Mental health in construction (save lives and revenue)

Widespread depression in our industry threatens the lives of workers and drains revenue. But there’s hope: businesses can support mental health in construction by connecting people to programs that save lives and boost productivity. A thriving team is full of people who take initiative and work well together. Unfortunately, too many construction workers dread clocking on each day. At least one quarter of Australian construction workers have been shown to have a mental health condition, according to a report by PwC. Look around you. People you work with every day are bound to be tied up in that figure. Maybe even you? Mental health problems destroy lives and cost businesses billions of dollars every year, when left unchecked. In the construction industry, suicide rates are disproportionately high. Devastatingly so.
“Every event we’ve had, at least one tradie has come up to me after and told me about their suicide attempt. They’ve never felt empowered or supported before to talk about it. They feel huge shame. But then they see they’re not the only one — that’s an incredible impact.”Jeremy Forbes, tradie and founder of HALT charity
We can turn this around – by creating supportive workplaces that save lives. We spend so much time at work, so this matters. In fact, it’s already making a difference. Read on to find out about the life-saving tools that more workplaces are embracing to help people recover from mental health problems. We show you how to support your team (and yourself).

It’s worse for us: mental health and safety in construction

Here’s a sobering reality: In Australia, three quarters of people who take their own lives are men. You see, gender is a huge risk factor for suicide, and the construction industry is mostly men. But even among the male population, construction workers are more likely to end their lives.
“Across Australia and all time periods, construction workers have suicide rates 84% higher than non-construction workers.” Deakin University 2016 report
Researchers from Deakin University identified 1,947 male suicides in the construction industry from 2001 to 2010. During this time, suicide rates among labourers were significantly higher than other areas of the male population. (They were unable to calculate suicide rates for women in construction, due to the small numbers.) Every year, around 190 lives are lost to suicide in the Australian building industry. suicide rates for construction workers This cost is enormous, on both a personal and corporate level.

The high cost to companies and individuals…

The impact of depression on people and communities:
“There is a pronounced ripple effect when someone suicides in your community. Pete’s funeral was in July. It was winter. The mood was bleak and somber in the packed community hall. It was a grieving community who had no answers to Pete’s suicide, no answers at all. As I wandered around between the tradies and the community members, I started hearing some tones of another underlying tragic level. I heard people talking in that community hall about the struggles other people were going through. The essence of the conversations was contained in two words that I heard several times: Who’s next? Who’s next?”Jeremy Forbes, speaking about his friend’s funeral for TED Talks
The many faces of mental illness change people’s lives in different ways. Negative impacts include:
  • Reduced income or loss of job
  • Unable to pay the bills
  • Relationship problems
  • Feeling like a failure
  • Addiction (drugs and alcohol)
  • Poor memory and decision-making
  • Sleep disruption
  • Reckless or abusive behaviour
  • Poor performance at work or school
  • Higher risk of developing cardiovascular problems
  • More vulnerable to infections and diseases, due to lowered immune system
  • Chronic pain
  • Self-harm
  • Loss of life (suicide)
  • The destruction of families
mental health in construction crisis numbers Companies lose BILLIONS from ignoring mental health and safety in construction: The Australian construction industry loses $1.5 billion annually (due to fatal and non-fatal suicidal behaviour). Beyond our sector, Aussie businesses shed an incredible $10 billion each year, as a result of letting mental illness go unchecked. Some of the ways that businesses lose out:
  • Under-performing employees
  • High turnover costs that come with replacing employees
  • Absenteeism (staying away from work)
  • Tardiness
  • Strained relationships between co-workers
  • Compromised work safety
  • $145.9 million in compensation claims
But it doesn’t have to be this way… The damage is DRASTICALLY minimised when businesses adopt strategies that protect the wellbeing of their workers. More about the solutions later. These are only possible after understanding the root causes, which we’ll look at now.

Safety in construction industry

Why is suicide so widespread in the building sector?

“Suicide isn’t like a workplace accident, where we can point to a missing scaffold. It’s a combination of work, home and background coming together.” Jorgen Gullestrup, CEO of MATES in Construction
We can’t blame an isolated situation for the prevalence of mental health problems in construction. Rather it’s a perfect storm of circumstances that build up to create a force strong enough to knock anyone down. Even the most resilient can lose their footing. We know that most people who die from suicide are men. Why? Men are less likely to seek help for their mental disorders compared to women. Most people who receive treatment recover completely or learn how to manage their illness, but many men miss out on this life-saving support. This has tragic consequences, but it isn’t the only reason why mental illness is so widespread in building and construction.

Lack of job security

Many construction workers are subcontractors who work on a project-to-project basis. This can be stressful, if you don’t know when your next job will be, or if this pay cheque will be your last. On top of this: It’s not easy to form bonds when you’re working with different people so often. Strong communities are powerful weapons against depression, but many subcontractors miss out on belonging to one. Red flags tend to go unnoticed too, because you’re not working together for long enough to pick up on behaviour changes.

Long hours and tough conditions

Did you know that people in construction work some of the longest hours in Australia? It’s not uncommon to clock in more than 39 hours a week. This can take its toll on your mind, leading to anxiety, low self-esteem and poor decision making. Researchers say that people who work more than 39 hours a week put their physical and mental health at risk. It doesn’t help that labourers and tradies often work in tough and dangerous conditions too.
“When you look at the construction industry and the challenging conditions we often work under, it doesn’t do much for good connections. The industry is an industry where we work six-day weeks, we work very long hours. We often work away from home. We work for small business generally and very often with very low job security. For a construction worker, eight hours’ notice is job security … If you then on top of that lose your job then it’s not that hard to feel that you are actually a burden to your family.”Jorgen Gullestrup, CEO of Mates in Construction
women in construction

Bullying in the workplace

There’s a link between bullying, depression and suicide. Bullying in construction is widespread and often goes unreported: Young construction workers are more likely to end their lives. Eleven per cent of apprentices reported high levels of bullying within their workplace, in a Flinders University study of 169 people. Bricklayer Tony Steenson and commercial builder Adam Warburton have both worked in the industry for more than 20 years. They say everyone contributes to the bullying culture – either as an instigator or bystander. And this behaviour doesn’t need to be intentional to sting. Machoness is so deeply rooted in construction – those who were once bullied go on to give their apprentices a hard time, thinking they’re doing them a favour. mental health and safety in construction Intimidation isn’t always as obvious as verbal and physical abuse or isolation either. It can take the form of excessive work hours, impossible deadlines and lunch breaks that don’t exist. And young workers tend to put up with it, because they need the money.
“Starting work for the first time can be just like entering high school, where you are stepping into the unknown. You are vulnerable and at the bottom of the pecking order; you are looking to your peers for what is required.”Unimed Living Magazine
Sexual harassment: Women make up only 12 per cent of Australian construction workers. In many cases, this gender imbalance leads to the cultural acceptance of foul language and sexist jokes. In other cases, it takes a more sinister tone. Construction worker Kate Mathews, for example, won a $1.3 million payout after she suffered from a psychiatric illness after being subject to assaults and rape threats. Chauvinist attitudes exist in many workplaces and this needs to change (read our article about women in construction here). Thankfully, cultural shifts are already happening…

Life-saving resources for construction workers and businesses:

construction initiatives for mental wellnessPioneers in the building sector are already taking action. On top of saving lives, there’s some financial incentive for companies to get involved too. Construction businesses get a return of $2.50 for every dollar they spend on mental health initiatives (and some programs cost them nothing). Here are a few public and private services that are making a positive difference in their own way:

MATES in Construction

How do you encourage proud men to talk about their emotions at work? Many won’t do it because it isn’t “manly”. This is where MATES in Construction steps in. The national charity was set up in 2008 to tackle high suicide rates among Australian construction workers. They go onto building sites and give people the tools they need to:
  1. Recognise when a mate isn’t coping
  2. Connect that person to social workers, psychologists and suitable assistance
This program combines training with support to raise awareness about suicide and make it easy to get help.
  • Community development programs
  • Case management
  • 24/7 helpline
  • Life Skills Toolbox training to apprentices and young workers
Guess what? It’s working. A report by the Hunter Medical Research Institute found the program lowered suicide rates by 10 per cent between 2008 and 2012 in Queensland, where it started. Mates in Construction has been a floatation device for more than 5000 Queenslanders and it now operates in NSW, South Australia and Western Australia too.
“One of the things we know about suicide is the more connected you are to your family, your friends or your work mates, the less likely you are to die by suicide.” Jorgen Gullestrup, CEO of Mates in Construction
Mates in Construction saves lives by making suicide everyone’s concern, not just mental health professionals. It’s funded by employers, unions and the federal government. MIC National Helpline: 1300 642 111 Visit this page to organise mental health training on your site.

HALT (Hope Assistance Local Tradies)

The charity HALT forms a bridge between construction workers and support services. They host breakfasts at building sites, hardware stores, TAFEs and other hotspots for tradies and labourers. Egg and bacon rolls, anyone? There’s free food, good conversation and everyone gets a bag that contains valuable information about suicide prevention. The idea is NOT to make a big deal about it all. So far over 200 events have been hosted in Queensland, NSW, Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia. Founder Jeremy Forbes wanted to build a community solution to mental health, after one of his mates took his own life. He says that men find it difficult to open up and get help. In fact, this used to be him.
“Four years ago when I founded HALT, I didn’t know I could go to the doctor about my mental health and get a mental health plan. I didn’t know about community health. I certainly didn’t know about Lifeline, and I’ve called Lifeline three times, and they’ve certainly potentially saved my life. I had to learn all these things. Tradies need to know them.”
You can watch Jeremy Forbes’ TED talk here.
Fill out this form to organise a ‘Save your Bacon’ breakfast for your company.

Travelling Tradies – get out of your head with a working holiday

Sometimes a change of scenery helps to recharge when you’re feeling overwhelmed. This is the idea behind Travelling Tradies – a startup that connects Australian and New Zealand tradies with reputable hostels and hotels around the world. Tradies get free food, accommodation and local guidance, in exchange for a few hours of handyman work each day. The rest of the time is for exploring and unwinding. Founder Adam Valastro worked as a plumber for nearly a decade, but suffered from severe depression after two workmates took their lives in the span of a week. He retreated to South America, where he offered his skills for a warm bed, good food and adventures that helped him to feel better. Adam set up Travelling Tradies after realising that others wanted the same overseas experiences. Tradies pay a subscription depending on the amount of time they want to travel, or the number of hosts they want to be connected to. For example, $297 covers three months of travel with a connection to two hosts. If you want to find out more about this new initiative, visit their website.

Trademutt clothing – fashion for tradies

“Built tough so you don’t have to be”. Queensland carpenters Ed Ross and Dan Allen are reshaping the image of tradespeople, by designing colourful work shirts that can be worn on site. These shirts encourage men and women to talk about their mental health and support others. The bold designs send the message that it’s ok to open up and to be seen – putting an invisible issue under the spotlight in a playful way that starts conversations. The Trademutt duo pledge five per cent of every sale to the TIACS movement, which strives to tear down the walls around mental illness.


MateCheck is a safety app that allows workers to track their wellbeing, give their employers feedback and access empowering tools. It gives workers quick access to confidential support services and normalises mental health in the workplace. The app can be customised to meet the specific needs of the construction industry. A representative from MateCheck says 78 workers from a leading mining company used the app over an 18 week period. Before this, only one employee reached out for help using the traditional employee assistance program. “The MateCheck system has changed and saved lives,” she said. Murphy Pipe and Civil is one company that’s used it with MATES in Construction to combat fatigue and act on countless safety issues.

What else can managers do to protect mental health and safety in construction?

tackling depression in the construction and building sector Here are some ideas:
    • Provide resources that show people how to approach workers who appear to need support.
    • Introduce workplace rehabilitation services through a mental health provider, to help people who aren’t coping. Consider making reasonable tweaks to their workload or schedule, if this is possible.
    • Protect the privacy of those who have a mental health condition. It’s important that staff trust you and feel safe to speak up.
    • Implement prevention programs so fewer workers are affected by mental illness. If your resources are stretched, consider prioritising lower skilled workers as research shows this group is most affected by depression.
    • Build an inclusive culture where all workers are respected and valued.
    • Encourage people to reach out if they’re feeling stressed, pressured, depressed or intimidated.
    • Provide mentoring to apprentices and new staff so they feel less vulnerable.
    • Invite your workers to participate in writing a strong policy against bullying and sexual harassment.
    • Deliver training to educate staff that bullying comes in different forms but isn’t always intentional or obvious. Provide examples and explain the serious repercussions.
  • Encourage workers to speak out if they’re feeling bullied and harassed. Tell them the issue will be dealt with quickly and fairly. Coaching and mediation can help to resolve the incidents, without making workers defensive.

Does someone at work have depression, or are you at risk?

Here are some of the signs to look out for:
  • Increased and notable absences from work
  • Loss of interest in normal activities
  • Feeling sad, miserable, frustrated and overwhelmed
  • Being quiet or withdrawn on a regular basis
  • Refusing to participate in social activities
  • Poor concentration or lapses in memory
  • Feeling like a failure
  • Withdrawing from close family and friends
  • Being tired all of the time
  • Being less productive at work or home
  • Not completing tasks
  • Feeling physically sick
  • Sleep problems
  • Significant weight gain or loss
  • Relying on alcohol or sedatives
  • Tearfulness
  • Impulsive or reckless decisions
These signs are particularly common in men with depression:
  • Sudden and dramatic moodiness, irritability, aggression or anger
  • Changes in routine
  • Loss of interest in the usual activities
  • Unusual behaviour (for example, constantly snapping at co-workers)
mateship in construction

The signs that someone could be planning suicide

  • Thinking or talking about hurting oneself or threatening to do so
  • Talking about suicide
  • A fascination with suicide reports or murders in the media
  • Worsening depression
  • Reckless behaviour that could lead to death (e.g. not stopping at stop signs)
  • Talking about feeling hopeless, powerless or worthless
  • Changing a will or sorting out loose ends
  • Giving away treasured or valuable possessions
  • Visiting or calling loved ones out of the blue
  • Comments like “I want out”
  • Increased alcohol consumption or drug use
  • Online searches around suicide methods
  • Extreme changes in mood
  • Writing goodbye letters

Are you worried about someone at work?

This guide shows you how to ask if they’re ok and what to do if that answer is “no”. If you’re not in the right headspace to strike up this conversation, you can ask a trusted colleague to do it. In a nutshell:
    • Choose a private moment to ask “how are you going” in a relaxed and friendly way.
    • Explain that you’re concerned about changes in their behaviour and that you care about them.
    • Listen without judgement and ask questions like “how long have you felt that way” to encourage them to open up.
    • Ask if there’s anything they’ve done in the past to manage similar situations.
    • Offer to help to find a health professional and be positive about this approach.
  • Check in to see how they’re feeling in a few weeks, or sooner, if they’re really struggling. Show that you genuinely care and listen to what they say, without judging if no progress has been made.

If you need help from a professional, contact one of the numbers below. You’re not alone.

Crisis hotlines

Lifeline 13 11 14 Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467 MensLine Australia 1300 789 978 Mates in Construction 1300 642 111 Beyond Blue 1300 22 46 36 GriefLine 1300 845 745 Headspace 1800 650 890 QLife 1800 184 527 Healthdirect 1800 022 222 Emergency services 000