WHAT IS YOUR BACKGROUND?
I worked as a civil labourer and was elected Union Delegate by my peers and then worked directly for the CFMEU for 21 years in a variety of roles (Education Officer, Apprenticeship Officer, State Organiser of NSW Public Sector, Secretary of Furnishing Trades Division, President of Forestry, Furnishing Products Division & National Assistant Secretary of Construction & General Division). I was also Trustee/Director of several State & Federal Govt. Boards & Committees as well as a National Executive Member of the CFMEU.
WHAT IS MATES IN CONSTRUCTION AND WHY WAS IT CREATED?
The MATES program is an integrated program of training and support – one without the other is insufficient. To only do training without pathways to support is potentially dangerous and to only do support without raising awareness is to simply be another Employee Assistance Program. The MATES program uses training as a tool to raise awareness that there is a problem with suicide and its contributing risk factors in our industry and we can all be part of the solution. The support is then provided through clear pathways to help, case management processes that ensure that workers in need of support are connected to appropriate help, and on-site visits by field officers to support the site and its workers in an ongoing presence until the site closes.
MATES was created out of the results/findings of the AISRAP Report (Australian Institute of Suicide, Research & Prevention – Griffith University QLD).
AISRAP found that in the construction industry, suicide rates were 2.5 times higher than the national average and young construction workers were ten times more likely to suicide than die from a workplace accident.
It also found 93% of construction workers who had suicided never sought professional help.
HOW LONG HAVE YOU WORKED AT MIC AND WHY DID YOU BECOME INVOLVED?
I have been at MIC just on 2 years. The reason I gravitated towards this role is because when I saw the stats of high rates of suicide in our industry, I was outraged and I was motivated to do more. I also have 4 young adult sons and I wanted to better understand why the younger demographic are struggling with mental health and have alarming rates of suicide.
WHAT DOES A TYPICAL DAY IN YOUR ROLE INVOLVE?
There is no typical day in my role…that’s why I love the job. I enjoy (from time to time) donning the Hi Vis and getting out on-site to assist our Field Officers/Case Managers train workers. This also helps keep my ear to the ground regarding program integrity and rollout.
We are a small team in NSW, so I have to be a hands-on CEO and having an open-door policy with my staff is also imperative as we are constantly struggling with program demand. Flexible working hours, work from home and employee self-care options are all considered.
HOW IS THE CONSTRUCTION SPACE FARING COMPARED TO OTHER INDUSTRIES WHEN IT COMES TO MENTAL HEALTH AND ARE THERE ANY UNIQUE CHALLENGES?
The Australian Construction Industry is the only industry that has embarked on a significant research project to identify problems of mental health & suicide prevention, so it is difficult to compare with other industries.
We have a few unique challenges in our industry. We are a male-dominated industry and understand there is a culture of not allowing discussion of mental health problems with peers (i.e. macho culture of ‘toughen up’ etc.). One of the unique issues that impacts is that the ‘life of’ the construction project is sometimes considered the ‘life of’ the job/employment. The work in our industry is itinerate and can be at times ‘Boom/Bust’.
HOW DO MENTAL HEALTH SERVICES FOR AUSTRALIAN CONSTRUCTION WORKERS COMPARE WITH THOSE IN OTHER INDUSTRIES?
With some indulgence, many may not be aware the most comprehensive study in any industry in the world was the AISRAP Report. It is therefore very difficult to compare our industry to others as there is an absence of qualitative data. We know, however, that some industries like Mining have their challenges with respect to FIFO workers etc.
HOW DO MENTAL HEALTH SERVICES IN AUSTRALIA COMPARE WITH THOSE IN OTHER COUNTRIES?
We in Australia have some amazing innovative mental health programs and we can be considered a leader with our different approaches, but more can be done in providing Psychiatric care facilities.
UNFORTUNATELY, THERE IS STILL A SOCIETAL STIGMA TOWARDS MENTAL ILLNESS, ESPECIALLY WITHIN THE CONSTRUCTION INDUSTRY. WHY DO YOU THINK THAT IS, AND WHAT ACTIVE STEPS CAN BE TAKEN TO ERADICATE IT?
Addressing stigma is the starting point for our MATES in Construction program. At the extreme/pointy end of Mental Health is suicide and culturally remaining silent on suicides is not helpful. We teach participants in our MATES training program that mental health should be considered on no lesser level than physical health problems. We also encourage help seeking and help offering. Keeping the message simple (i.e. you don’t have to be a counsellor or psychologist to connect someone to help). De-mystifying mental health is key.
THE CONSTRUCTION INDUSTRY HAS ONE OF THE HIGHEST SUICIDE RATES OF ANY INDUSTRY. DO YOU THINK THERE ARE CERTAIN CONDITIONS THAT CONTRIBUTE TO THIS? IF SO, WHAT DO YOU THINK THEY ARE?
No doubt. The AISRAP Report that made everyone in our industry take note identified the following:
· Long working hours
· Itinerate industry/Lack of Job Security
· Male-dominated industry who are less likely to seek help
· Little allowance of communication of mental health problems
· Macho culture
· Heavy alcohol use
WHAT DO YOU HOPE WILL CONTRIBUTE TO BETTER MENTAL HEALTH IN THE CONSTRUCTION INDUSTRY GOING FORWARD?
Some large commercial construction companies are reviewing current weekend working hours and even clauses in contracts addressing ‘Liquidated Damages’, including the terminology uttered on-site.
Weekend work hours are being reviewed for the purpose of people spending more time with family on the weekend (i.e. children sporting events etc.).
Some believe Liquidated Damages (i.e. a contractual financial penalty linked to project deadlines) lead to unrealistic timeframes re project schedules and can have a negative impact on mental health and workplace safety initiatives.
Larger commercial construction companies are also implementing bespoke well-being programs as well as implementing the MATES in Construction Program.
Also, encouraging and embarking on a real effort to encourage female participation in our industry will no doubt have a positive impact on mental health outcomes. More women in our industry encourages better communication of mental health issues and help seeking.
WHAT CAN PEOPLE DO IF THEY ARE WORRIED ABOUT A WORK COLLEAGUE’S MENTAL HEALTH AND WHAT SIGNS SHOULD THEY LOOK OUT FOR?
The first thing people may notice is changes in someone. It may be their physical appearance, lack of sleep, moody or suddenly very reserved etc. They may also take note of things you may sense or hear. Given if they know the work colleague has experienced a loss, then noticing changes, you can start piecing together the picture of someone not doing so well.
HOW DO YOU THINK COLLEAGUES AND PEOPLE IN GENERAL CAN BETTER SUPPORT EACH OTHER’S MENTAL HEALTH?
We know in the construction industry that in the past there has been barriers to encouraging help seeking. By raising awareness, teaching people the signs of what to look for and then connecting people to help, we are more than half-way to fixing the problem. Being a good listener, non-judgmental and displaying empathy are also key.
WHAT ELSE CAN MANAGERS DO TO PROTECT THEIR STAFF’S MENTAL HEALTH AND SAFETY IN THE CONSTRUCTION INDUSTRY?
Managers should create an environment of transparency, openness and vigilance related to mental health and safety. They should encourage help seeking and train staff in mental health strategies (i.e. MATES in Construction – GAT, Connector & ASIST Training).
WHAT CAN PEOPLE DO BETTER TO DEAL WITH WORK-RELATED STRESS AND AVOID BURNOUT?
People can develop a self-care plan and make work colleagues aware of what to look for (i.e signs) in them when experiencing work-related stress. They should share the self-care plan with work colleagues so they know when to consider help offering.
WHAT BEST PRACTICE SHOULD TEAMS ADOPT TO NURTURE THE MENTAL WELLBEING CULTURE?
At the centre of any successful mental health wellbeing culture is the strength of solid peer support. We find the strength of our MATES in Construction Program is our Connectors (a ratio of not less than 1 in 20 trained workers on-site) who know how to keep someone safe while connecting them to help. People within any organization who are suffering need to feel comfortable about opening-up about their problems so they can be dealt with. Creating a network of carers within a workplace not only improves wellbeing but also productivity and safety outcomes overall.
ALTHOUGH DIFFERENT FOR EACH INDIVIDUAL, DO YOU HAVE ANY GENERAL ADVICE FOR CONSTRUCTION INDUSTRY WORKERS SUFFERING THROUGH MENTAL HEALTH ISSUES?
Construction workers should know they are not alone and help is available. They shouldn’t suffer in silence and understand there is a bright beaming light at the end of the dark tunnel. Seeking professional advice is like offloading a very heavy backpack they have been carrying around. I encourage all construction workers suffering through mental health issues to tell someone & get help. I would also make them aware your problems are not unique and life can get better.
For more information about MATES in Construction, please head to their website.