Construction Worker Mental Health

I recently joined three relatively small but fantastic local construction companies in the Blue Mountains as they downed tools to spend the day talking and learning and practising living a healthy life.

The day was named Get Healthy at Work. Blue Eco Homes, Steelworx Construction and Woodford Homes staff participated in practical, engaging, collaborative and theory-based sessions throughout the day at Trees Adventure in Yarramundi.

At their invitation I joined them for a small part of the day. The program included an introduction to living and working in a more robust, healthy manner. Throughout the day each of the workers participated in a variety of health checks by the Get Healthy at Work team: their cholesterol, weight, body mass index [BMI] and blood pressure was measured. There were sessions about nutrition, mental health and suicide, a fitness program and, of course, an adventure challenge at the close of the day involving a bit of fun with the companies competing against one another up on ropes between the trees.

I acknowledge the efforts of Teresa Henson, Lyn and Allen Smith and Merylese and Joe Mercieca for organising the day. I thank them for stepping outside the comfort zone and moving away from the usual routine of a day's work to offer a critically important break for their staff. I was so impressed by their commitment to, and care for, their workers on the day. It involved raucous laughter and brought tears to my eyes. Many could learn a lesson from their efforts and dedication and for reminding us all that we are human.

Mates in Construction conducted the workshop I attended, which field officer and case manager Carolyn Kelso ably led. The session focused on recognising signs of distress and acknowledging that when we see or hear of someone struggling with feeling bad the usual response in the industry involves comments such as, "Harden the f*** up, Princess", or, "Here, have a cup of concrete".

As someone who has personally dealt with the heart-wrenching ramifications of a loved one attempting suicide, when that low point turned our family's lives upside down, I was keen to learn of more ways to strengthen mental health, recognise those suffering the illness and support this great initiative by local companies.

Statistics about young men in the construction industry, who are suiciding at alarming rates, require both serious consideration and action.

The Griffith University Australian Institute for Suicide Research and Prevention, a World Health Organization Collaborating Centre for Research and Training in Suicide Prevention, is a major contributor to the World Health Organization's first World Suicide Report. Their work has informed action taken by Mates In Construction, industry bodies and unions to inform and support workers.

According to the research that Mates in Construction collects, every year 190 Australians working in the construction industry take their own lives. This means that we lose a construction worker every second day to suicide. Construction workers are six times more likely to die from suicide than from an accident at work. Our young construction workers aged under 24 years are well over two times more likely to take their own lives than other young Australian men. For workers in the construction industry, suicide seems to be a part of the reality of the work. The industry is highly transient, with most workers employed on a project-by-project basis for periods from a few weeks to at best a few years. There is little job security.

Other research has shown that workers find it difficult to discuss feelings and emotions with colleagues and the nature of the work means that social support is more difficult. Pride was identified as an issue, with workers saying they had a problem being seen as "not manly". Past research also suggests that suicide among construction workers is connected to excessive alcohol consumption, lack of help seeking, and relationship problems. Personal stories reveal much about the human spirit and its ability to find a way back from the darkest of places where everything seems lost.

Sadly, we all know people who have suffered from the impact of suicide. We need to keep talking about this. I am grateful for awareness-raising campaigns that deal with difficult issues and for prevention and intervention initiatives such as R U OK? Day and Beyond Blue's "Heads Up".

I am impressed by the resilience training exercises conducted in our schools, and I am thankful for useful workshops conducted by the likes of Mates in Construction, with men who work in this tough industry encouraging others to speak and listen to their mates.

I also respect and applaud unions such as the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union in demanding better and healthier working conditions so our loved ones can come home.

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