“There is a long way to go on this journey – mental health is a complex issue and we are working across a complex industry”
Framing up mental health – By Chris Alderson
The construction industry is complex, and therefore improving the mental wellness of our workers is going to be a considerable challenge – but one that we are up for.
According to the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE), there are approximately 250,000 people who work in construction in New Zealand,
covering commercial building, civil infrastructure, residential building, trades and consultants. There are many different roles – from roading workers,
engineers, architects, builders and small business owners to project managers and property developers.
Understanding and improving mental health within the construction and building sector is therefore naturally a significant task. However, with a collective focus and the support of the industry, government and the mental health sector, significant gains can and will be made.
Awareness is growing
The importance of good mental health has emerged in recent years as a priority for many businesses and industries in New Zealand. There is a realisation that thriving businesses and industry are made up of individuals who also thrive financially, physically and mentally for the long term. Conversely, when significant mental health issues come to light across an industry, a response is needed.
BRANZ and Site Safe New Zealand have recently conducted research into mental health and suicide in the construction sector. The report identified high levels of suicide in construction, provided some insight into who it was happening to, and grouped some common factors. The report concluded that a tripartite strategy between government, industry and the mental health sector was needed to better understand and address the issues.
CHASNZ is now working to formulate this strategy under the auspices of the Construction Sector Accord.
Understanding the drivers of mental health
To implement change across the industry, we first need to better understand the drivers of mental health in the workplace. The 250,000 people who directly work in construction and building will all have a representative range of bio-psychosocial factors as part of their makeup. These include underlying health, genetics, outlook on life, addictions and family history.
Added to this, they all experience typical life events that can affect mental health – births, deaths, marriage, divorce, children, parents, housing and jobs are all things that can change our mental wellbeing on a regular basis.
These factors often combine to impact our mental health, and of course we bring these to work with us. On average, 20% of us will suffer from a diagnosable mental health condition sometime over the course of our working lives.
Understanding work-related influence on mental health
What we are realising now is that work makes up a third connected set of factors. Employment is widely acknowledged to be good for your mental health. It can enhance your overall wellbeing by providing satisfaction, enjoyment and positive human contact. It can also be a supportive place of respite from life events and other personal conditions.
Conversely, work can also act to detract from individuals’ mental health and combine with life and bio-psychosocial factors to create significant mental health issues.
In 2014, the Mentally Healthy Workplace Alliance in Australia developed a useful model for understanding the work-related influence on mental health. Workplace mental health influence broke down into three main areas: job design, team/group, and organisational factors.
Poor job design could come into play in the construction sector for roles that have high cognitive demand but low control. Project managers, tradespeople and small business owners could be negatively affected by dealing with complex projects, contracts, risks and client expectations over sustained periods. Other significant job design issues include poor physical work conditions and stretched resources.
Team/group factors manifest when there is poor support from colleagues and managers. This also includes instances of bullying, incivility and a poor work culture driven by poor frontline leadership.
Lastly, organisational factors are related to recognition and reward, business conditions (think boom-to-bust cycles in construction) and a workplace where mental health is viewed with stigma, pushing help-seeking underground.
A better way
The mental health strategy for construction must seek to better understand how these workplace factors affect the diverse worker roles across the industry. There are anecdotal opinions about construction pointing to unfair risk allocation, complex contracts, procurement practices driving down margins to unsustainable levels, and a volatile pipeline of work.
To address these high-level system issues, we need to take the opportunities that the Construction Sector Accord offers. Work is already underway to understand and improve these. Other factors such as bullying, incivility and poor relationships between builders and their clients will need specific research to better understand the causes and potential solutions.
What we do know now is that mental health issues are prevalent in construction and building. Anxiety disorder and depression are the top two diagnosed mental health conditions; both come at a high cost to the individual and business they operate in.
A 2014 report by PwC identified that, on average, the costs associated with poor mental health are AU$1000 per annum. This mainly included absenteeism and presenteeism (where workers underperform while at work). The relationship between workplace accidents and mental health has also been studied. A person suffering from a mental illness is three times more likely to have a workplace accident.
Making a difference
Even though we don’t have the data yet that we need to clearly identify the workplace factors in construction, that doesn’t mean we can’t start doing something about it. There are evidence-based strategies that all businesses can start employing now that will make a difference to the lives of the people working in construction.
Firstly, all organisations can increase the awareness of mental health in the workplace and help to reduce stigma. CHASNZ has worked with Dr Kate Bryson, MATES In Construction and the Mental Health Foundation to produce a manager’s guide to mental health in construction. This is available as a free downloadable resource on the CHASNZ website (see below).
Strongly linked to this is the strategy of encouraging and facilitating early help-seeking. Feeling comfortable to have a conversation with a team member at work about things that aren’t going so well is a quick and effective means of dealing with issues before they become significant. CHASNZ has also developed a pocket guide on how to have a conversation about mental health, and this is available in printed format or as a free download from the CHASNZ website and ConstructSafe app.
Other strategies that should be encouraged include supporting workers who are recovering from mental illness and enhancing personal resilience for those at risk.
These strategies are all included as part of the MATES In Construction programme which was launched in New Zealand in November. MATES In Construction is a suicide prevention programme which has been successfully running in Australia for over 12 years. It will be rolled out across worksites over the coming years and will be an important cornerstone in the industry’s future mental health strategy.
No quick fixes
There is a long way to go on this journey. Mental health is a complex issue and we are working across a complex industry. There are no quick fixes, but with a strong and unified approach by all parties, backed by data, we will make significant progress to firstly ensuring that the construction and building industry does not make workers’ lives worse from a mental health perspective. Beyond that, we want to see a sustainable industry where people thrive.
Chris Alderson is the CEO of Construction Health and Safety NZ (CHASNZ), the peak health and safety industry body; he is also the chair of MATES In Construction NZ, the newly formed charity dedicated to suicide prevention in the construction industry