Destigmatising poor mental health in the construction sector

Did you know: in Australia, construction workers are more than twice as likely to die by suicide than the general population? Determined to break down the stigma associated with mental health and promote open conversations in its workplace, leading pipeline infrastructure company, Interflow, recently engaged MATES in Construction to educate its workforce about suicide in the construction industry.

The truth about suicide rates in the construction industry

The construction sector employs over a million Australians, making it one of the largest employing industries in the country.

There are well-documented factors that contribute to the industry’s elevated suicide rates among workers, including limited job security, long work hours, frequent time spent working in isolation from friends and family, and the prevalence of ‘blokey’ worksite cultures where the disclosure of personal struggles can be met with unsupportive responses. Coupled with the common reluctance of men to seek help, the situation presents a perfect storm.

With these factors in mind, there is a real need to implement an industry-wide strategy for addressing mental health and these alarming figures.

With approximately 600 employees across Australia and New Zealand, working in some of the toughest conditions to keep the community’s essential water and sanitation services running year-round, Interflow has a commitment to invest in mental health.

Interflow's Senior HSE Business Partner, Troy Dawson, explains the inclusion of mental health and safety into its ‘Harm 2 Zero’ approach.

Interflow’s Senior HSE Business Partner, Troy Dawson.

The company’s Senior HSE Business Partner, Troy Dawson, explains the inclusion of mental health and safety into its ‘Harm 2 Zero’ approach.

“It is critical that organisations within the industry make an investment in mental health care to mitigate the risk of suicide or mental ill health among employees,” he said.

“As awareness for mental health issues continues to emerge, we are moving into an era where it’s automatically and naturally incorporated into workplace health and safety.”

Standing up for MATES in Construction

As part of its commitment to the mental health and wellbeing of its employees, Interflow strives to keep conversations surrounding mental health open and honest.

In addition to providing its employees with access to the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) and participating in nationwide events such as R U OK? Day and National Safe Work Month, the organisation’s South Australian team recently engaged MATES in Construction (MATES).

Committed to taking a people-focussed, industry-tailored response to the mental-health crisis, MATES has developed a suicide prevention program in partnership with industry, specifically designed to meet the needs of construction workers.

Chris Lockwood, MATES’ CEO explained why this tailored approach is necessary.

“We decided to start from a position of the strengths that construction workers bring to the table. While men are commonly poor at seeking help, we also understood that men, and construction workers in particular, are terrific fixers and problem solvers. We turned the usual approach to suicide prevention on its head, with the goal of building an industry of people skilled at offering help,” he said.

“Promoting health-offering behaviours is the real core of the MATES program. We train people to be awake to the signs of poor mental health and suicide red flags among their peers. We build on this by providing regular construction workers with the conversational and relational skills to intervene and keep their mates safe when they sense things aren’t right. What we’re doing here is helping to build a more resilient and connected workforce.”

Interflow’s Project Engineer, Alec Dawson, attended the session alongside several other office and field crew members. He said it was a confronting but eye-opening experience.

“It was highly valuable to get all of the South Australia crew together to have a real discussion beyond ‘work talk’, but about our lives and how we are coping,” he said.

“It gives us the ability to understand the prevalence of mental health issues, identify when someone needs support, and more broadly, apply the valuable insight from MATES to our everyday activities.”

Interflow’s Project Engineer, Alec Dawson, attended the mental health program run by MATES in Construction.

Interflow’s Project Engineer, Alec Dawson.

Turning talk into action

Now armed with enhanced knowledge on the matter, Interflow’s crews are tackling the stigma associated with discussing mental health issues head on.

Organisational leaders will be key to leading this change. By lending their support, time, and resources to promoting conversations and shifting organisational culture, the factors contributing to suicide rates in the construction industry can be shifted.

Chris Lockwood from MATES explores the importance of seeking solutions at a team, organisational, and societal level.

“Shifting societal and cultural norms isn’t a burden that should fall on any one person’s shoulders,” Mr Lockwood said.

“We view suicide prevention as everybody’s business. The impacts of industry-based intervention programs such as MATES don’t stop with work. People with stronger awareness and suicide intervention skills carry these with them into their families, friendships and across the community,” he said.

Alec, alongside Interflow’s leadership team, recognises that there is still much work to be done, but is optimistic that steps are being taken in the right direction.

“The MATES session was a great catalyst for further action,” Alec said.

“We have a responsibility to each other to destigmatise mental ill health and to support each other through life’s challenges.”

MATES in Construction addresses mental health in the construction industry.

If your mate is doing it tough, call MATES 24/7 Helpline: 1300 642 111

If you liked this article, continue reading other articles on mental health in the construction industry.


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