How Can We Improve Construction Worker Mental Health?

Thursday, June 25th, 2015
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While the building sector in Australia offers wonderful opportunities and rewarding careers, it can be a difficult and stressful environment in which challenges associated with mental health and anxiety can be difficult to manage.

Indeed, at the extreme end, data from the Australian Institute for Suicide Research and Prevention indicates that construction workers are more than twice as likely to end their own life as compared with the general population.

Suicide rates among apprentices in the sector, meanwhile, are more than two and a half times the general averages for men of similar age. Construction was also the number one sector in terms of substance abuse, according to a 2007 ABS survey. New research has found workers who participate in fly-in-fly-out type arrangements experience depression at more than twice the rate of other Australians.

To some extent, these statistics largely reflect the male dominated nature of the sector’s workforce. Men – who suffer from high levels of stigma and often lower levels of awareness surrounding mental health issues – are statistically three times more likely to take their own lives than women, and according to some studies are more likely to abuse narcotics.

Furthermore, Mates in Construction operations manager John Brady says many of the problems which lead to suicide emanate from outside the workplace, and include family issues or relationship breakdowns, financial stress or drug or alcohol addiction.

Still, with tight deadlines and pressure to meet agreed time frames, considerable levels of uncertainty and occupational redundancy associated with the project-oriented nature of the work, long working hours, the need to often work away from home and an industry culture which stigmatises mental health challenges, a number of factors within the sector itself add to stress experienced by its workforce.

Brady said these factors add to an already high rate of risk associated with a male dominated industry.

“These are all well known risk factors around suicide, depression, anxiety and those sorts of issues” he said. “What we had (according to Institute research) with construction was all these risk factors that occur within the one workplace or the one industry.”

For those on site, Brady said a number of possible indicators may indicate that colleges or workers need help. As well as known potentially known factors in people’s lives, such as relationship breakdowns, sickness or death of family members or financial troubles, subtle changes in behaviour could also be a sign of trouble. These could include becoming unusually loud or quiet, withdrawing, becoming distracted, turning to alcohol, or even giving away possessions, saying goodbye to people or paying back money. Less obvious still, any general sense or feeling that something is not right with somebody may mean that something is up: subtle language in which the worker gives off a sense of being a burden upon others raises a red flag.

Where someone may be in trouble, beyondblue head of research and resource development (workplace) Nick Arvanitis suggests approaching them.

“What we suggest for colleagues or managers is to be aware of those signs and symptoms,” Arvanitis said. “And if you do spot someone that you think might be struggling, if you are confident enough and comfortable enough, (it is a good idea to) to approach that person in a private setting just to check in and just to say ‘look I have noticed some changes in your behaviour and I just wanted to check in to see if everything is OK and let you know that I am here to help – have you thought about getting a GP if you are struggling?’”

Brady agrees, adding that it can be useful in cases where people need of helpline services to actually approach the person and suggest that you make the call and let them talk. Left to their own devices, he said, many men do not end up making the call.

At a broader company level, Brady and Arvanitis encourage managers to think about any areas within the work environment where stress can be minimised or workers can be better supported. It is also important to have a variety of ways in which workers access assistance – especially through external programs like Mates in Construction, as internal mechanisms are often viewed with suspicion.

According to chaplain and former minister Tom Smilovitis, who was recently hired by Perth-based project management and building outfit Hanssen Pty Ltd to roam the company’s sites and help its 700-odd workers deal with personal problems, it is important that managerial promotions and appointments are made not just on the basis of technical knowledge but also on the basis of people and leadership skills.

Where this does not happen, Smilovitis said, workers come under more stress and feel more threatened.

At an industry level, Brady said it is imperative to change the culture and address the stigma associated with mental health.

He said too often, the culture is that when you have problems, workers feel they should “take a cup of cement and harden up.”

“What we are trying to say to people is ‘actually, it takes a lot more courage to say they need help than to harden up.’”

“Where we see good mateship is where people keep an eye out for their mate and when they are struggling, they (the mate) can pick that up and have the courage to say ‘mate, you’re not right, we need to get you some help.’”

Where to get help

If you or anyone you know needs help, call:

Mates in Construction (1300 642 111) (construction workers specifically)

Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636

Lifeline 13 11 14

Employer Resources/Programs

For employers, below is a non-exhaustive list of programs/resources which may prove useful (note: listings are not endorsements):

Mates in Construction: Provides case management, field visits, postvention support (after someone has committed suicide) and critical incident support as well as general awareness training for workers to recognise when they or a colleague need help and what to do.

National Workplace Program (beyondblue): a mental health awareness and training resource developed to help staff and managers to develop skills to address mental health concerns at work through brief workshops as well as presentations delivered in the workplace setting.

Psychologically healthy workplace program (Australian Psychological Society): Assesses the psychological health of workplaces and provides feedback on the strengths and weaknesses of programs at a workplace level.

Mindful Employer (SANE Australia): National workplace program which can be run as a series of face-to-face workshops, a remote eLearning program or a combination of the two.

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