Are Chaplains the Next Big Thing on Construction Sites?

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Thursday, April 16th, 2015
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With long hours, pressure to meet deadlines, a lack of job security and possibly significant amounts of time away from family, a construction sector workplace can be a strenuous environment.

Compound that with an industry sometimes characterised by high rates of alcohol use, bullying behaviour and a taboo against talking about mental health issues, and serious problems can result. As many as 37 per cent of construction workers surveyed as part of a Beyond Blue study last year felt their workplaces were mentally unhealthy despite nine in 10 agreeing that mentally healthy workplaces were important.

In extreme cases, consequences can be tragic: according to Mates in Construction, building sector workers are more than twice as likely to take their own life compared with the general population.

In this environment, the idea of turning to chaplains and other forms of counsellors who talk to workers on-site is growing in popularity. In the lead-up London Olympics, for example, former Met police officer Reverent Kelvin Woolmer was employed to roam construction sites and assist workers who were experiencing professional or personal challenges. In the US, Marketplace Chaplains of America says it has more than 50 construction clients and about 2,800 chaplains across 46 states.

Back home in Australia, Gerry Hanssen, managing director of Perth-based project management and building outfit Hanssen Pty Ltd has hired former church minister and travelling evangelist Tom Smilovitis to roam his company’s sites and work as an on-site chaplain to help his 700-odd workers deal with personal problems – a first in the state, according to a recent Perth Now report.

Smilovitis said neither pressures facing workers within the sector (which are predominately personal but often accentuated by work related stress) nor the feedback impact of these on productivity within the workplace should be underestimated.

“The construction industry has an element where it attracts many that are perhaps limited in their skill sets (and) all the while these people must adapt to an ever changing market,” he said. “This is unsettling even to the most optimistic of persons, let alone those that have not been trained or equipped to handle the pressure attached to limited job security.”

“Such uncertainty provokes personal problems, budgeting issues, relationship problems outside the workplace (adding to mental health and safety issues).

“Of course this effects effectiveness in the workplace and the vicious cycle continues.”

Smilovitis said part of his role is to equip and empower workers to become more holistic in their approach not only to their workplace but also in their broader life. He said if a company has a strong ethical leadership, chaplains can add value by reinforcing all parties to work in a cohesive and nonpartisan manner.

Many chaplains say their role on work sites revolves largely around listening. Woolmer, for example, told the BBC report in 2010 challenges workers shared with him had included stress associated with the prospect of redundancy following completion of a particular contract, trauma experienced in one case after a co-worker was killed in an accident on the job, and even a case where a distraught former serviceman felt he could smell ‘dead bodies’ on site and was suffering from post-traumatic stress (the man in question had been in Bosnia and one of his jobs during this time had involved using a similar digger to the one used on the Olympic work site to uncover bodies buried during the conflict).

Smilovitis believes there are a number of characteristics business owners should look for in choosing the right chaplain or counsellor for their workplace, including not only good character, clear communication skills and an ability to handle confrontation but also a sound appreciation and understanding of the realities of business.

Asked about whether or not onsite chaplains and/or counsellors were the next step in combating mental health challenges within the building sector, Smilovitis said the right kind of person can help workers to grow in terms of their ability to deal with personal struggles and help them to achieve higher levels of self-confidence and self-awareness. That, together with a ‘change agent’ and strong leadership, significant gains can be made in the way work is done.

He cautioned, however, that much depends on the leadership of firms and commitment of management to supporting workers, and that businesses which had a poor leader at the helm would find it difficult to engage in the type of chaplaincy which he was doing at Hanssen.

While approaching their work from a Christian viewpoint, many chaplains stress they are not there to impose their beliefs upon others but rather to support workers irrespective of their background or religion.

“My role, and that of my team is not to go into the site and make converts, it is not even to evangelise,” Woolmer told the BBC. “The role is one of pastoral support to the workforce. Think of it as an extension of being an ‘Army Chaplain’ to the troops.”

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