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Women feel it too: How mental health issues can affect all construction workers


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Recent studies point to a troublesome trend in Australia’s construction industry, indicating the high prevalence of suicide, anxiety, and depression found amongst construction workers.

The latest figures from MATES In Construction show that construction workers are six times more likely to die by suicide than fatal accidents on site, whilst research from PwC shows that anxiety amongst those working in the industry is over 20 per cent.

While there has been a growing interest of late to try understand why construction workers are at risk, a missing piece to the puzzle is dialogue around women in construction and how their experience differs to that of their male peers.

Perhaps women are underrepresented in efforts to understand the issue, as they are underrepresented in the industry more broadly. However, that certainly should not mean they are neglected entirely.

However, that certainly should not mean they are neglected entirely. 

Conversations around causes for mental health often centre on the issue of male stereotyping in construction, and how men working in the industry face high levels of stigma if they fall short of appearing ‘manly’ in line with the image they are expected to embody.

So where does leave women? While the figures do show that men are disproportionately affected, there needs to be a certain level of awareness and understanding of how women can be best supported to deal with mental health issues, and the ramifications of gender imbalance on their ability to cope.

Jobsite spoke to Anna Murphy, an electrician who has experienced depression in the past but struggled with finding the right support, to hear more about her experience.

Unsurprisingly, Anna commented that generally there is only ever one other women in addition to herself on the jobsite on any given job, and most of the time she would be the only female. Indeed, the latest study from the Workplace Gender Equality Agency commissioned by the Federal Government shows that 88 per cent of those working in construction are male.

From Anna’s perspective, there was a severe lack of support offered by the industry and ultimately her support networks were based on friends and family, in addition to medical care.

“While I feel able to discuss mental issues with friends and family, I would never bring up the topic whilst at work. To be honest, this has left me in some really difficult and dangerous situations, like having a panic attack on a roof,” she says. “As far as I’m aware, I have never received support from the industry and certainly none that has made a real impact on my ability to cope with the depression.”

“I would never bring up the topic whilst at work. To be honest, this has left me in some really difficult and dangerous situations, like having a panic attack on a roof.” 

Whilst it might be assumed that stigma is less of an issue for women, according to Anna, it still has an impact. Whatever the constraints are around open conversations around mental health, they affect women suffering from mental health issues just the same.

Indications of a commitment to change are being seen. Recent funding from the Turnbull Government, with an announcement in May pledging $47 million to boost front-line services, indicates that there will be an uplift in initiatives and support.

There is a network of organisations in Australia, focused on improving education around and support for mental health within the industry including the Master Builders Association, the National Safety Council of Australia, and MATES In Construction. Particularly important for women, the National Association of Women In Construction (NAWIC) provides access to a supportive peer-group that is focused on empowering women to succeed in construction.

Ultimately, employers themselves need to understand the steps they can take to support those at risk. From support services, such as an Employee Assistant Program (EAP), to including mental health as part of the discussion in safety meetings or training sessions and inductions at the start of a project, employers need to find ways to increase awareness and dialogue within their organisations.

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