Congratulations to the team at NETcon for receiving a Judges’ Special Mention in the Leadership Category at the 2016 Site Safe Construction Health and Safety Awards.
Lines company NETcon design, construct and maintain electrical systems throughout the South Island, with customers ranging from public service utilities to individual land owners. The Timaru-based company employs a hardworking staff of 100 employees, most of whom are men.
We spoke to NETcon’s General Manager of Strategy, Operational Compliance and Security, Dave Armstrong, about how the company became the first workplace in New Zealand to adopt an innovative new approach to preventing suicide amongst men.
Each year, about 75 per cent of all suicides in New Zealand occur in men. Of these, the majority occur in men of working age. And those in construction are more at risk, with a recent study finding that the suicide rate among men in the construction and trade industry was higher than the rate for those working in farming or forestry.
“The effects of suicide always extend beyond the person who died; children lose fathers and mates lose friends. There are also economic costs to family, and families may have to move. Suicide is a very real problem in New Zealand and something we must work harder to address,” Dave says.
What did they do?
Originally developed in Australia, the Mates in Construction programme is based on the idea that suicide is everyone’s responsibility and it is not something that should be left to mental health professionals alone. The programme offers workers three levels of training to help workmates, and additional support for companies such as case management and critical incident support.
Mates in Construction works on the premise that suicide is preventable. It gives workers the confidence to recognise when a workmate may be depressed and shows them how they can help.
Dave says after attending a presentation on the Mates in Construction programme at Timaru Hospital, he was struck by how simple, and yet effective, the programme seemed.
“It’s an easy-to-implement programme. It’s not about turning workers into councillors or psychologists. It’s just about workmates looking after each other.”
“The risk to men is something that’s often not spoken about and it’s a significant issue. Men are often not good at speaking up. We save it up and wait until it’s at a more serious stage.
“Kiwi men are not typically high users of medical treatment - we tend to try to solve things by ourselves – and we are often not good at communicating our feelings.”
“So, part of what I liked about the Mates in Construction programme was that it’s actually in your face – yes or no – and that’s how men traditionally think.”
With staff often working in challenging weather and at all hours of the day to repair vital powerlines, NETcon places a strong emphasis on keeping its workers safe and well. The company has a comprehensive wellness programme, which includes twice-monthly visits from a nurse, and free hearing and blood pressure checks.
Dave says it made sense to add the suicide prevention programme to NETcon’s health and safety toolkit, and in 2015 the board approved its roll out, the first in New Zealand.
The programme was introduced later that year, with all staff attending an initial one-hour group training session aimed at raising awareness. This basic training introduced workers to the idea suicide can be prevented and provided practical guidance on how to assist workmates.
Outcomes and benefits
Following the initial awareness session, many of NETcon’s staff volunteered to receive extra training, enabling them to become a work site “Connector” - someone able to help by connecting a workmate to professional assistance.
Dave says he was surprised by how many workers asked for the additional four-hour training, with almost 40 per cent of staff volunteering.
“The reaction from staff blew my mind. It’s one of those programmes that just grows, but it’s all basic stuff like not being scared to say ‘hey, what’s changed, what’s different?’ if you notice something going on with your workmate.”
Helping someone might be as simple as picking up the phone and dialling the number for them, Dave says.
“There doesn’t have to be any management or HR involvement. It’s just mates, looking after mates, and people not being afraid to take that first step.”
NETcon now has 14 trained Connectors across all areas of the business, and advertises who they are on posters around the office.
Evaluations on Mates in Construction in Australia have shown the benefits of the approach, with research showing a $4 return for each dollar invested in the programme.
Dave says he hopes other New Zealand companies will follow their lead, so that the industry can begin to address the problem of suicide.
“Trying to stop suicide is everyone’s responsibility, it shouldn’t just be left to mental health professionals. And it makes good business sense to invest in our greatest asset – our staff.”
For more information on the programme, go to www.matesinconstruction.org.au
Where to get help:
Depression Helpline - 0800 111 757
Suicide Crisis Helpline - 0508 828 865
"It's mates, looking after mates."