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By Willow Aliento
October 15, 2018
The construction industry has the highest suicide rate of all industries in New Zealand, with 15 deaths of working age men per year over five years, according to a recent study.
The BRANZ Mental Health in the Construction Industry Scoping study examined some of the factors that might lie behind the alarming number of suicides.
The BRANZ researchers, Kate Bryson and Anne Duncan, consulted with construction industry members, mental health workers, WorkSafe NZ and Site Safe New Zealand. Interviews revealed factors that are believed to contribute to poor mental health and the likelihood of suicide. These included a “harden up and take a concrete pill” culture; challenges around intergenerational workforces and clashes around communications and job expectations; the “boom and bust” cycle; pressure from customers; and problems involving alcohol and drug use.
One of the scoping study’s major recommendations was that further research be undertaken as it would help gain greater insight into why suicides are so prevalent in the industry. This could, in turn, help create a foundation for the introduction of appropriate programs, such as one modelled on Australia’s Mates in Construction mental health support program.
It has already been done by a NZ company. NETCon has already successfully utilised the Mates in Construction program to improve the well-being of its workforce.
Site Safe NZ, a national not-for-profit construction industry safety organisation, has received funding to undertake the next tranche of research in conjunction with BRANZ. It will involve an in-depth analysis of approximately 339 coronial files relating to suicides by people associated with the construction industry between 2007 and 2017. In order to protect confidentiality, all information used for the report from the research will be made anonymous and de-identified.
Site Safe CEO Brett Murray told Jobsite the study is expected to deliver some results by March. Murray said the initial scoping study’s findings and the reality of the high number of suicides was not common knowledge throughout the industry.
“There was awareness in some quarters,” he said.
There is still a stigma attached to talking about mental health issues, he said. Another issue is that there is a poor understanding among many workers of the help that might be available to them beyond Employer Assistance Programs.
The broader poor workplace culture issues are also a factor. The scoping study left “a lot of unanswered questions,” Murray added.
Murray pointed out that there is also a bigger mental health picture to consider as suicide is at the “extreme end of mental health issues in terms of outcomes.”
One of the things he hopes the new study may achieve is making a effective contribution to interventions and better outcomes “further down the chain,” before workers reach the point of suicide.
On the degree to which alcohol and other drugs are a factor, Murray said it will be interesting to see what the analysis of the coronial files brings up in terms of substance abuse and also factors, such as episodic depression.
He admitted, however, the “macho” culture of the industry is a real issue. The industry is still largely male-dominated, particularly at the front end.
More broadly, the scoping study identified there is an “intolerance of diversity,” including diversity in terms of gender, age and sexuality.
It has been seen that companies with a better culture, those where bullying and discrimination are not tolerated, have a beneficial impact. People are more likely to stay in their jobs, for example.
Stress is another factor believed to contribute to suicides. Murray pointed out that research has shown workers are more likely to have stress-related issues in companies with between six to 19 workers, with an occurrence rate of 18 per cent compared to 11 per cent for construction firms overall. The smaller companies form a large part of the NZ industry.
Murray said Site Safe recognises there will probably be “no silver bullet” to come out of the new study, but it is expected to contribute to the understanding of the problem and the development of appropriate interventions.
The research may also suggest specific programs to target some of the findings.
“It will be the foundation research that other things can be built on,” Murray said. “Unlike Australia, where the high rate of suicide in construction has been recognised for years, in New Zealand, we are still coming to grips with the scale of the problem.”
If you need to talk to someone:
Lifeline – 0800 543 354 or (09) 5222 999 within Auckland
Youthline – 0800 376 633, free text 234 or email email@example.com or online chat
Samaritans – 0800 726 666
Suicide Crisis Helpline – 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)
If it is an emergency or you, or someone you know, is at risk call 111.
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