mental health in construction

Prioritising Mental Health in the Construction Industry

Explore the critical issue of mental health in the Australian construction industry. Discover the staggering costs, both human and financial, and learn about initiatives and strategies aimed at supporting the mental wellbeing of workers. From training programs to workplace culture, find out how the industry is coming together to create safer, more resilient environments.

Stress, anxiety and other mental health issues costs Australian businesses $11 billion each year, with one in five Australians experiencing mental ill-health each year.

Untreated mental health conditions cost Australian workplaces $4.7 billion in absenteeism, $6.1 billion in presenteeism and $146 million in compensation claims, a PwC and Beyond Blue report on mental health in the workplace has revealed.

In 2022, the National Study of Mental Health and Wellbeing found that 43.7 per cent (8.6 million) of Australians aged between 16 and 85 have experienced a mental disorder at some time in their life.

Meanwhile, every second day in Australia a construction worker’s mental health will result in their death, with workers face several challenges within the workplace that increase the risk of mental health issues.

High pressure, a lack of job certainty, conflicting demands and exhaustion are driving mental health struggles among Australia’s construction industry workforce.

Dr Andrew Arena – Postdoctoral Research Fellow with the Black Dog Institute – confirmed that the construction industry faced double the risk of suicide in comparison to other sectors across Australia.

 “When a worker’s role is ambiguous, or conflicts with another work role they have, it adds considerable complexity and mental strain to their daily work life,” Dr Arena said.

“Also, when a worker doesn’t feel like they have control over how they work and the decisions that affect them, they’re likely to feel unmotivated and depleted. Over time, these challenges can contribute to stress, burnout, and mental ill-health—especially when coupled with the high job demands of the construction industry,” he said.

Mental Health Week

Mental Health Week – which includes World Mental Health Day – is an annual event in October and aims to improve community awareness and understanding of mental health and wellbeing.

While building a mentally healthy workplace is good business sense, identifying and mitigating psychological health and safety risks is also a legal requirement.

A mentally healthy workplace is one that promotes workplace practices that support positive mental health, eliminates and minimises psychological health and safety risks through the identification and assessment of psychosocial hazards and builds the knowledge, skills and capabilities of workers to be resilient and thrive at work. It should be free of stigma and discrimination and support the recovery of workers returning after a physical or psychological injury.

Businesses that invest in evidence-based mental health training that upskill managers to better support the mental health needs of their staff can result in leaders who are more confident and engage in more mentally healthy workplace practices such as initiating conversations with staff about their mental health, and promoting early help-seeking. They are also better placed to manage work-related mental health risk factors for their staff such as job demands and working with staff to provide a greater sense of job control. Employees who have more supportive supervisors have also been found to have lower rates of work-related sickness absence.

Benefits of Supporting Mental Wellbeing in Workplace

Investing in your workforce’s mental health and wellbeing is an investment in your business – and is also your legal responsibility – under the model Work Health and Safety laws, a person conducting a business or undertaking (PCBU), such as an employer, must manage psychosocial risks such as risks to mental health at work.

Safe Work Australia’s Managing Psychosocial Hazards at Work Code of Practice confirms that psychological injuries often cost more and take longer to resolve – meaning there is also a business benefit to putting people first.

 Supporting the mental wellbeing of your people will deliver the following results:

  1. Improved workplace attendance and productivity

Workers stress leave means less boots on the ground getting the job done – which also means more stress for everyone on site. When people are feeling mentally supported they are more likely to identify and manage their health when problems arise, are better focused and are less likely to take time off work.

  • Staff attraction and retention

Happy and supported workers who know they are valued and have the tools they need to manage their stress and anxiety are more likely to recommend your workplace to peers and to build a future with your business.

  • Improve the business bottom line

Through reducing staff turnover and absenteeism and improving productivity and accuracy, your construction business will deliver more projects on time and within scope – enhancing your profitability and your reputation with existing and potential clients and partners.

Ways To Build Workforce Mental Wellbeing

Mental health training for managers is one of the most effective interventions in terms of return-on-investment. The Black Dog Institute’s research shows returns of up to 10:1 for every dollar invested in training through increased productivity and reduced mental health-related workers compensation claims.

The Black Dog Institute reveals that there are five factors that contribute to workplace health and wellbeing, including job design, team factors, organisational factors, home and work conflict and individual factors. Considering each of these groups of factors and identifying ways to address these will reduce the risk of mental health stress and anxiety in the workplace.

The Institute recommends:

Work design:

  • Establish flexible working hours where possible.
  • Address workplace culture of when, where and how people work – including building diverse and supportive teams and enabling people on the ground to learn new skills and apply their strengths in the job at hand.
  • Use planning meetings, toolbox start-ups and staff workshops to involve your people in deciding how work is undertaken.
  • Monitor staff workloads – ensure there is a balance across your business and that tools down time is sufficient for your team members.
  • Ensure your physical work environment is safe and encouraging.

2. Building personal resilience:

  • Ensure that your high-risk workers have the right training – including for stress management and resilience training.
  • Encourage an active workforce – consider forming after hours sports teams to strengthen teams and general health.
  • Encourage mentoring and coaching – a buddy system not only provides the opportunity to share and build skills, it creates a sense of trust and belonging.
  • Building better work cultures:
  • Encourage people to look out for each other – and model an environment where people openly talk and share.
  • Provide mental health education to you whole team and ensure team leaders and managers have the tools and knowledge they need to help promote a safe workplace.
  • Implement a mental health policy including zero tolerance of bullying and discrimination.

4. Increasing awareness of mental health

  • Make sure your business offers easy access to mental health information and to support systems or organisations who can help.
  • Take part in opportunities to raise awareness such as World Mental Health Day and RU OK? Day.
  • Invite mental health organisations such as MATES in Construction to speak at your business.

5. Supporting staff recovery from mental illness

  • Provide supervisor training on how to support workers recovering from mental illness and stressful life events.
  • Ensure that your business adapts a worker’s tasks and working hours when appropriate.
  • Provide a supportive environment and ensure no discrimination or bullying occurs.

Mental Health Training is a central plank to building health and wellbeing into your workplace. In addition to team leaders and managers, key team members who are trusted by others would be well placed to ensure they have the skills to provide mental wellbeing support.

According to recruitment specialists Hays, improving health and wellbeing begins at the top: “Role model the behaviour you want to see: Another way leaders can offer their support is to act as a role model and be open about their own mental health challenges – if they feel comfortable doing so. After all, their privacy must be respected, too.”

“Leaders have a responsibility to champion good mental health in the workplace,” Hays advises. “By showing that they are committed to creating a culture that is both understanding and supportive of their employees, they help break the stigma of being open about mental health issues at work and set the tone for the rest of the organisation.”

Beyond Blue and the Australian Government’s Mentally Healthy Workplaces online platforms also offer a range of training modules, tools and resources to help businesses protect themselves against risks to their peoples mental health and to promote health and wellbeing.

Specialist Construction Industry Support

MATES in Construction – an industry intervention program that aims to raise awareness of suicide as a preventable problem, build stronger and more resilient workers and connect workers to the best available help and support – has partnered in research to determine the extent and drivers of mental health and wellbeing issues in the construction sector.

According to MATES, men in the construction industry are 53% more likely to take their own lives than other employed men across the country – and are eight times more likely to die from suicide rather than an accident at work. 

With a model that is focused on “help offering over help seeking” in male suicide prevention MATES offers an industry-focused suicide prevention program that is available Australia-wide. As of September 2023, MATES has trained almost 256,000 construction workers in General Awareness Training and has been recognised by the World Health Organisation as an example of best practice in suicide prevention models.

MATES deploys field staff to deliver training in the workplace to improve mental health and suicide prevention literacy, increase help seeking and help offering and engage the workforce in creating a mentally healthy workplace.

Volunteer Connectors and ASIST (Applies Suicide Intervention Skills Training) workers are also trained to identify, support and connect workers to help and support. Field Officers support workplace volunteers to create on-site networks supporting each other and the worksite in preventing suicide and becoming mentally healthier.

The organisation also offers a support line and case management to workers who need help and support.

“When MATES was started in 2008, suicide was seen almost entirely as a health problem requiring health responses. Program such as MATES have shown that we achieve much more when we engage all of the community,” MATES national CEO Chris Lockwood said.

“We know that construction workers are prepared to make a difference with more than 230,000 workers participating and more than 22,000 volunteer Connectors engaged across more than 1,000 sites.

“A five-year review of MATES conducted in 2016 showed that suicide rates in the industry had fallen by almost 8% after the introduction of MATES in Construction. It was also shown that Governments saved $4.6 for every dollar invested in MATES.”

While not all mental ill-health is caused at work, employers have responsibilities under work health and safety laws to ensure that work mental health hazards (also called psychosocial hazards) are effectively managed.

Getting Help

Access free support through:

• Lifeline Australia – 13 11 14

• Beyond Blue – 1300 22 4636

• MensLine Australia – 1300 78 99 78

• Suicide Call Back Service – 1300 659 467

• NSW Health Mental Health Line – 1800 011 511

• Kids Helpline (for under 25s) – 1800 55 1800

• Mates in Construction – 1300 642 111

• SafeWork NSW “Speak Up Save Lives” app – to report unsafe work

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