Everyone in the construction industry knows what the pressures are that drive their colleagues to suicide. But few want to talk about it, and few companies are looking seriously at the issue. Alexia Russell reports. 

The construction industry has the highest suicide figures for any industry group – 6.9 percent, a figure marginally higher than forestry and farming. (At 6.8 percent.)

A Building Research Association (BRANZ) study released last month asked if there was a need for research into the reasons why. Its report revealed the most important and often-mentioned driver for suicide is the poor culture employees live with on a daily basis …. macho and bullying, and including homophobic behaviour. The boom-bust cycle of the industry and the pressure that results is also a big factor. “Good times” are often the hardest times, with pressure to deliver quickly and in quantity. Add customers whose internet surfing and reality TV watching means they know more than builders; the high prevalence of drug and alcohol; the ever-present cell phone which means you can’t hide from your customers, and you’re looking at a high-risk workforce.

The report said there is currently no New Zealand research to explain why the suicide rate for the construction industry is so high or what the underlying mental health issues for the workforce might be.

However one interviewee said significant research to validate the problem isn’t needed – the suicide statistics speak for themselves.

BRANZ is now sponsoring a Massey PhD student to look into mental health in construction. Site Safe and BRANZ are also carrying out a study looking at the 339 closed-case suicides from Coronial cases in the industry over the last decade. The study will mine data to analyse common factors in the deaths. It is due to report back in March.

University of Auckland mental health expert Dr Jemaima Tiaita-Seath is a panellist on the Government’s Mental Health and Addiction Inquiry.

She says she doesn’t know why the issue isn’t on a priority list.

“In New Zealand there’s not much research being done,” she says. “I couldn’t even give you a name.” But she says it needs to be driven from within in the industry.

She backs Australia’s ‘MATES in Construction’ suicide prevention programme, saying its de-stigmatising messaging is simple – things such as having stickers on helmets saying it’s OK to ask for help.

Australia’s industry-generated scheme has been in place for the last 10 years. It could easily be instituted here, and has been in a couple of cases, but it is designed for large firms and sites, and wouldn’t really be suitable for New Zealand’s vast numbers of small and medium enterprises, which are often where the biggest areas of stress lie. It is a structured programme involving volunteer ‘connectors’ who are trained to keep someone in crisis safe, while at the same time getting them professional help.

The BRANZ report doesn’t unilaterally back the introduction of MATES as an answer.

“The possible introduction of MATES in Construction in New Zealand does not imply that the solution to any issues uncovered by research is already here,” the report says. “Mental distress and mental health are complex issues, and rarely does a single programme provide all the solutions. Small and medium-size businesses make up most of the construction workforce, and MATES in Construction does not traditionally work with this sector of the industry. Other approaches will be necessary if we are to assist those at every level of the industry.”

Site Safe NZ chief executive Brett Murray says even in Australia, the scheme has only 35 percent penetration in the sector. Instituting it has been helped by promotion from the country’s powerful unions, but “it’s been a slow burn”.

“There’s not a heck of a lot of information out there,” he says. It’s also not a black and white issue – mental health issues could be work or home-related.

But he does see some change on the horizon. “I’m sure more and more companies will look at the MATES scheme, especially the bigger ones,” he says.

“This [mental health] should be an integral part of Health and Safety. Suicide is just the pointy end. A lot of mental health issues we know – bullying and general stress – are more prevalent. All the underlying issues that sit below the surface, and not just in construction.”

Murray says role models such as Sir John Kirwan and Mike King have made great strides in bringing this predominantly male issue into the open. “In New Zealand it’s becoming more and more OK to talk about it. Three or four years ago such issues were very much swept under the carpet. We’re trying to break that culture … and in forestry and farming it’s not that different.”

The first company in New Zealand to adopt and adapt the MATES material was Alpine Energy subsidiary NETCon in 2015. The programme now covers the company’s wider group. Mental wellbeing has become part of the South Canterbury company’s culture. Most of its 200 employees are men.

But it hasn’t really caught on with other companies, in spite of Alpine’s enthusiasm for it. Alpine’s general manager of safety and risk, Stephen Small, suggests maybe that’s because the lines company is not really part of the construction industry, or perhaps it is too isolated in Timaru.

Small says MATES was introduced through his predecessor who’d come from the Australian mining industry, and was familiar with it. “We had a lot of that good old Kiwi attitude of take a cement pill and carry on,” he says.

South Canterbury District Health Board suicide prevention co-ordinator Annette Beautrais came in to give workers the cold hard facts on the issue – which worked well for the engineers – but not for everyone.

Bringing in speaker Mike King to talk on an emotional and social level about his personal journey however, hit home with many more.

“We still have people we use as connectors,” says Small. “We don’t seem to use it much, which we think is good.

“It has been used when people have been in a dire situation, and it’s very much embedded in the Alpine group.”

Small says the company needs to build resilience in its workers, who, when the weather turns bad and everyone else is going home, are the ones going to work.  “Wellness is a cornerstone of safety.”

He says it’s not just used when people get suicidal, but to capture them at the point where they’re saying “I’m uncomfortable; I’m struggling” – before they’re saying, “I can’t cope”.

Small would be really interested to see if the construction industry in general picks up the MATES programme. “We don’t have to reinvent the wheel – this is what works in Australia,” he says. Alpine has tweaked it a bit to suit its own culture but generally it fits.

He would also be reluctant to see such programmes imposed by the Government, where it would become a matter of compliance – Small says Alpine does this because it’s passionate about it, not because they have to. “It’s not just lip service.”

He points out that if you asked the guys if they wanted a mental health thing in the workplace they’d say ‘no’.

As a health and safety professional for the last 20 years, Small says there is a huge amount of work to be done in this area.

“We’re really good at the safety part – not so good at health.”

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