One of the worst things for 39-year-old Melbourne-based widow Donna Shanahan is not knowing why her husband Brett chose to drive into the bush one morning from 2011 and take his own life.
Whilst personal factors may have played a part (he drank heavily, gambled and faced charges over allegedly having taken photographs of a teenage girl in a bathroom), the roof plumber was primarily said to be concerned about a change under which he had been shifted from being an employee to being a subcontractor along with the associated lack of security which that would bring, according to a Fairfax report in March last year.
Sadly, Shanahan’s case is far from an isolated event. Compared with the general population, workers throughout the construction sector are more than twice as likely to commit suicide, according to research from consulting firm PwC and Mates in Construction. Every year, the Mates in Construction web site says, around 190 workers throughout the sector take their own lives.
A number of organisations are acting. Set up as a charity to help building sector workers to manage mental health issues, Mates in Construction provides support for those needing help along with training to assist employers and their workers to manage mental health issues. Construction management software provider Procore recently held an event where swimming legend Ian Thorpe talked about his own battles with depression.
Based on much of the research conducted by Mates in Construction, Milton Walters, VP of Marketing APAC at Procore describes several factors which he says may lie behind the high suicide rates across the sector. Courtesy largely of the male-dominated nature of the industry, a masculine culture has resulted in images of a tough and hard worker and discouragement for those who experience anxiety or struggles from raising issues openly. The project by project nature of the work can lead to a lack of consistency and routine which provides generates a sense of instability (and financial insecurity). This also exposes workers to constant changes in work crews and inhibits their ability to formulate close working relationships.
Others echo broadly similar sentiments. Based on a qualitative analysis of 34 construction worker suicides across a variety of ages, four researchers from Deakin University earlier this year identified several potential factors behind construction worker suicides which they classified under three broad categories.
First, the overarching economic structure of the industry fuels work-related stress factors including transient working conditions and a lack of secure employment as well as debt related stressors and pressure at work. Many of those in the study also experience personal stresses such as legal issues, family breakdown or substance abuse and/or mental health issues. Finally, the researchers echoed Walter’s view on the masculine nature of the work environment and associated stigma associated with mental health issues or reaching out for help.
Going forward, Walters says action is needed on multiple fronts. Already, he said, there are a network of organisations working to improve awareness, education and support. This includes employer organisations such as the Master Builders Association, trade unions, industry schemes such as the National Safety Council of Australia and not-for-profits such as Mates in Construction.
Individual employers, he said, could offer services to their teams such as employee assistance programs or training around mental health programs at the start of each new project. In particular, he says, it is important to increase awareness about the signs that a colleague might be experiencing trouble and the most suitable action to take.
Most important, he says open and honest dialogue is needed.
“It’s time for the construction industry to ensure that mental illness is something that can be talked about openly,” Walters said. “There needs to be an open conversation to reduce the stigma associated with mental illness.
“Workers need to know that they are able to talk about their experiences without feeling isolated, ashamed or frightened – and it’s up to the industry to open up this discussion.”