Australia is home to a strange and terrible phenomenon: unconscionably high suicide rates among men. The industry with the greatest risk? Construction.
We spoke to Jorgen Gullestrup, CEO of Mates in Construction to uncover why suicide has become so rife in the construction industry, most importantly, what we can do about it.
- Construction workers are 71% more likely to die from suicide than an onsite accident;
- They are more than twice as likely to commit suicide as any other Aussie adult;
- Apprentices are at even greater risk with statistics showing they are 2.5 times more likely to commit suicide than their peers in other industries.
Why is this happening to our construction workers?
The statistics tell us what’s going on but they don’t tell us why.
Why is a far more difficult question.
As the pioneer of a non-profit dedicated to preventing suicide in construction (and a former construction worker himself), Jorgen is best placed to provide some insight on the issue. But even experts in the field are baffled by the ‘why’.
“We do know the risk factors: job security, being male, drinking and drug taking. All those things are connected with high risk. But we haven’t scientifically tied it all together yet into a complete picture of why this is happening.”
They’ve had university studies done on the issue in an effort to uncover the hidden causes. Beneath it all is the sincere yet slightly naive hope that someone could just tell them what’s wrong with the industry so they can put a ban on it or fix it.
“But, of course, there’s nothing wrong with the concrete. It is the whole ecosystem. Possibly the type of people we attract. They might have been higher risk if they were in other industries as well, but something about construction appeals to them.”
While we would love to have a concrete answer, as this would make solutions a whole lot easier, it seems (for now anyway), we have to accept that it’s a bouquet of issues, rather than a particular cause.
Suicide: the aftereffects
Losing someone to suicide is one of the most devastating things imaginable. This is not to take away from any other grief, or any other loss, because personal loss is incomparable. However, in the aftermath of the suicide of a friend, most people find themselves overlaying their grief with guilt, rejection and endless what ifs. It’s a complex array of difficult emotions and whole communities can be affected deeply.
“When somebody has been affected by suicide, it’s important to call in professional help. To get somebody to do what we call a ‘post-intervention’ in the workplace. To help people make sense out of it, so that we don’t get end up with a clustering effect. But also to help deal with the grief people have individually.”
Unfortunately, there’s no magic pill, there’s just a long hard slog for people to try to make sense of it. And people never get over it. But they learn to live with it. Jorgen’s best advice for anyone dealing with the suicide of a friend or loved one is to just go and get the help, because it is a big thing to deal with (if this is you, scroll to the bottom of the article for resources).
Concerned about a friend?
When you’re concerned about somebody, Jorgen says the best thing you can do is to go and express to them, in an up-front and honest manner, that you’re worried.
“The reason for that is it makes it your problem rather than their problem. You’re saying ‘I’m concerned about you’ and that always puts an obligation for them to help you, by talking about where they are.”
For blokes—and construction is still a male dominated industry—offering help comes much more naturally than asking for it. With Jorgen’s approach, you put the person you’re concerned about it a position where you’re asking them to help put your mind at ease. This makes it easier for them to open up. The next and vital step is to allow them to be upset if there is something up.
“Allow people to just let out what they have to say. Don’t try to fix it, don’t try to change anything, don’t tell them they don’t really feel sad if they’re saying they do. Just listen and then connect them up to the appropriate help.”
Jorgen’s most important piece of advice if you think someone’s having a hard time: don’t ignore it.
“Don’t think that if they really are that sad, they’ll come and tell me. Because people won’t. If they did, we wouldn’t have these terrible statistics.”
At the end of the day, if we rely on doctors to pick up on mental health issues, we’re not going to get very far.
“When people are struggling and feeling down, they can feel really vulnerable and often stuck for words to describe what’s going on. Getting that out in the ten minutes you get in a doctor’s appointment is extremely hard.”
Plus blokes tend to avoid the doctor for anything less than severed limbs and burst arteries.
But if you work next to somebody day in and day out, keeping it in for a full work day is almost impossible. So the most important lesson is to know that the best person to work out when your mental health is not as good as it could be is the person next to you. Jorgen encourages people to lookout for changes in their colleagues.
“When we know something is going on for somebody—loss, family issues, bullying, divorce, whatever it may be—and we then notice that person’s behavior changes a little bit, or even sense that they’re not doing too well, then rather than think ‘that’s some private business, I’d better not encroach on their turf’, do that, encroach, go and ask.”
If you say to someone, “I’ve noticed you’re not yourself, and I’m worried about you,” the worst thing that can happen, if you’re wrong, is a bit of an awkward laughter. They’ll say, “no I’m okay, there’s no problem at all,” and that’s that. If you don’t ask, the worst that could happen is somebody could lose their life.
“If I had to weigh up the risk of embarrassment versus the risk of bereavement, I would rather take the embarrassment.”
Not everybody’s going to be okay all the time. And that’s okay. So long as you have strategies in place to deal with it and help people when they’re in need.
What the construction industry can do
Statistically, employed people are less likely to have poor mental health and less likely to commit suicide than unemployed people. So work is actually a good thing. And it helps if employers can emphasise the positives about their industry. In Jorgen’s case, he put an effort in to finding satisfaction in the structures he helped create as a construction worker.
“I like to go and look at the buildings I’ve built. And they’re there 20 years later. I’m proud. Employers should ephasise things like this because they turn the work you do into a good mental health experience.”
He encourages employers to have barbecues, do fundraising for charities, engage in positive endeavours that create a sense of community among their workers. It’s also vital to have good policies around mental health so we have a diverse workplace. We need to have room and understanding for people from diverse backgrounds and those who have clinical mental illnesses as well. Training for supervisors is another must-have.
“They need to understand that when somebody has a mental illness, it doesn’t mean that they’re suddenly going to run away and become an axe-murderer. It is no different from having asthma. If it’s managed well, you may need treatment from time to time but that doesn’t make you a bad worker.”
Jorgen also encourages peer-based programs for happiness because, when workers start having some rights and responsibilities about this, they will inform management about things they can’t handle for themselves. They’ll start talking about it and that opens the doors to a more open, connected and communicative workplace.
While this issue is beyond troubling, we are thankful to be able to report that a nationwide initiative run by Mates in Construction has been so successful we’re seeing a noticeable improvement in the statistics. Click here to read more about how Mates in Construction provides a cleverly designed support network to the industry.
Mates in Construction have a 24/7 hotline for anyone who is dealing with hardship or concerned about a coworker: 1300 MIC 111 (1300 642 111)
If you’d like to get MIC on your site, click here.
Lifeline also has a 24/7 hotline for support: 13 11 14
And for mental health advice, you can also contact Beyond Blue 24/7 via phone: 1300 22 4636 or, if it’s easier for you, they have a web chat service on their website. However, this is only available between the hours of 3pm and midnight.