Putting Mental Health in the Spotlight

18 Oct 2018

By Brett Murray, Site Safe Chief Executive

When you think about the dangers on a construction site, mental health might not be the first thing to come to mind. But recent research showing the high rate of suicide in construction is a wake-up call for all of us in the industry – a stark reminder that providing a safe place to work is about much more than the obvious risks.

The study released by the Building Research Association of NZ (BRANZ) highlighted that among men of working age, construction has a suicide rate of 6.9 per cent – the highest of any industry. These tragic figures highlight the extreme end of a wider problem. The 2017 attitudes survey carried out by WorkSafe NZ, found that last year alone, 11 per cent, or more than one in ten workers, reported a stress-related or mental illness caused by work. Those working in small businesses with six to 19 workers were even more likely to have had a stress-related or mental health issue.

It's clear then, that as an industry, we need to talk about how well we are protecting the mental wellbeing of our people. It's time to broaden the conversation beyond physical risks and to think hard about how we tackle insidious risks like psychosocial exposure to harm.

With 20 years' experience in construction health and safety, Site Safe is confident change can happen. We've seen the way old, "she'll be right" attitudes to safety have declined, and we believe the same shift needs to happen in the way we think about mental health.

Already, the law requires it. Health and safety legislation define health as being both physical and mental. This means employers need to have systems for protecting both the physical and mental health of their workers. Psychosocial risks – that's things like peer pressure, bullying and stress - are a work risk in the same way physical risks are, and we should be equally focused on managing them.

It is not just a compliance issue, there are economic benefits to good mental health and wellbeing. Research done in the United Kingdom found that a small company with 50 workers will typically face costs of around $100,000 a year because of mental health problems among its workers.

It's time to broaden the conversation beyond physical risks and to think hard about how we tackle insidious risks like psychosocial exposure to harm.
But law and bottom lines aside, supporting good mental health is part of our duty of care to our workers, just as it is for physical health. Making sure that they go back to their families, safe and well at the end of each day's work.

This is a complex issue and improving our understanding will be key. Australia has been trying to address this issue for many years in the construction sector, through preventative programmes such as "Mates in Construction" but they acknowledge there is still a long way to go.

Research into mental health in New Zealand construction is scarce. As the largest membership organisation focused on health and safety in our sector, Site Safe in partnership with BRANZ, is playing its part to shed light on the issue by undertaking a study of almost 340 coroner's cases of construction suicides. Results from this research are expected next March.

We hope that data from the study can be used to support, inform and guide current and future prevention initiatives, with the industry working alongside government and other support agencies to protect our people from workplace risks to their mental health. It's a heartening sign that since announcing our research with BRANZ, we've already been approached by several industry groups wanting to know how they can help.

In the meantime, we need to ask ourselves the hard questions as an industry:

  • Are we addressing workplace risks that can lead to poor mental health?
  • As an industry, are we treating our workers with respect?
  • Are we equipping our supervisors and managers with the soft skills they need to be effective in their roles?
  • How do leaders send a clear signal that bullying will not be tolerated?
  • Are we addressing the risks our procurement and supply chains pose to smaller contractors and individual workers?
  • Do workers know who to turn to if they need help?

These are the tough questions that can no longer be put in the "too hard bin."

One thing is certain: the mental health conversation needs to stay firmly in the spotlight if we are to prevent further tragic loss of life and truly keep our people safe.


1737, Need to talk? Free call or text 1737 any time for support from a trained counsellor
Lifeline – 0800 543 354 or (09) 5222 999 within Auckland
Samaritans – 0800 726 666
Suicide Crisis Helpline – 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)
thelowdown.co.nz – or email team@thelowdown.co.nz or free text 5626
Anxiety New Zealand - 0800 ANXIETY (0800 269 4389)
Supporting Families in Mental Illness - 0800 732 825.
Alcoholics Anonymous - 0800 AA WORKS, or aa.org.nz.
If it is an emergency or you, or someone you know, is at risk call 111.