Looking after mates on site
Life in construction can be tough, real tough. While it’s not the responsibility of managers to solve the complex mental health issues in the industry, it is up to them to start the conversation.
MATES in Construction was established in 2008 by the Queensland construction industry in response to an endemic rate of suicide in the industry – young men in construction are six to seven more times likely to die of suicide than workplace accident.
The organisation provides tools resources to those in the industry to be able to spot signs that one of their fellow workers isn’t ok, have an honest conversation with them, and ultimately get them professional help.
“There was a clear need in our industry to change how we’re dealing with the issue,” MATES national CEO, Christopher Lockwood, told The Pulse.
The need for an industry-led response to the issue was a recognition that those working in the construction industry face factors that workers in other industries don’t.
Lockwood said the finite nature of construction projects meant that at any one point there was untold stress about where a worker’s next paycheque was going to come from.
“People will have discrete periods of employment and unemployment, so the financial pressures due to unemployment can place enormous stress on people and their families,” said Lockwood.
“As the pressure builds up on the projects, that can result in longer hours, which then cuts into social support networks – so time at home with the family or friends will be impacted as well,” said Lockwood.
“That, combined with the financial pressure of impending unemployment because the project’s coming to an end, can lead to relationship stresses.”
That stress and relationship breakdown can also lead to a higher rate of drug and alcohol misuse.
But anxiety, mental illness and suicide are still seen as taboo subjects – hard to bring up in a conversation with mates on site.
“At times it can be hard to open up honest conversations about this stuff, because nobody wants to be seen as not being able to do their job,” said Lockwood.
“Ultimately, that’s the same in a whole range of industries. People want to be seen as capable and strong, and putting your hand up and saying you’re having an issue, sadly, is sometimes seen as as a weakness.
“We need to change that.”
One of the keys to changing that is getting managers to talk about the issue.
Leading the conversation
If you’re a leader on site, very few people are going to come to you and say ‘I have an issue I need to work through’.
Instead, Lockwood said, it’s up to leaders to lead a conversation and to educate others about how to spot the signs that somebody may be struggling and give them the tools to refer somebody to professional help.
“If you’re a manager, apprentices aren’t always going to come to you proactively, and even if you say something like ‘I’ve noticed you’ve been struggling a bit – is everything OK?’, they may not feel comfortable being open with you,” he said.
“What we’ve found is that people are generally open about the issues if the conversation comes from somebody they consider a peer – an apprentice chippy is more likely to open up to another apprentice.”
Programs like MATES can come onto site and provide the framework and tools for managers to facilitate learning for the whole workforce – so everybody feels comfortable about having the conversation and what to do if somebody isn’t okay.
Spotting the signs, and what to do next
Lockwood said that the key was to observe whether somebody was acting differently from their norm.
“The main thing is to look at changes in behaviour – things that are completely out of character. So it might be that somebody’s actually happier than they’ve been in a long time. Or they may be depressed or withdrawn,” he said.
“It can be a genuine range of indicators depending on who the person is and what they’re like. So it’s about significant changes you think might have an underlying cause.”
If you or the person’s colleague have the discussion and discover that the person affected isn’t travelling well, the next step is to connect them with professional help in your area.
If you don’t have a MATES program on site, that may be the local GP, groups like Lifeline, or even dialing 000 if you’re concerned somebody’s in a particularly dangerous place and is actively thinking about suicide.
The most important part is to make sure you don’t close off the conversation.
“Not leaving somebody hanging is the most important thing,” said Lockwood. If somebody shares something with you, be open to discussing it and then say: ‘What can we do together to get you help in that space?’.
“It’s about making sure that the conversation carries on, that it doesn’t just get closed off.”