Opening up about suicide

Australian construction-industry statistics are an alarming reminder of our igno­rance about mental stresses in our own workplaces and being alert to the signs, writes GAVIN RILEY.

SUICIDE IS A TABOO subject in this country. It’s legally made so by the Coroners Act 2006, which severely restricts publication of details pertaining to self-inflicted deaths.

We do know that New Zealand has one of the highest youth-suicide rates in the western world (hence the Coroners Act censorship, to discourage copycat deaths). We may even know that this rate is now falling but that suicide among our elderly is on the rise.

But we certainly do not know what the incidence of suicide is in the construction industry because no study has ever been carried out. Which gives “out of left field” statistics from across the Tasman the jolting power of a jackhammer.

In the Australian construction industry, which has nearly one million employees, it has been discovered that workers are more than twice as likely to commit suicide than the national average and six times more likely to die by suicide than through a workplace accident. Construction apprentices are two and a half times more likely to commit suicide than other young men their age.

These alarming statistics first came to light some years ago, according to Australasia’s Journal of Public Health, after suicide deaths were extracted from a national coronial database and occupations were coded. The data showed that low-skilled workers had a higher suicide rate than those classed as higher skilled.

In Queensland the construction industry quickly decided that “suicide is everyone’s business”, not just that of health professionals, and in 2008 set up a Mates in Construction (MiC) charity organisation to try to reduce the rate and improve the mental health and well-being of workers.

Working independently of employers and unions, MiC provided community development programmes on sites and supported workers in need through case management and a 24/7 help line. It also made available “life-skills toolbox” training to apprentices and young workers.

The Queensland programme has proved so successful – a 10 percent reduction in the risk of suicide over a five-year period up to 2012 – that the MiC concept has been adopted in New South Wales, South Australia and Western Australia, and a national organisation, Mates in Construction Australia, was set up in October last year.

Recently Australia’s ABC news network reported that a leading medical-research institute study had confirmed that training workers to notice changes of behaviour on construction sites, and encouraging stressed colleagues to seek help, was lowering the risk of suicide.

Australia’s rapid self-help reaction to a shock discovery is in stark contrast to the situation in Britain where Building magazine recently ran a long and worrying lead article under the heading, “Why is talking about mental health taboo in construction?”

Not enough, it seems, has changed in the UK since a decade ago. Then the same prominent trade journal reported that around 200 UK construction workers (out of a workforce of two million) would commit suicide that year – more than in any other sector. The magazine quoted a regional health authority close to London as saying that 16 percent of all suicides in its area in the previous five years were in the construction industry. Another health authority, on the south coast, reported a figure of 10 percent for the same period.

C_P32_Dec_2014_1According to Building, reasons advanced by industry experts for the high suicide rate included: the itinerant lifestyle of many workers and managers, away from home and often living and working in substandard conditions; loneliness; poor industrial relations and poor job security; stress leading to depression; and an inability to communicate personal problems because of the “just get on with it” attitude prevalent in the industry.

A 2004 review of stress in the European construction industry produced similar potential stressors, plus lack of information and consultation on work issues, too little organisational involvement, work quantity (too many jobs to be completed in a given time, including paperwork), and mental strain from the high degree of concentration required on precision tasks.

The European study identified construction employees most under stress as managers, road workers (particularly those on night shift), installation workers, crane operators, surveyors, foremen, work planners, and supervisors. The study noted it was part of construction-industry culture to brush aside stress and pointed out the damaging consequences this can have – lower productivity and efficiency, increased sick leave, and high worker turnover.

A report prepared in 2007 for Britain’s Health and Safety Executive, the most recent detailed study of the construction industry in the UK, said 88 percent of workers experienced some level of work-related stress and five percent claimed to be suffering from “illness” stemming from stress, depression or anxiety. A survey the previous year by the Chartered Institute of Building found that 85 percent of construction workers felt the industry did not do enough to address mental health in the workplace and this was a factor in poor retention levels.

C_P32_Dec_2014_2Are the Australian and British construction-industry situations replicated to any marked degree in New Zealand? Without a specific study we have no way of knowing. But if peripheral mental-health statistics are any guide, there is no room for complacency.

In late September it was revealed that our police (who are not a mental-health agency) are receiving almost 12,000 attempted or threatened suicide calls a year, nearly 33 a day, and that the figure has been rising by eight percent annually for the past five years.

It is of little comfort to know that coroners’ statistics show a three percent drop in suicides for 2013-14. Clearly the sheer volume of calls to police points to a growing societal “stress and distress” that must be making its presence felt in the nation’s workplaces and from which the construction industry is not exempt.

Surely the time has come not just to allow but to encourage the public to become informed about suicide and to understand and accept the mental stresses that can lead up to it. In no other area of health are we so in the dark or so uncomfortable when trying to talk about it. For instance, if we see someone with their arm in a sling we are immediately sympathetic; but if we come across someone behaving strangely we instinctively look the other way in embarrassment.

The male-dominated construction industry, with its long hours of work, macho; “don’t whinge” culture, deadline-driven environments, spartan and often isolated and noisy worksites, presents its own singular set of mental pressures which can easily exacerbate any feelings of anxiety, depression or worry an employee may bring to the work day.

Though no one should ever be their brother’s keeper, we would be well advised to adopt the Australian Mates in Construction’s successful philosophy that “suicide is everyone’s business” and its extension to embrace the wider aspects of mental health. It’s a subject most of us probably need to understand much better than we do.

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