The blueprint for better mental health in the construction industry

Construction workers gathered to discuss mental health and wellbeing
Nick Thompson​, Industry Engagement Coordinator, MATES in Construction

Nick Thompson​, Industry Engagement Coordinator, MATES in Construction

by Nick Thompson​, Industry Engagement Coordinator, MATES in Construction

Men in the construction industry are 53 per cent more likely to die by suicide than other employed men across Australia. It’s a startling statistic and one that the industry is trying to change, starting with the creation of The Blueprint for Better Mental Health which outlines common triggers and what the sector needs to be doing to better protect the safety of its workers.

The building and construction industry instigated and informed the MATES in Construction community development model of suicide prevention and intervention over a decade ago. Designed by and for the construction industry, MATES has been leading the way in increasing the industry’s capacity to respond to mental health and suicide.

The model empowers workers to recognise and talk about the welfare of their mates and walk alongside them to safety when times get tough. The industry has come a long way in improving awareness and understanding of mental health and its impacts on workers, yet evidence shows men in the construction industry are 53 per cent more likely to die by suicide than other employed men across Australia.

When looking at what impacts mental health, personal pressure and life triggers such as relationship break down, financial stress, grief, loss and conflict are present in most of our lifetimes and impact each of us in different ways. Within the construction industry, however, job insecurity, long working hours, a culture of heavy alcohol use and an undercurrent of bullying often occurs simultaneously.

These patterns of life triggers and workplace orientated pressures occurring in tandem, whilst not oversimplifying a complex issue, starts to demonstrate an identifiable picture of what the challenges to mental health and well-being are across the construction industry. When one in five construction workers experience a diagnosable mental health condition and one in 20 experience suicidal thoughts, the external factors attached to an individual’s wellness is very much interconnected with not only their job but the entire industry.

In the context of safety and risk management, it’s not hard to set a scene where we have a population group that are particularly at risk of suicide and mental health concerns, and an industry that can’t be divorced as a contributory factor.

A shared vision for better mental health support

When applying occupational workplace health and safety legislation to workplace mental health practices, workplaces are required to be safe and healthy, and not cause ill health or aggravate existing conditions. In understanding the underlying challenges to mental health and well-being across the industry on top of what is legally required to protect workers, the Construction Industry Mental Health Roundtable was initiated.

MATES in Construction, Beyond Blue, employer groups and unions came together via the Roundtable to agree on a shared vision of being a global leader in workplace mental health and to adopt a nationally agreed framework. From senior executives to construction workers, to contractors to employer groups and unions, together the industry agreed on a plan to address workplace mental health and well-being. International standards and evidence around workplace related mental health was examined to see what conditions and what environments contribute to a strong sense of mental health and well-being. The result is the Construction Blueprint for Better Mental Health and Suicide Prevention 2018-2020.

The five core pillars to adopt

The Blueprint provides an evidence-based model of improving overall mental health in the workplace. This model is informed by five core pillars or action items that together create an interconnected workplace environment of resilience. These pillars, when applied in unison, are demonstrated to manage the safety and risk attached to the industry at large via a micro scale at a workplace, worksite or project, informed by what we know impacts individuals within the industry.

1. The promotion of works positive impact on mental health
Work and a connection to productivity and community in itself is a strong protective factor in an individual’s mental health. An environment where workers are informed and engaged through site events and project milestones, and are communicated and informed for their impacts, increases workers sense of belonging and agency. Providing well-being activities that encourage a healthy workplace that communicates in a way that’s inclusive and response to the needs of a team creates an environment of value, collaboration and well-being.

2. Reducing harmful impacts at work
Risk factors associated with the development or exacerbation of mental health issues in the workplace come from both work content such as high-pressured project deliverables and context such as bullying from workmates, unrealistic workloads or problematic management practices. Work situations involving low job control and poor support are linked to challenging health outcomes both physical and mental. Individuals differ in the amount of work they can reasonably be expected to undertake in a safe, healthy and productive manner. Policies and procedures that mitigate these risk factors and plan around managing their likelihood and impact are critical to improving workplace mental health.

3. Providing mental health and suicide prevention literacy
Suicide and mental health are arguably among the most stigmatised topics in the industry. These stigmas can prevent people from both seeking and offering help. Typically, stigma further isolates and disconnects individuals experiencing poor mental health. Evidence demonstrates that greater awareness and education about mental health issues can facilitate help-seeking behaviour. Targeted information can break down stigma and normalise discussion of these topics.

Diagram of the five core pillars to adopt

4. Facilitating early intervention and treatment
Diagnosable mental health conditions, if treated early can often be effectively managed or cured. Workplaces need to provide clear pathways where workers with mental health issues can be identified, supported and provided with appropriate care. In particular, programs to increase and facilitate help offering could target individuals with poor help-seeking behaviour and may help to break down stigma.

5. Providing return to work and ongoing support
A work-related injury or illness can have a big impact on a worker’s life. Research has shown that returning to work is important for health and well-being. Employers have an important part to play in assisting with return to work. Many people have misconceptions about mental health issues, including the belief that mental health issues cannot be treated, that mental health issues are caused by personal weaknesses or that recovery isn’t a reality. Processes that carefully manage the reintroduction of workers into the workforce that supports both the worker and their workmates increases a sense of well-being and encourages help-seeking behaviour when demonstrably supported.

A holistic approach to prevention and intervention

The Blueprint for better mental health has been designed by and for the building and construction industry, informed by what we know works and what challenges we face. The Blueprint provides a framework that enacted in unison directly mitigates the instances and impacts of mental health challenges in the workplace.

From a safety and risk management standpoint, acting on what we already know via evidence and experiential insight is a necessity, not just as it is the right thing to do, but because it’s the law. We have an industry that whilst challenged by causal factors to poor mental health, has shifted a startling figure in rates of suicide.

Building upon prevention and intervention to a holistic model of integrated workplace well-being and mental health by enacting the Blueprint’s five core pillars will not only mitigate the factors we all know bear down on our workforce but will assist in the long-term agility and resilience of the industry.

For more information on the Blueprint, please visit constructionblueprint.com.au/register.

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