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Working together on mental health – MATES in construction

“Not only are our workers worried about the stigma that is associated with poor mental health, they also often don’t have the time or money to do that, so their mental health is often put on the backburner.”

CEO, Victoria McArthur

MATES in Construction was launched in New Zealand just over a year ago in response to research showing that construction workers have the highest number of suicides across all industries.

Construction workers are traditionally seen as tough cookies who can cope with anything yet the taciturn stereotype can work against those under stress, sometimes with tragic consequences. The industry has now started making real strides towards forging a more open, aware and supportive workplace culture through the MATES in Construction initiative.

Funded by industry, MATES is an evidence-based workplace suicide prevention model that takes its awareness message to where it is needed most – direct to labourers, consultants, engineers and project construction workers of every type.

“At the start, our vision was to run a pilot programme on five sites in the Auckland region – in fact, we’re in about 180 sites now and have trained around 8000 people,” says MATES in Construction CEO Victoria McArthur, who notes the New Zealand programme was inspired by the initiative proven to work in Australia’s construction industry.

“Even taking into account Covid-19 and the associated lockdowns, we have been widely and rapidly accepted by industry across New Zealand.”

One of the key insights that has shaped the design of this programme is the awareness that few construction workers would ever consider making an appointment to see a GP let alone a counsellor to help manage stress.

“Not only are our workers worried about the stigma that is associated with poor mental health, they also often don’t have the time or money to do that, so their mental health is often put on the backburner.”

The MATES in Construction goes to them to deliver awareness training and to build capacity for a community on site.”

The goal is to provide free education on suicide and its impact on the industry, as well as what sorts of stresses could be affecting people, how to identify if someone is struggling and what to do. Training is also available for volunteers wishing to become ‘Connectors’ who can help keep people safe during a crisis and connect them with support.

MATES ASIST is an additional training step in the programme to provide further support around suicide prevention. It’s all about putting tools in the belt so workers can help a mate or help themselves.

“Suicide is a behaviour that happens at a particular time when the person feels that they can’t go on. There’s a difference between mental health and suicide prevention.

“With suicide, there may not be a history of mental health issues. It can stem from stresses that have been going on for a person for some time and they have finally reached a tipping point.

“If someone is living with poor mental health such as depression, it is the stress associated with living with their depression that can lead to thoughts around suicide, not the depression itself.

“What we’re trying to do when we go on site is to encourage people to change what they do when they feel that way so they either seek help or, if one of their mates is struggling, offer help.

“They need to know who to call and how to reach out. The feedback we’ve had so far is overwhelmingly positive.”

After training sessions, MATES field officers stay on site, spend time in the lunch room and make sure they are available to workers. Those who may not feel comfortable talking to a field worker can call a 24/7 confidential helpline.

Research is now underway to evaluate the effectiveness of MATES in Construction and the extent to which workers are engaging with it. Another research project, led by Dr Gabrielle Jenkin at the University of Otago, is looking further into suicide rates in the construction industry and examining factors contributing to the devastating rates.

“From that, we’re looking to further identify as an organisation what other interventions we can put in place.”

NEED HELP NOW? Please call the MATES in Construction 24/7 Helpline 0800 111 315. IN AN EMERGENCY PLEASE DIAL 111 IF YOU THINK YOU OR SOMEONE ELSE IS AT RISK OF HARM.

This article is the first in a series where we worked with MATES in Construction, Culham Engineering, Naylor Love and Miles Construction, discussing their focus on staff and mental well being.

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