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Suicide is the biggest killer of construction workers

Mental illness is a big problem for the construction sector. Here’s how one company, Lendlease, has begun to tackle the issue.

The construction industry is notorious for being a male-dominated, blokey environment. It’s also notorious for having some of the worst mental health outcomes among the workforce. Suicides rather than workplace accidents are the leading cause of death among males aged 25 to 44, with someone taking their life every second day, according to the Australian Institute for Suicide Research and Prevention.

University of New South Wales academics Natalie Galea and Louise Chappell spent three years researching men and women’s experiences in the construction sector, shadowing 44 white-collar professionals and interviewing a further 61 working on Australian construction projects. They ranged from entry level to project directors and site managers, and were employed by large construction firms.

Galea says that although the research process was hard initially, men did open up to her, and their revelations were often quite troubling.

“They described to me how they weren’t sleeping, or were suffering from anxiety, or going through divorce,” she says.

The academics’ final report recommends that businesses “stop rewarding and promoting excessive hours and ‘shaming’ those who don’t comply”.

Galea says it’s not all bad news and that progress is being made in some quarters to make the sector more gender diverse. And several major construction companies are piloting flexibility and health and wellbeing initiatives that benefit men as well as women in achieving a work-life balance. Strides have also been made in instigating paid parental leave and childcare rebate provision.

Lendlease is one of the world’s largest multinational construction, property and infrastructure companies. Chris Lamb, head of HR Australia at Lendlease, acknowledges mental health is a big concern for the organisation and for the industry as a whole. He says that when the company partnered with Bupa three years ago to survey its employees, the results were “a wake-up call” as they revealed employees had “higher than average drinking levels, higher rates of obesity, lower rates of physical activity and higher levels of stress [than the average population], so were at greater risk of mental illness”.

“We had kind of known these things instinctively, but it inspired us to take the next big leap in health and wellbeing to look at how we could reduce all those things,” says Lamb. One of Lendlease’s big initiatives has been to commit to mental health first-aid training. “We now have 600 first-aiders around the world and our goal is to get to 1000 in the next year.

“In a blokey industry, we have people who know what to look for and how to respond when you think someone might be at risk of taking their own life. In the past, the usual response was to say nothing.”

People need to be willing to take on the roles, so trainers are self-selecting. They’re supported by senior leaders who have shared and are willing to share their own stories of struggle, he says.

The company also introduced the idea of wellbeing leave. “We started with the concept of ‘What about not only taking leave when you are sick but taking leave that improves your health’,” says Lamb. All employees in Australia get three wellbeing days per year, and although it was applied quite rigidly to begin with – allowing staff to go on yoga retreats, for example, or attend appointments for preventative health initiatives – now the policy is applied more loosely.

“We have had people who say ‘I’m taking my partner to lunch’, or their hobby is surfing and they want a day off to pursue that. It has broadened out.”

Nevertheless, the pressure to complete major construction projects to deadline is a cause of stress for those in the sector. How does Lendlease ensure that employees don’t work crazy hours and crack under pressure or, even worse, suffer accidents on site?

“There are a couple of ways to think about that,” says Lamb. “One is to say, we could operate projects that run from 8am to 5pm, Monday to Friday, and everyone is working manageable hours – but we don’t operate in that kind of economy. So the question becomes, how do we create projects that work 12 or 14 hours a day over six or seven days a week, but where no individual works excessively?”

He agrees that the company has to get better at having teams of people that can work flexibly but not excessively, and Lamb’s role in negotiating with other senior management is crucial to that.

“Increasingly we’re able to have conversations with the board where we say, ‘We know you have deadlines to meet, but we can’t have employees working those kinds of hours.’ Five years ago, they would say ‘We hear you, but we can’t do anything about it’, but now those conversations have moved to the beginning of a project. We have three months to go before construction starts, so how do we set it up so we have the right schedules, the right staffing, the right contingency plans, so we can deliver on time and everyone remains healthy and well? That’s the crucial difference.”

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