Coordination required to reduce grim suicide rate in construction

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Dr M May Seitanidi is Lecturer in Strategy at the Kent Business School, University of Kent

Men working in the construction industry are particularly vulnerable to suicide, representing the highest occupational risk group in the UK for years. The highest level of risk – almost four times the national standard – is among those in low-skilled positions.

Multiple factors play a role in these terrible results. They include working away from home, long hours, job uncertainty, tight deadlines, financial pressure and working in a harmful “macho” culture dominated by men.

These factors are compounded when supervisors tell vulnerable construction workers to ‘get up or go’ – as reported by one construction worker interviewed by BBC Radio 5 Live earlier this month. This highlights the urgent need for the construction industry to develop a collaborative response to suicide prevention that includes the entire industry and offers everyone the opportunity to play an active role.

Given the fragmentation of the industry, suicide prevention cannot be a business-to-business solution. A scoping report compiled following an industry-wide collaborative forum hosted by the University of Kent in the summer of 2020 provided three key suggestions.

In this week’s in-depth analysis and long-form report, reporter Tiya Thomas-Alexandre talks to workers about mental health issues they faced, how they coped with them and who helped them.

Read the full functionality here.

A three-point approach to preventing suicide

First of all, suicide prevention must be approached as a complex social problem, not just a mental health problem. While people need to understand the topic, oversimplifying the problem can undermine the reality of people’s experiences and therefore not lead to the holistic solutions required.

If solutions do not take into account the complexity of people’s lives, they will continue to reflect the fragmentation of disciplines and structures that we find in the health system. People will continue to fall through multiple loopholes in the system which as we know leads to the tragic reality that we are seeing reported.

“In the UK, 6,859 people lost their lives by suicide in 2018 with workers in construction occupations at 1.6 times the national average risk”

It is not enough to suggest that some people have or develop mental health problems and look at the causes just for that person. What is missing from the picture is a process of identifying factors present throughout the system – the construction industry itself and how the industry practices suicide prevention. Only by drawing a more comprehensive picture will we be able to understand which provisions work and which need to be strengthened.

Second, the industry can avoid the fragmentation of its suicide prevention efforts by aiming for a collaborative approach involving coordination between the various stakeholders within the industry. However, this must be in addition to working with external support for suicide prevention, such as public and non-profit organizations.

Although dedicated support is offered by many organizations, support is not well coordinated across the construction industry. This makes it unlikely that the support available will match the needs, consistently for the industry, despite the good intentions of all parties involved.

Third, a better understanding of the gap between the intention and the implementation of suicide prevention measures will shed light on new aspects of the social issue. There are no simple solutions to complex social problems. Collaborative action to understand and co-develop solutions is the best place to start.

In the UK, 6,859 people lost their lives to suicide in 2018, with workers in construction occupations 1.6 times the national average risk and those in low-skilled jobs 3.7 times higher. This translates to approximately two deaths per working day across the industry.

Concerted action is now needed to protect the most vulnerable people in the sector.

Immediate assistance

The Lighthouse Construction Industry Hotline can be called free of charge 24 hours a day, seven days a week on 0345 605 1956 in the UK or 1800 939 122 in the Republic of Ireland.

Lighthouse also offers a free application for workers to access information, which can be downloaded from the App Store and Google Play.

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