As many as three in ten apprentices in the Queensland construction industry are at risk of suicide, a study involving 1,483 apprentices in that state has found.

Released by Mates in Construction and conducted by the Australian Institute for Suicide Research and Prevention (AISRAP), the research looked at the lived experience of apprentices in respect of bullying, depression and suicidal thoughts.

Conducted in October last year, the study predates the onset of COVID-19 and the results are therefore unrelated to the coronavirus.

For the most part, the study found that the experiences of most apprentices were broadly positive.

Almost three quarters (74.6 percent) of apprentices surveyed agreed that they were given fair treatment by their supervisor.

Meanwhile, more than three quarters (76.7 percent) felt they were respected as a person by their supervisor and 70.4 percent felt that they were given clear directions and expectations by their supervisor.

Other findings, however, were concerning.

In particular, the study found that:

  • Over the past twelve months, 34.6 percent of male apprentices and 42.7 percent of female apprentices had experienced thoughts of suicide.
  • Over the past twelve months, 30.5 percent of male apprentices and 34.1 percent of female apprentices had experienced bullying
  • 30 percent of apprentices experienced such a poor quality of life so as to indicate depression whilst 13 percent were experiencing such high levels of psychological distress that it indicated probable severe mental illness.

Respondents to the survey also reported concerns in several other areas.

These included:

  • Low wages and a lack of financial security which impacted upon families and contributed to stress
  • Being treated as lesser than older tradespeople
  • Workplace stresses including bad bosses, long work hours, long periods away from family, unrealistic targets, unobtainable standards and a culture which discouraged taking leave to which they were entitled, taking sick leave, taking breaks throughout the day and which encourage returning to work too quickly after injury.
  • A lack of support for training and education
  • Being treated as cheap labour and assigned to menial tasks; and
  • Stigma around talking about mental health.

The report indicates that mental health problems could be more prevalent for apprentices in construction compared with the general population.

The 34.6 percent of male apprentices and 42.7 percent of female apprentices who have experienced thoughts of suicide over the past year far outweighs the 2.3 percent of Australians overall who had experienced similar thoughts over a twelve month period prior to the National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing conducted by the ABS in 2007.

The aforementioned rate of bullying among apprentices, meanwhile, is far higher than the 9.6 percent overall bullying rate (for 2014/15) determined by the Australian Workplace Barometer Project in 2016.

In its report, Mates AISRAP called for action across eight areas.

These included:

  • An industry-wide intervention program focusing on supervisors, trade workers and apprentices to raise awareness of bullying as an issue
  • Expanding access to support for apprentices who experience poor mental health and suicide risk to third party providers such as Mates in Construction.
  • Resilience training for apprentices including financial management, drug/alcohol awareness, suicide/mental health literacy and workplace rights.
  • More investigation into the vulnerable position of apprentices who experience bullying
  • Examination into how various industry, safety and employment regulators impact upon bullying, psychological distress and suicidality of apprentices
  • Investigation into the potential benefits of structural industry-based apprentice and mentor support programs such as those offered by unions and employer associations
  • More research on the nature of bullying experience by apprentices and how resilience can be developed
  • More research exploring workplace culture and attitudes to bullying among trade workers, supervisors and employers of apprentices.

Mates QLD CEO jorggen Gullestrup expressed concern at the findings but added that they were not surprising.

“Male construction workers as a whole are 53 percent more likely to die from suicide than other employed men in Australia and the age profile of construction suicides is significantly younger than average, so the higher levels of mental distress are unfortunately reflected in our suicide rates,” Gullestrup said.

“I can only fear what will happen to this group of high-risk construction workers as the industry adjusts to COVID-19 and the post-COVID-19 situation.

The report showed a clear association between poor mental health and unemployment, alcohol and substance abuse.  All these factors colliding regarding apprentices makes for a very dangerous cocktail especially as employment in the industry will be impacted by the post COVID recession.”

If you or someone you know needs help, call:

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

Lifeline 13 13 14

Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636