This is a great example of working with at-risk groups directly.”

Equating mental wellbeing to physical safety

Brendan Bechtel says he hopes that soon, mental health and safety is regarded on construction sites in the same way as physical health and safety.

“Let’s imagine a future for our industry, hopefully no more than five years from now, where consideration for mental health on the job and support for people who need help is as natural an act as putting on your hard hat. You don’t go to work without your hard hat. Why would you go to work without thinking about a mental health toolkit? That’s the vision,” he says.

He explains that every Bechtel project works up a project-specific mental health plan before it goes to the field, in the same way that it has a project-specific environmental safety and health plan. “We will not let a project go to the field without a plan that includes a full inventory of available resources, scenarios for what’s going to happen under what kind of circumstances, who do you call in that situation, and what’s the first response?,” he says.

It’s a vision that Sean McGarvey, president of North America’s Building Trades Unions, shares. Commenting on the launch of the partnership, he said, “All of us who work in construction have seen gains in physical safety that were once unimaginable, become the standard for success. It’s time to bring the same mindset, resources, and innovation to the issue of mental health and suicide prevention.”

Gebbia says that this can be achieved by making it sustainable and part of the industry culture. “I don’t think anyone complains when they have to wear protective gear. When you get hired, you get trained in these things. The same can be done with mental health. It is not as obvious but when you see people withdrawing or drinking too much then you know when somebody is struggling. You need leaders to step up – not just at management level but site leaders too. But if we can create that culture then it can be regarded in the same way as physical safety.

“We’re convinced Bechtel and the leaders of North America’s Building Trades Unions are serious about this. It’s not just about the PR – they want results.”

Why are suicide rates so high among construction workers?

Gebbia points to several factors that put construction workers the world over at greater risk of poor mental health and even suicide than the general population. They include:

  • Being more male-dominated (males suffer higher rates of suicide in general)
  • High stress
  • Transient work that adds to financial pressure
  • Frequent absence from home

A combination of these factors can also lead to substance abuse which can in turn exacerbate mental health problems.

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