Blue-collar suicides focus of prevention effort

LANSING — Mental health problems, especially suicides, are significantly higher among blue-collar workers compared with other occupations, according to the state Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity.

Sean Egan, the department’s deputy director for labor, said at least eight of the 10 occupations where the suicide rate is the highest are, arguably, blue-collar jobs.

“We focused on construction because even within the data, they are an outlier compared to other industries,” Egan said.

Egan said that blue-collar jobs are traditionally held by men, so one reason the department focused on construction is to remove the stigma that men may not want to seek help.

According to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide rates for both male and female workers in construction and extraction industries, such as drilling and mining, were the highest of any occupational group in 2017.

In Michigan in 2019, the suicide rate was 75.4 per 100,000 for construction and extraction workers, four times higher than rates in the general population, according to the department, which enforces occupational safety and health laws.

Last September, the department held what is planned as an annual construction and suicide awareness week with the federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration, and talked with construction workers on the ground about workplace environment, chronic stress and suicide, Egan said.

That was part of the department’s newly launched Mental Health Hub of resources for businesses, a result of one of the recommendations from the department’s Workplace Mental Health Workgroup that released a report requested by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

Daniel Reidenberg is the executive director of clinical practice, research and program for Suicide Awareness Voices of Education, or SAVE, which works to prevent suicide through public awareness and education for 30 years.

Reidenberg said risk factors and injuries in the construction industry can explain higher suicide rates, but there are other factors as well.

“It’s a difficult job in the sense that people are away from home for long periods of time, so they’re not around support systems and caregivers,” he said. “They can be in very remote areas and may not have access to medical care.”

Reidenberg said SAVE, based in Minnesota, developed a program called IBEAM, which stands for Ideal Body Environment and Mind, that provides companies with resources to address mental health problems.

“We’re trying to figure out what is the best way to be able to integrate this kind of training and this kind of awareness and education within the industry that hasn’t until now really talked about mental health and suicide issues,” he said.

Egan said several reasons contribute to mental health challenges for workers in construction and manufacturing. They include long schedules, high production schedules, layoffs, overtime causing fatigue and concern about the long-term security of their jobs.

In addition, the nature of such jobs can lead to anxiety.

“We have more exposure to workplace hazards, so we have that sort of chronic feeling of potential injury, potential stress, that goes along with making sure that what we’re doing is safe and not injuring ourselves,” Egan said.

David Worthams, the director of employment policy at the Michigan Manufacturers Association, said Egan called him as businesses were reopening after the coronavirus pandemic to discuss burnout, and he served on the Workgroup.

“As we talked, we were like, ‘If we’re burned out, and we’re guys who sit in an office all day, can you imagine what’s happening on the floor of a manufacturing or construction job?’ Those folks have to be even more burned out,” Worthams said.

Worthams said it’s the workplace and factors of uncertainty, not the physical work, that are responsible for mental health-related problems in manufacturing and construction. Factors include absenteeism resulting in the closing of shifts, concerns about a possible recession and supervisors creating a stressful environment.

“That’s where the stress comes in because you go to work and you realize that you’re earning your pay to pay your bills and provide for your family, and that uncertainty can be a trigger,” Worthams said.

He is talking with members of his association about how solutions from the Workgroup can be integrated, and there are also economic implications for businesses that address mental health.

According to Worthams, “One study that we read was for every dollar an employer spends on mental health services, they actually save close to $14 in not having unexpected absenteeism or sick days.”

Given the majority of waking hours are spent in the workplace, it’s important to address mental health, Egan said. Employees are 69% less likely to look for another job and more likely to promote their place of work because the best way for employers to mitigate labor shortages is to keep them safe, he said.

Rich Mattingly founded the Luv u Project that partners with the state’s Mental Health Hub to advance understanding and treatment for mental health problems.

Mattingly, whose organization is based in Maryland, focuses on collecting data and gathering information to provide solutions to the state and private sector. Suicide, among all ages and industries, is a concern for him, including blue collar workers and the depression that can precede suicide.

“It’s a grave concern and frankly, even before that, depression is by far the leading cause of workplace malfunction and inability to perform,” Mattingly said. “Mental health and behavioral disorders have way over a $200 billion impact per year on the workplace.”

Egan said society needs to better recognize the value and importance of blue collar work and must break down the stigma sometimes associated with such jobs.

“The buy-in has been through the roof. I think once employers recognize the retention, that happy workers are good workers and then there’s a great return on investment, I think they are in the game,” Egan said.


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