Trigger warning: This article contains mentions of suicide.

One of the silver linings of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the increased focus on workplace mental health. The Black Dog Institute, which offers workplace mental health training, said great strides are being made in the construction industry, but challenges remain.

When it comes to workplace mental health, the construction industry faces some major challenges with some of the highest rates of depression and suicide of any industry. This not only has repercussions on individual workers but incurs a huge financial cost to companies in lost participation and productivity each year.

Fortunately, there are new approaches being taken to turn this around. But while the industry is shifting, there is more work to be done to reduce the stigma around mental health and change organisational culture, which starts from the top.

Dr Mark Deady is a UNSW Senior Research Fellow at the Black Dog Institute and the Research Lead within the Workplace Mental Health Research Program, which has a strong focus on mental health initiatives in high-risk industries, including male-dominated industries such as construction.

Dr Deady said there are a number of risk factors at a job, team and organisational level that can affect mental health at work, including some more commonly seen in construction.

“One factor is that work can be insecure, currently more so due to the shifts in supply chains and other challenges relating to COVID-19, and there also tends to be high job demand in terms of the amount of work required in a short period of time,” Dr Deady said.

“For remote workers, there can be challenges around long working weeks and separation from support networks. “Another big challenge in terms of workplace stressors is bullying and harassment. This is certainly not unique to the construction industry – it happens across industries – but the research shows this is a significant issue especially among young workers within construction.”

Cutting across all of this is that the construction workforce is the most male-dominated in Australia – 87 per cent of workers are male. Men are more likely to bottle things up and, sadly, take their own lives. “In general, men seek less help than women,” Dr Deady said.

“In male-dominated industries, this lack of help-seeking is even more pronounced. There still tends to be quite a stigma around mental ill-health and there can be difficulties expressing emotions and a greater focus on self-reliance and self-medication (through drugs and alcohol).”

Change starts from the top

In a positive shift, the industry is starting to see more take-up of initiatives such as mental health training. Programs run by the Black Dog Institute are tailored to different role-levels and delivered by expert psychologists, either face to face or online.

Importantly, the training not only helps all parts of an organisation – from team members on the ground through to senior leaders – become more knowledgeable about mental ill-health and the signs and indications to be aware of, but it also looks at what can be done organisationally to improve work conditions and culture.

“Employers need to be proactive in creating mentally healthy workplaces and really look at what can be done in terms of prevention,” Dr Deady said. “Factors addressing workplace stress and improving working conditions can make the biggest difference in supporting employee mental health, whether that’s reducing job demand or isolation at work, or providing evidencebased mental health training for leaders and managers.”

Aedan Hewitt, a construction worker with more than 25 years’ experience, agrees that the industry is seeing a definite shift. As the Operations and Maintenance (O&M) Manager at Fulton Hogan Egis, a joint venture workingon Sydney’s WestConnex project, he currently oversees a diverse team of 120 people across multiple disciplines.

The O&M team recently participated in the Black Dog Institute’s mental health training, with team members across all levels of the organisation taking part, and Mr Hewitt is already seeing a difference in how colleagues are supporting each other.

“The training was excellent. It really made us take a deep dive into where we were at in terms of mental fitness and health,” Mr Hewitt said. “I’ve had some close friends go through some really serious battles with depression. I think that’s helped me realise when I’m feeling down or maybe spiralling myself. I think that helps me see things in others.

“As individuals or leaders, we’re all dealing with the same stuff but no training was really good because people looked at each other and realised we weren’t dissimilar.” Mr Hewitt added that COVID-19has been a particularly tough time for people and work is being done to ensure colleagues feel supported and have someone to talk to.

“For a lot of people, COVID-19 has highlighted or exacerbated things. For example, I know some people have gone through serious break-ups, not seeing their kids anymore. Then they might be on night shift, sitting in a truck on the side of the road, with too much time to think,” Mr Hewitt said.

“So we’re trying to do a bit of work there. We buddy people up a lot, a bit like the police. Over time they start to open up, talking about their family, how they’re coping.”

Lifting the lid on mental health

Mr Hewitt himself did the Black Dog Institute’s leadership training, which looks at the significant role managers play in recognising and responding to mental health issues in their teams, as well as changing organisational culture.

“Importantly, leaders aren’t just the people who are managers. We have a whole heap of people who didn’t see themselves as leaders but they’re go-to people. They’re good listeners, so people would go to them. We didn’t want them to feel burdened, so we cascaded the training to them to ensure they have some tips and tools to manage it.”

Mr Hewitt said that, for the most part, there’s been broad acceptance of mental health initiatives like this.“I’d say 75 per cent of people are on board with it. Not everyone’s there yet, some people are still very protective when it comes talking about mental health, almost squirmish when the topic comes up. I wouldn’t say it’s stigma, it’s more generational – that old-school ‘toughen up and deal with it’ attitude.

“But we’re lifting the lid on things. There’s a lot more talking, more camaraderie, more respect within our team, people checking in on each other. That’s been a common theme,” Mr Hewitt said.

Building mentally healthier workplaces

Black Dog Institute is a world-renowned medical research institute, translating research into programs, resources, services and digital tools to create a mentally healthier world for everyone.

The organisation combines science, compassion, and action to provide leading workplace training Australia-wide. A range of evidence-based programs are available with flexible delivery options and short time commitment to improve mental health at an individual, team and organisational level.

Free training, proudly funded by the New South Wales Government, is available for New South Wales businesses with up to 200 employees.

To find out more, visit blackdoginstitute.org.au or email workplace@blackdog.org.au.

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