An Auckland couple want mental health support written into government construction contracts to protect workers who hit the wall.
Warning: This story discusses suicide.
Photo: RNZ / Lydia Lewis
Construction has the highest rate of death by suicide of any industry in the country, with workers twice as likely to take their own lives than to be killed in a workplace accident.
On average the industry loses one worker each week to self-inflicted death.
“I was on night shift, and I was talking to the boys and all of a sudden I just broke down. I think God, this is bigger than I thought, what my son did. I thought shucks, that is when I realised, I need help. This is serious,” Steve said.
Anyone who has tried to get any building done recently will know, the building industry’s under enormous pressure.
RNZ didn’t have to look far to find a family like Steve’s that’s been impacted.
Steve has been in the carpentry business for more than 40 years. He did his apprenticeship in Ōtorohanga and is now a project manager in Auckland for one of the largest construction firms in the country.
Late last year during lockdown their teenage son had thoughts of suicide after his life was flipped upside down because of Covid-19, his partner Lisa said.
“Steve didn’t hesitate, he just reached out to his boss. One, he was under pressure from the Covid crisis because he was an essential worker, so that was next level anyway. Steve is used to that, but then you add the family crisis on top of that and it was just one too many things,” Lisa said.
Their GP told them to text a support service, but they needed hands-on help.
Steve remembered his work had signed up to MATES in Construction. It is a free anti-suicide programme funded by the construction sector and recently the government.
MATES Field Officers are trained in suicide intervention skills, they connect people with suitable professional support, and they provide on-site training, among many other services.
Lisa and Steve’s case officer Slade McFarlane, a former Māori All Black, went a step further and made himself available 24/7, and spent time visiting the family.
“I think we just got to have a better connection with everybody and the services out there … they just kept coming up with a brick wall. I just knew that I had the time to go there and give my time, just to sit with them and have a yarn. It was just trying to create hope and just talk to their situation, it wasn’t easy for [the] family,” McFarlane said.
He said his organisation as not the only initiative doing the hard yards to bridge the gaps in the mental health system.
“I am definitely no superman, I am just someone who cares,” he said.
MATES in Construction chief executive Victoria McArthur said more than 50,000 new homes had been consented in the past year and the government was set to spend $57 billion on infrastructure.
She said there was an extensive list of pressure points: rampant inflation, a desperate skill shortage, the pandemic, materials shortages, and record demand.
“It’s the government essentially causing the problem by there being so much work out there for the industry but we’ve got to look after the people at the end of the day,” McArthur said.
She said the government needed to step up and ensure support for the workers was guaranteed in large construction contracts.
Construction firm Naylor Love chief executive Rick Herd said there were complex issues and many construction companies were currently short-staffed.
He said many small privately owned firms were under stress and if only one person was off sick that could represent a third of their workforce.
“So they’ve got to cover that somehow and often they’re working themselves and then in the evenings they’ve got taxes PAYE etc etc, payroll to do – so the strain goes on those sorts of people, those privately employed people very, very much. They might have a late payment of a sudden financial situations mount, they’re struggling to pay the wages.”
Herd said one option was to run worksite forums to deal with mental health issues such as depression and bullying which staff from smaller organisations were able to attend.
He said it was about getting better communication amongst workers but the industry must also change to ensure there was some consistency and that everyone across the industry was providing services such as mental health support.
Construction Industry Council executive director Graham Burke agreed the government had a responsibility to make sure people working on its projects were safe.
“As a client it is a significant stakeholder in the sector. The government is something like 20 percent of the sector. The government needs to act responsibly as a client,” Burke said.
He said that extended to business owners and said “businesses just need to be realistic. It is a recipe for disaster to take on work that you just can’t finish on time”.
Hawkins Construction chief executive Murray Robertson said it was no secret everyone was under huge amount of pressure.
“For many of us the last two years have been the most trying times to run operational businesses. And the balance there is how do we do the best we possibly can for our clients but also for our people, how do we keep everything safe, keeping that balance right,” Robertson said.
Victoria from MATES in Construction said the scales were already tipping into hazardous territory.
“It’s a crisis for our industry. Our workers are often recruited locally so the impacts that are felt onsite often spills into the local communities,” McArthur said.
Steve backs MATES’ call for the government to write mental health support into contracts from the get go.
He said it was only right authorities drew a line in the sand to protect the sector’s most important asset: their people.
MBIE Construction Sector Accord director Dean Kimpton said both the public and private sector were taking steps to address the issues of mental health, wellbeing and suicide in the construction industry.
“It’s vital for government and industry to work together to own the issue of mental health and wellbeing across the construction sector. Government contracts have health and safety obligations on suppliers. Suppliers are also showing leadership, underpinned by their legal and contractual obligations for the mental health and wellbeing of their people.
Kimpton said it supported the government taking action to create a more supportive work environment in the construction sector and the focus on improving mental health and wellbeing outcomes and to help reduce suicide.
“This is exactly why health, safety and mental health is a key focus for the Construction Sector Accord. Construction Sector Accord funding has supported MATES in Construction to expand its suicide prevention work. This alongside our partnership with CHASNZ has been a key focus over the last 3 years.”
Where to get help:
Need to Talk? Free call or text 1737 any time to speak to a trained counsellor, for any reason.
Lifeline: 0800 543 354 or text HELP to 4357
Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 / 0508 TAUTOKO (24/7). This is a service for people who may be thinking about suicide, or those who are concerned about family or friends.
Depression Helpline: 0800 111 757 (24/7) or text 4202
Samaritans: 0800 726 666 (24/7)
Youthline: 0800 376 633 (24/7) or free text 234 (8am-12am), or email email@example.com
What’s Up: online chat (3pm-10pm) or 0800 WHATSUP / 0800 9428 787 helpline (12pm-10pm weekdays, 3pm-11pm weekends)
Asian Family Services: 0800 862 342 Monday to Friday 9am to 8pm or text 832 Monday to Friday 9am – 5pm. Languages spoken: Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean, Vietnamese, Thai, Japanese, Hindi, Gujarati, Marathi and English.
Rural Support Trust Helpline: 0800 787 254
Healthline: 0800 611 116
Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155
OUTLine: 0800 688 5463 (6pm-9pm)
If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.