• Friends for life

    17 July 2018

    Construction industry workers in Australia have an important ally in preventing suicides and building better mental health – MATES in Construction

    The men and women who work under a hard hat hold a celebrated position in Australian popular culture. Construction workers are seen as fit, strong, street smart and capable problem solvers. Their employers ensure good conditions onsite, with accident prevention paramount. They are often well-paid and hard working.

    Compared to the conditions experienced by workers elsewhere within The Lighthouse Club network, employees in Australia’s construction industry might be considered well-off. But there is also a darker safety issue that MATES in Construction is bringing to the attention of the industry and the public.

    The statistics around the mental health of the women and men – but predominantly men – in the construction industry are alarming. Every year, 190 Australians working in construction take their own lives – one worker every second day of every year.

    Consider for a moment these saddening facts:

    • Men who work in the construction industry are six times more likely to die from suicide than in a workplace accident;
    • Construction industry workers are about 70 percent more likely to kill themselves than other employed men; and
    • The cost of a single suicide to the community is about A$2.6 million.

    Mates for working men

    MATES in Construction was championed by Jorgen Gullstrup. A plumber, he was alarmed at what he saw onsite: men trying to live up to a “tough guy” stereotype but who found it difficult to deal with the complications of a taxing job and did not have a forum to discuss their problems at home or at work.

    He set about crafting a programme of training and support, based on the premise of “mates helping mates”. MATES in Construction was launched in Queensland in 2008 and in the space of five years, Griffith University research showed that suicide rates among construction workers had fallen by about 8 percent compared to the wider community. The scheme has expanded to mining and energy, and the programme has been rolled out in the majority of Australian states and territories, with about 128,000 workers having taken part.

    The Lighthouse Club International has played its part, with two of the most active Australian branches based in Brisbane and Perth helping to fund the programme.

    “The programme raises awareness that there is a problem with suicide in our industry. It highlights some of the contributing risk factors and presents workers with solutions”, says Godfrey Baronie, the MATES in Construction chief executive for the state of Western Australia.

    “I’ve heard too many stories about the tragedies that affect workers in our industry, and it’s heartening to hear back from our volunteers and staff that suicide and mental illness is being discussed openly. This shows the MATES programme is working,” Baronie says.


    Three aims

    MATES in Construction hopes to raise awareness about suicide in the workplace, wants to make it easier to access help and ensure that any help offered is practical, professional, appropriate and safe. Funding to the programme pays for confidential case management and field officers that give face-to-face support to workers onsite.

    “Our programme puts resources onsite because the philosophy that drives MATES is that suicide is everyone’s business. We offer access to help and train entire sites to ensure there is a network of support for co-workers and others that might need it,” says Baronie.

    The programme also places trained volunteers onsite, connecting workers to support at the time when they need it most. They are identified by a green or blue sticker on their helmet. The volunteers say they wear them with pride.

    Mates everywhere

    Baronie says the MATES in Construction board would like to see the programme in place across the country and on as many sites as possible, and even internationally.

    As part of that mission, “MATES” is spreading into the mining and energy sectors. A year after the mining programme was established, more than 4,000 workers have heard about the organisation.

    The MATES programme is timely, with a mounting body of research showing that the “fly-in, fly-out” rosters that are common in the mining and energy sectors can be particularly taxing on the mental health of workers and their families.

    A recent study published in the Medical Journal of Australia found that more than a quarter of these FIFO workers say they feel distressed and withdraw socially, endure relationship problems or have financial problems that are linked to their work.

    Researchers surveyed 1,100 workers from 10 mining sites in Western Australia and South Australia. The overall rate of psychological distress, about 28 percent, was about twice that of the wider community.

    It’s clear that there’s a real need for mates on every worksite.

    Help is available if you, a workmate or family member is struggling. The MATES helpline provides 24-hour support by calling 1300 642 111 in Australia.


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