Beyond Blue is the New Black

November 21, 2017

How blokes are breaking the stigma of mental health in the workplace – and saving lives

We are all worried about being worried. And statistics on mental health issues in Australian workplaces are causing a tsunami of concern for our employers, who, at the end of the day, are just a bunch of people like you and me, with the burden of having the policy-making potential to make our workplaces even more dangerous for people with anxiety or depression.

This is Australia’s workplace reality:
* Stress-related workers’ compensation claims have doubled in recent years, costing over $10 billion each year.
* Businesses lose over $6.5 billion each year by failing to provide early intervention/treatment for employees with mental health conditions.
* Mental illness is the third leading disability in Australia.
* Australians are more likely to die from suicide than skin cancer.

So chances are, if you are not suffering yourself (right now) from mental health issues, if you look over your workplace screen, one of your colleagues is.
But who?
Would you ask a colleague if they are OK? Or are your frightened that this would step over the invisible line of acceptable workplace conversation? If you are, you are not alone. Up to 50% of employees with a mental health problem will not disclose it to their manager. So, in most instances, how we are coping with our lives is something people aren’t discussing in their workplace. Too often with tragic outcomes.

But the elephant in the room is simply too big – and too important – to be ignored. Isn’t there something we can do as colleagues or as employers to stop our colleagues suffering in silence – and maybe save a life?
Yes, we can.
At a recent NSW Government sponsored “Let’s Talk – Youth Mental Health in the Workplace” event at UNSW, Kieran Toohey, a field Officer/Case Manager for Mates in Construction in NSW talked about a programme that has shown a 7.9% downward trend in suicide rates amongst construction workers in Queensland over a five-year period. At its heart is people helping people – workmates looking out for each other and being brave enough to ask “big” questions. Questions like RUOK? and then utilising a programme that assists those who aren’t with the information and support they need to stay safe.

This grassroots approach, if not slaying, than at least slightly subduing the beast of suicide, utilises a multi-component prevention and early intervention programme.

Kieran and four other colleagues travel to construction worksites across NSW to empower workmates to look out for each other. At the heart of the programme lay three short courses. The first, a 45-minute General Awareness Training session that is often held at the start of a construction shift. It educates people on what signs to look out for if they suspect their workmate is struggling and aims to reduce stigma surrounding mental health, instead presenting it as a workplace health and safety issue. The second part of the programme is a four-hour course, where a volunteer on the site becomes a “connector”, someone who may act as a conduit for people either worried about a mate or their own capacity to cope. The connector has the knowledge to connect people with the help they need including outreach, case management, a 24-hour telephone response line, and other supports. And the final piece is a two-day course – a First Aid course for suicide awareness, ASIST (Applied Suicide Intervention and Skills Training)

The Mates in Construction programme is a simple, effective strategy to help reduce the incidence of workplace suicide. But suicide levels in the construction industry remain heartbreakingly high.
A Royal Commission into the Australian Building and Construction industry suggested 41% of death claims made on behalf of Queensland construction workers over a four-month period could be attributed to suicide. And statistics compiled by Griffith University include the grim fact that people are six times more likely to die by suicide than fatal accidents on site. People’s husbands, brothers and sons working in construction are 70 per cent more likely to die by suicide than any other employed men in Australia.

Kieran says that one reason for the high rate of suicide in construction is that building sites are often 98 per cent male.
“It’s a culture where you don’t discuss problems with your peers, there is bullying and drinking fused with life events everyone goes through. It’s an unfortunate recipe.”
During the short General Awareness Training, Kieran provides the usually all-male construction crews with three clear directions on how to look out for a mate.

“First, if you know they have gone through a big loss – like a relationship breakup, you should look out for behaviour change,” Kieran said.
“And second, you should look for behaviour that is unusual for them – are they more withdrawn, more quiet, or even extra happy, which appears odd given their circumstances or giving things away for no apparent reason? Third, and just as importantly, you should trust your gut feeling. If you feel, in your gut, that something is wrong, ask directly and honestly, without judgement questions like: “Are you thinking about suicide or ending your life?”
Kieran acknowledged that many people would feel uncomfortable asking such a question in the workplace, as if they have overstepped the mark.
“Yes, it is quite a difficult question to ask but asking it is better than fetching an ambulance or attending a funeral. It does take courage, but in my time I have never been shunned for asking it.”

So the question is, is this programme, in which simple awareness is key and peer-support is integral, suitable for all industries, for white-collar corporations as well as high-viz vest workplaces?

Tha answer? Suicide is the leading cause of death for all Australians aged 15 to 44. Surely all workplaces should empower us to recognise if people are suffering and if they are, enable us to ask the uncomfortable question: “Are you thinking of killing yourself?” And if the answer is yes, we should , whether lawyer or architect, beautician or doctor, have a programme like Mates in Construction in place so we know what to do next. We all care about our colleagues. Our friends. Our partners. Our children. Our selves.

Kieran Toohey and his colleagues in Mates in Construction are leading the way, in steel capped boots, towards reducing the plague of suicide in construction. They empower workplaces with knowledge and clear strategies for people to help people. Let’s hope more industries follow them. We all need mates who have our back, no matter where we work.

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