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The construction industry is an acute example where the rates of suicide are many times higher than workplace accidents – in fact, the male suicide rate in the construction industry is higher than in any other industry in New Zealand

Mental health in the workplace – lessons from the BRANZ research report – By Sarah-Lee Stead and Richard Monigatti

Promoting the psychological health and safety of workers at work is an important aspect of ensuring businesses meet their obligations under the Health and Safety at Work Act. In the construction industry, businesses should be especially aware that workers may be under significant stress from personal as well as workplace issues, and they may need your support.

A high percentage of New Zealanders suffer from mental health issues or distress. Unfortunately, the construction industry is an acute example where the rates of suicide are many times higher than workplace accidents. In fact, the male suicide rate in the construction industry is higher than in any other industry in New Zealand.

In 2018, BRANZ released a research report focused on improving mental health and reducing suicide rates within the construction industry.

The cause of the problem

The report addresses some specific factors contributing to the high rate of mental health issues in the construction industry. Some significant observations are as follows.

There is a ‘harden up’ attitude and staunch culture within the industry that does not always encourage individuals to check in with each other or talk about what is causing them mental distress. This impacts on participation in voluntary wellness programmes.

There is a lack of tolerance and promotion of diversity, including in relation to ethnicity and sexuality. Workplaces need to develop culturally sensitive models for dealing with mental health issues.

Construction is a high-stress industry, in particular given the ‘boom-bust’ nature of workflow. Both boom and bust periods put pressure on workers and can result in absenteeism, presenteeism and the frequent movement or loss of talent from the workforce. Increasingly informed and demanding consumers also contribute to the high-stress nature of the industry.

People perceive trades as an undervalued career path. Participants in the study considered that high-risk or vulnerable individuals may be more likely to join the industry as a result of its position as the ‘other option’ to attending university, particularly during boom periods.

Substance abuse is also prevalent in the construction industry.

The report emphasises that workplace culture is a key factor contributing to safer workplaces, and identifies a connection between good mental health and a lower risk of physical harm. In addition, mental distress lowers productivity and increases costs, which may exacerbate already high-pressure and stressful work environments.

All of these issues are crucial considerations in a physically high-risk industry such a construction, where a small mistake could lead to serious injury.

Finding a solution

The report emphasised that solutions must be tailored specifically to each issue in the context of the wider industry environment. For example, although promoting strengths-based wellness (i.e. focusing on how to maximise those things that make you feel well, not focusing on problems and risks) might be a sound approach to improving mental health in some workplaces, there are indications that such programmes are having trouble gaining traction in the construction industry.

The BRANZ report suggests that an approach which is created in partnership with the industry is key to finding effective resolutions. Factors such as geographical location, company policy, management styles and community demographics will play a part in the risks faced.

As a way forward, the BRANZ report suggests the Australian MATES in Construction programme as a possible solution to the high suicide rates in the New Zealand construction industry. MATES in Construction has been designed specifically for the needs of the construction industry. The programme aims to work from within organisations by providing education and training workers to be able to act as ‘connectors’ or ‘ASIST workers’ (applied suicide intervention skills training) who can support their co-workers in times of mental distress and connect them to professional help.

Following the BRANZ report, MATES in Construction has gained traction in New Zealand with support from industry bodies and a number of construction companies opting to trial the programme for their staff.

Site Safe has progressed the BRANZ report and undertaken further research into the alarming trends in the construction industry. The Site Safe study reviewed 300 coroners’ reports of suicide in construction that occurred between 2007 and 2017. The findings from the Site Safe study are being shared with the government, industry and Site Safe member businesses, and will inform the future development of prevention and mental health promotion programmes in the industry.

Where to now?

The increasing awareness around mental health issues and the allocation of resources towards research and mental health programmes is promising, and will form the foundations for positive culture change in the construction industry.

What is clear from the BRANZ report is participants have a strong appetite for culture change. We recommend that you support your businesses and workers to take this issue seriously and get onboard with promoting mental health in your workplace as part of your broader approach to health and safety, whether that be through the uptake of MATES in Construction or your own business-specific initiatives.

Sarah-Lee Stead is a special counsel and Richard Monigatti an associate within the specialist health and safety team at Kensington Swan kensingtonswan.com

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