Chief Exec Update - the latest from Brett
15 Aug 2019
Site Safe chief executive Brett Murray gives his presentation at this year's Safeguard conference on the Site Safe report into suicide in the construction sector. Behind him is report co-author Dr Kate Bryson and at right is BRANZ CEO Chelydra Percy. The research and the report that came out of it were both funded and supported by Site Safe and BRANZ.
This year’s Safeguard conference was a turning point for health and safety in New Zealand. The theme of the conference was ‘disruption’ and while there was plenty to think about in the presentations, in my view the real disruption came through the noticeably increased focus on mental wellbeing in the workplace.
At the awards dinner I was pleasantly surprised at how many of the excellent nominees referenced mental wellbeing. In fact, five of the awards on the night went to initiatives with a mental health focus, including our own Site Safe-sponsored award.
The following day, when Dr Kate Bryson and I presented the results of the Site Safe study on suicides in the construction sector, the media attention around the study was huge and I fielded requests for interviews from every major news outlet in the country.
Suicide is at the tragic end of the mental health continuum, but it is devastating to know that in the construction sector, workers are six times more likely to die by suicide than by accident. Even more tragic is that if we don’t act to do something about it, the problem will worsen. A study of 157,000 patient records released in the US in May by Catapult Health found that Millennial workers are five times more likely to consider suicide than are Baby Boomers.
Poor mental wellbeing hits all parts of a person’s life. It’s a complex issue and often has many overlapping and compounding factors, but there is no doubt that the work environment has the potential to be a major contributing factor and we need to ensure it is positive rather than negative.
We also need to confront the fact that in our high-risk industries; particularly construction, forestry and agriculture we have male-dominated workplaces with almost all the high-risk work carried out by men. Suicide statistics in the general population are 75% male-dominated, in our study of 300 suicide reports over the past decade in construction, 99% of them were men.
Of course, we need a focus on general mental health across both sexes, but the biggest impact that we can have on improving suicide outcomes is in focussing on interventions that target men and address the barriers to men seeking help.
Depression was found to be a factor in 75% of the cases that the study reviewed and problem drinking was a factor in a third of the cases.
Despite these statistics, there has not been much research done on help-seeking behaviour amongst men, the barriers to men seeking help or the effectiveness of male intervention programmes. A current study by Massey researcher Andy Walmsley is seeking to address that issue and he has over 500 male volunteers from within the construction industry participating in the study.
So, what is the role of the workplace in supporting the mental wellbeing of its workers?
People bring their lives into work, they don’t just check their domestic existence at the gate. It travels with them into the workplace and their mental wellbeing can influence the decisions they make which, in turn, can affect not only them but those around them.
In the current debate around work as it’s imagined, and work as it is actually done, the state of mental wellbeing of those doing the work and its potential impact on them is largely absent in the discussion.
Beyond the fact that workplaces have a duty to provide a safe working environment and recognise workers’ mental wellbeing as a risk that needs to be managed effectively, supporting the mental wellbeing of our workers has obvious benefits in several areas. These include better engagement, increased productivity, greater concentration and less absenteeism/presenteeism.
There are a number of questions and opportunities worth considering, both at an organisational and system level:
Practically, how easy is it for your people to report issues that are adversely affecting their mental wellbeing? What support structures and policies does your organisation have in place to support staff?
How is worker mental health and wellbeing addressed in risk management planning, particularly in high risk roles. Is it seen as just another HR issue to be managed? How visible are the leaders in your organisation in speaking out against and addressing known risk factors?
There are several work-focussed intervention programmes currently running across industry sectors. There is ‘Good Yarns’ in the agricultural sector and a trial of the Australian Mates In Construction programme being just two. The challenge is in ensuring interventions are evidence-based, accessible and achievable across a range of different-sized businesses.
As an industry organisation, Site Safe has more than 6000 members and we will be canvassing them for both feedback on our report but just as importantly, asking them to share examples of good practice and learnings from companies of all sizes that we can share across industry as case studies.
Education and training are also hugely important. We train nearly 80,000 workers every year. That means we have a reach into the construction sector that is unequalled in New Zealand and we will be taking a lead role in incorporating mental health training, working with key partners such as the Mental Health Foundation and St John’s as well as other training providers.
At a system level there is a real opportunity for the money tagged for mental health in the recent budget to be used not only in reducing the pressures on our creaking mental health sector but also to support evidence-based initiatives that will make a positive difference to our workforce.
The recently signed Construction Sector Accord provides some real opportunities to reduce adverse external influences in addressing the contracting and procurement issues that plague the sector, but it will take a cohesive and sustained effort on behalf of all players in the supply chain.
Finally, we need to ensure that we continue to break down the stigma surrounding mental health and strive to make our workplaces safe, supportive environments. We have some way to go. A recent study in the UK found that only 14% of workers felt comfortable discussing mental health worries at work. For men, role models such as Sir John Kirwan and New Zealander of the Year, Mike King have been influential in breaking down the stigma, but we still have a long way to go and we can only succeed if we work together at all levels and across all industry sectors.
The Government’s wellbeing budget is an official line in the sand, a chance to create initiatives that will make a difference to the mental wellbeing of our workforce.
As an organisation, we are committed to doing our part to make a difference.