My Suicide Attempt Is Transforming an Organization

1989 was a challenging year. My brother was pronounced terminal, my father passed at 59, and my wife and I lost twin sons.

In 1993, my brother passed on his daughter’s fifth birthday, and we learned that my mother had cancer and would soon lose her battle.

During this period, I was a rising executive in the construction industry. I did not share my story or struggles. Instead, I acted the way men in this industry “are supposed to”; I was macho and robust, not looking to share, be perceived as weak, or lose the next promotion.

Time marched forward, and these events weighed on me. In 2007, while experiencing a failing marriage and after another uncomfortable conversation at the dinner table, I decided I would take my life. I drove away from my house to where my life would end when I received a phone call that saved me.

For 14 years, I never shared that story with anyone. I did not want to be considered weak; however, that would change in July 2021 after being challenged by a professor at the University of South Florida as to the topic of my dissertation. I was pushed to research something more meaningful than leadership and eventually landed on the topic of suicide in the construction industry.

During my weekly meeting with 16 managers in the organization, I told them that on January 3, 2022, we would begin addressing mental health and suicide awareness at our annual Safety Day. During that weekly meeting, I did something else that day that I had not planned to do. I told those 16 individuals about that night in 2007. I also relayed to two individuals in the room that there were letters in my drawer for them.

The reaction in the room was silence; you could have heard a feather hit the floor. There was no conversation. There was only me talking.

When I was finished, I said, “That is all I have for you,” and everyone exited the room. There were no conversations of “Hey, if you ever get there again, let me know.” I understand and hold no ill feelings against anyone in that room. It is a complicated topic and can generate uncomfortable conversations.

Three months later, I was sitting in my backyard with a tear running down my cheek. My wife asked, “What is wrong?”

I had not shared that story with her in the 12 years that Stacey and I had been together. I did not want her to be ashamed of me.

Now I had a choice. I could lie about the tear or tell her I had been carrying that tear with me for 14 years. I took the opportunity to tell her my story.

Once I told her of my dark night in 2007, she asked, “How do you feel now?” I told her, “I finally feel like I can breathe. I feel like a weight of bricks has been lifted off my shoulders.”

Once I began telling my story, I felt energized and passionate. I learned that instead of being viewed as weak, I was viewed as a compassionate transformational leader. Employees were relieved that they could now discuss mental health and the struggles that they may be having. I felt empowered with the journey we, as an organization, were preparing to undertake.

So, we move forward from January 3 to our mid-year boot camp, where among many things, we discuss safety. Safety once again included a discussion revolving around mental health. This time I shared my 2007 story with the 150 or so attendees. And guess what? Once again, there was a positive reception on the topic with many people saying thank you.

Mental health has quickly become part of our culture. We have created a team that we refer to as the Ajax Warriors, who have been professionally certified as Mental Health First Aid Responders. Our employees now have peers within the company with whom they can have open conversations about mental health, without fear of repercussion or stigmatization.

As I am out talking to industry leaders, I ask them questions like, Why would you not be open to these conversations? Why would you want someone experiencing poor mental health to be directing traffic? Why would you want them operating a crane that is lifting objects over workers?”

As leaders in an industry of macho individuals, we need to begin having these difficult, uncomfortable conversations. The more we have them, the less awkward they will become.

In an industry projected to lose 40% of its workforce to retirement before 2030, we must embrace a culture that the next generation of workers wants to experience — a culture of care and explanation. Younger workers want to know that the organization respects and cares about their emotions and is willing to take a few minutes to explain the “why” behind why they are doing something.

Construction is an amazing industry and has been for many years. However, it can also be stubborn and unreceptive to change. The time for change is now, and it begins with transformational leaders.

About the Author

Vince Hafeli

Vince Hafeli is President of Ajax Paving Industries of Florida, LLC ( in North Venice, FL, where he currently leads a team of 500 employees. He has spent 38 years in the construction industry in many different positions.

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