Article

Mental health in the construction industry: an interview with Australia’s MATES in construction CEO, Jorgen Gullestrup

Authors:
To read the full-text of this research, you can request a copy directly from the authors.

Abstract

Research in Australia and internationally indicates that construction work is linked to higher suicide rates. Higher rates are associated with irregular, intense and remote working, as well as labour force demographics. Through the organization MATES in Construction, the Australian construction sector has become a world-leader in researching and seeking to address the problem of suicide in the sector. This contribution is an edited version of an interview carried out between the lead author and Jorgen Gullestrop, CEO of Mates in Construction in Queensland and Northern Territory, Australia. The interview took place during Jorgen’s February 2020 visit to Newfoundland and Labrador (NL), Canada, on the opposite side of the world. There has been very little research or active mobilization around suicide in construction in Canada. During his visit, Jorgen spent a week with the NL Construction Safety Association’s membership. The interview provides important insights into the Australian construction industry as it operated when Jorgen first came to Australia from Denmark in the 1980s. It also provides insights into the structure of the industry today, including how it is organized around precarious employment. Jorgen touches on the origins of MATES, how the MATES program works, and why, although Jorgen came out of the union movement, MATES was established as an independent charity separate from employers and unions. The interview includes reflections on gender, suicide and MATES, and on the importance of academic research to the MATES agenda.

No full-text available

Request Full-text Paper PDF

To read the full-text of this research,
you can request a copy directly from the authors.

... Previous research discovered that social support can impact the overall level of job stress [34,35]. Increasing mental health-related concerns among workers have been hypothesized to be linked with the characteristics of the work environment and the workforce (e.g., toxic masculinity, physical demands, blame-based culture; [72]). Additionally, the advent and integration of robotics is challenging many of the traditional facets that make work experience positive: social interactions, movement, creativity, and autonomy [73]. ...
Article
Full-text available
Mental health concerns are surging worldwide and workers in the construction industry have been found to be particularly vulnerable to these challenges. Stress, depression, addictions, suicides, and other key indicators of poor mental health have been found to be highly prevalent among construction workers. Critically, researchers have also found a link between how stress in the workplace impacts the overall safety performance of an individual. However, the burgeoning nature of the research has stifled the determination of feasible and actionable interventions on jobsites. This paper aims to analyze the relationship between work-related stressors found on construction jobsites and self-reported injury rates of workers. To accomplish this goal, a meta-analysis methodology was used, wherein a comprehensive literature search was conducted to identify key work-related stressors and questionnaires used in the construction industry’s safety domain to assess stress. Using a formal meta-analysis approach that leverages the findings from past studies, a more holistic determination of the relationship between work-related stressors and injury rates among workers was performed. Ninety-eight studies were reviewed, and seven were selected that fulfilled pre-determined validated inclusion criteria for eligibility in the meta-analysis. The results revealed 10 salient work-related stressors among construction workers. Of these ten, seven work-related stressors were identified as significant predictors of injury rates among workers: job control, job demand, skill demand, job certainty, social support, harassment and discrimination, and interpersonal conflicts at work. This study represents a significant first step toward formally identifying work-related stressors to improve working conditions, reduce or eliminate injuries on construction sites, and support future research.
... Each involves disrupting the industry's cultural assumptions around mental health by connecting co-workers to support their colleagues within the workplace. For example, ASIS training enables individuals to recognise at-risk people and conduct interventions (Neis & Neil, 2020). In addition, mental health training is a powerful way of supporting and educating workers; the proper development can see construction teams thrive, both on the job and off (Long, 2021). ...
Research
Full-text available
Australia’s population is ageing, but with enhanced health prospects and insufficient retirement funds, and industries impacted by a dwindling itinerate manual labour supply, workers will want, and may need, to remain in the workforce for longer. However, as people age, they lose muscular strength, experience a decline in physical and cognitive performance, and are more vulnerable to muscular-skeletal issues caused by repetitive or awkward movement patterns. Consequently, ageing workers in occupations that require sustained physical activities are at increased risk of injury and exacerbated physical decline and may experience ageist discrimination in the workplace that impacts their psychological wellbeing. This research, Enabling an Ageing Workforce, recognises the issues facing the older worker across a range of different workplace contexts and asks the question: How can design and new technologies address the compounding factors of an ageing (working) population and enable older workers to continue to be productive and effective whilst ensuring their personal wellbeing?
... Men from rural communities in Newfoundland and Labrador often work in industries with the highest suicide rates such as agriculture, resource extraction, and construction. 46,47 The "fly-in, fly-out" workforce model that is present in some of these industries may also contribute to increased psychosocial stresses 48,49 and risks for mental illness 50 that disproportionately impact rural workers. Suicide risks associated with economic recession, job insecurity, and unemployment may also have a differential impact on rural men. ...
Article
Background: Suicide rates are higher in rural compared to urban areas. Although this pattern appears to be driven by higher rates among men, there is limited evidence about the characteristics of rural people who die by suicide in Canada. The objective of this study was to examine the demographics, manner of death, and social and clinical antecedents of people who died by suicide in rural areas compared to urban areas. Methods: We conducted an observational study of all suicide deaths that occurred among Newfoundland and Labrador residents between 1997 and 2016 using a linked data set derived from a comprehensive review of provincial medical examiner records. We used t tests and χ2 to assess associations between rural/urban status and variables related to demographics, circumstances, and manner of death, as well as social and medical history. Logistic regression was utilized to assess the independent contribution of any variable found to be significant in univariate analysis. Results: Rural people who died by suicide accounted for 54.8% of all deaths over a 20-year period. Overall, 81.6% of people who died were male. Compared to urban, rural people who died by suicide were younger, more likely to use firearms or hanging, and had a higher mean blood alcohol content at the time of death (27.69 vs. 22.95 mmol/L). Rural people were also less likely to have had a known history of a prior suicide attempt, psychiatric disorder, alcohol or substance abuse, or chronic pain. Discussion: The demographic and clinical differences between rural and urban people who died by suicide underscore the need for suicide prevention approaches that account for place-based differences. A key challenge for suicide prevention in rural communities is to ensure that interventions are developed and implemented in a manner that fits local contexts.
... What about immigrants? The construction industry is made up of a diverse workforce wherein several are international workers (Neis and Neil 2020). Workplace mobility is another question to be considered as many construction workers tend to be mobile workers (Shearmur 2020). ...
Article
Construction is an important employer in all developed countries, which bolsters the local and global economy. The construction industry is responsible for creating structure that improve productivity and quality of life not only in Canada but also in other developed and developing countries. Although considerable research exists on important facets of the industry (including education, skills and training; precarious work; migration and labour mobility; gender, working-time and work-life balance), few studies look at how the labour force has changed over time. In this paper we model the factors that predict participation in the Canadian construction industry in 1986 and 2016, and document the changes between these two points in time. We find broad similarities between the sociodemographic characteristics of workers in 1986 and 2016, and large changes in the source regions of these workers. We also find different geographical mobility patterns between 1986 and 2016, and discuss the implications of these changes for both the industry itself, and the workers and families that derive their livelihoods from construction work.
Article
Full-text available
The construction industry is undoubtedly one of the most significant global sectors that contributes to sustainable development across physical, social, environmental and economic objectives. Globally the value of the construction industry is USD 10 trillion annually. The robustness of the sector is in serious question with a crisis in mental health. The rebuilding of economies is often led by significant capital works programs and therefore in response to the global pandemic, it is anticipated that this problem will only be exacerbated. The construction sector has a unique project-based structure of numerous intersecting subsectors, which influence the behaviours and culminate in highly demanding work environments on a project-by-project basis. We propose that to institute transformational change to the mental health problem, we need to challenge current problematisations towards presenting a new conceptual framework. The aim of this paper is to analyse the industrial organisation and the structural and behavioural context of the industry and propose a new approach to understanding interactions at multiple levels in relation to root causes of the mental health problem. Aligned to the UN SDG that we are to ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all, this paper responds to high rates of depression, anxiety and suicide in the construction industry. There is a need to generate new knowledge about the interactions between multi project supply chain, construction project supply chain environment and construction supply chain performance in relation to mental health outcomes. Literature indicates that there is a wealth of research on stressors, coping and interventions at an individual level, however very little from an ‘insider’ construction management perspective which contextualise mental health outcomes with the environmental stressors. Coupled with this, past research designs predominantly utilised quantitative approaches reliant on questionnaires. We critique past problematisations of the mental health problem and show how it has been represented to enable the development of a reframed conceptualisation. There is a need to identify contextual evidence-based stressors throughout the construction project supply chain. We present a transformational change model integrating construction industry specific context knowledge with psychosocial expertise to improve workers’ mental health. Future research could lead to outcomes including recommendations and guidelines to engage management actors who can influence positive change through preventative strategies leading to effective and measurable mental health and project performance improvements.
Conference Paper
Each year 20-25 percent of the general population meets the criteria for a mental health diagnosis in the United States. This research focuses on the increase in mental health issues and suicide in the U.S. construction industry. A 2016 report, released in 2020 by the U.S. Centre for Disease Control (CDC), placed the construction industry as second among all other industries in suicide rate. This research seeks to quantify awareness of mental health and suicide as issues affecting construction employees within the U.S. construction industry, identify awareness of the particular risk factors facing U.S. construction workers which increase mental health and suicide in the industry, qualitatively evaluate the effectiveness and adequacy of existing mental health and suicide awareness/prevention programs, and qualitatively assess if the benefits of instituting comprehensive mental health and suicide awareness/prevention programs outweigh the costs of such programs. Data was collected utilizing an anonymous survey distributed to construction managers, safety professionals, professional organizations, labour/trade organizations, and field employees within the construction industry. A total of 103 respondents completed the survey. The research identifies differences that exist among the different professional roles in the U.S. industry, with respect to awareness, effectiveness, adequacy, and risk factors. An analysis of the data also identifies differences between types of construction organizations (general contractor, subcontractor, etc.) and size of the organization. The research is important to the future of the industry and will help identify where additional focus is needed in mental health treatment and suicide prevention in the U.S.
Article
The construction industry is the most significant occupational contributor to suicide rates worldwide. This is credited to strenuous working conditions, lack of awareness in mental health culture, but more so, that help-seeking is seen as a weakness. This study aims to investigate the role of the construction project manager in creating a culture of suicide prevention on-site. This is achieved through delving into the principles of culture creation within differing industries, with adaptations for construction managers, through a comparative analysis of culture creation literature. Twenty-two interviews with employees are undertaken. Representative data gathered are analysed and presented, to highlight the levels of knowledge, barriers and proposed solutions, for construction project managers. Results are broken down into ‘awareness of and openness to discussing suicide prevention’, ‘barriers to the adoption of suicide-prevention measures’ and ‘proposed solutions to the adoption of suicide-prevention measures’. The interviews give an insight into the acceptance of the need for stronger mental health support structures, without necessarily any regard for the method of their implementation. The originality and subsequent value in the research are the proposed use of construction project managers as the conduit in beginning to address and, as a result, develop a culture of suicide prevention on-site.
Article
Full-text available
Background Suicide rates among those employed in male-dominated professions such as construction are elevated compared to other occupational groups. Thus far, past research has been mainly quantitative and has been unable to identify the complex range of risk and protective factors that surround these suicides. Methods We used a national coronial database to qualitatively study work and non-work related influences on male suicide occurring in construction workers in Australia. We randomly selected 34 cases according to specific sampling framework. Thematic analysis was used to develop a coding structure on the basis of pre-existing theories in job stress research. Results The following themes were established on the basis of mutual consensus: mental health issues prior to death, transient working experiences (i.e., the inability to obtain steady employment), workplace injury and chronic illness, work colleagues as a source of social support, financial and legal problems, relationship breakdown and child custody issues, and substance abuse. Conclusion Work and non-work factors were often interrelated pressures prior to death. Suicide prevention for construction workers needs to take a systematic approach, addressing work-level factors as well as helping those at-risk of suicide Electronic supplementary material The online version of this article (doi:10.1186/s12889-017-4500-8) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.
Article
Full-text available
To describe the association between occupation and risk of suicide among working-age men and women in Canada. This study of suicide mortality over an 11-year period is based on a broadly representative 15% sample of the noninstitutionalized population of Canada aged 30 to 69 years at cohort inception. Age-standardized mortality rates (ASMRs) and rate ratios were calculated for men and women in 5 categories of skill level and 80 specific occupational groups, as well as for people not occupationally active. The suicide mortality rate was 20.1/100 000 person years for occupationally active men (during 9 600 000 person years of follow-up) and 5.3/100 000 person years for occupationally active women (during 8 100 000 person years of follow-up). Among occupationally active men, elevated rates of suicide mortality were observed for 9 occupational groups and protective effects were observed for 6 occupational groups. Among women, elevated rates of suicide were observed in 4 occupational groups and no protective effects were observed. For men and women, ASMRs for suicide were inversely related to skill level. The limited number of associations between occupational groups and suicide risk observed in this study suggests that, with few exceptions, the characteristics of specific occupations do not substantially influence the risk for suicide. There was a moderate gradient in suicide mortality risk relative to occupational skill level. Suicide prevention strategies in occupational settings should continue to emphasize efforts to restrict and limit access to lethal means, one of the few suicide prevention policies with proven effectiveness.
Article
This article considers how construction workers based in the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador (NL) negotiate the need to be mobile for work at different scales and with what effects. It tackles the seldom considered question of how travel becomes normalized as a facet of work in construction, an employ-ment sector characterized by volatility. Specifically, we explore the experiences of workers and their families negotiating the shift from having extensive employment options in different places during a time of high labour demand, to limited and constrained options that may require significant changes (for instance, relocation, more time apart from family, or lower pay) in a period of economic contraction. How workers respond to these conditions contributes to conceptualizations of agency and mobility in construction work-place cultures. The article draws on 73 semi-structured interviews with workers, employers and industry and community stakeholders conducted between 2014 and 2018, and data from project employ-ment reports and field observations. The article reveals how long commutes and extended periods away from home are understood to be inevitable aspects of construction work that shape the field of expectations of workers and their families, and what this dominant discourse means on the ground in lived experience.
Article
The political economy of labour landscapes in resource-dependent regions continues to transform with important implications for workers, families, communities, service providers, businesses, and industries. Over time, mobile work has created a new form of worker-employer dependence where some elements of traditional local labour relationships exist, but other elements have shifted. In this paper, we focus on evolving mobile workforce practices and their associated implications for workers in the construction sector. In particular, we look at how the changing demand for mobile labour in Canada has shifted the negotiating power of both industry and workers. Within this context, we find that underdeveloped industry policies and weak senior government regulatory regimes have not kept pace with the realities of these changing mobile work landscapes. Drawing upon our case study of BC Hydro’s Site C dam project in British Columbia, Canada, we situate new institutionalism within the political economy of mobile work to expand understanding of how stakeholder behaviours are affecting labour practices. Among our key findings are that industry stakeholders have failed to renew workplace policies and processes to reflect mobile labour practices. The result has been a dis-orienting environment for mobile workforces where many of the impacts or externalities associated with mobile work have been transferred to workers, their families, and their communities.
Article
Suicide within the construction industry in Queensland, Australia was reportedly high in a recent Royal Commission report. The current study examined the incidence and causes of suicide in this industry using psychological autopsy and focus group investigations. A total of 64 male suicides occurred over the seven-year period, representing a crude suicide rate of 40.3 per 100,000, significantly greater than the working age Australian male rate. Young employees were at excessive risk with separation/divorce, relationship problems, and untreated psychiatric conditions the major contributors. Focus groups emphasized the importance of work/home interface factors and industry-specific factors preceding suicide.
Construction Jobs Can Be Hard on Your Mind, Not Just Your Body. This Conference Wants to Help
  • Cbc News
Australian Institute for Suicide Research and Prevention
  • V Ross
  • R Wardhani
  • K Kolves
Queensland . Mates in Construction Australia
  • G Shannon
Construction Safety Includes Suicide Prevention
  • W Frey
Construction Sector Council
  • R Pennings
Working Mobile: A Study of Labour Mobility in Canada’s Industrial Construction Sector. Construction Sector Council
  • R Pennings
Forthcoming. “By the Numbers: The Construction Industry in Canada from 1986 to 2016.” Labour and Industry: A Journal of the Social and Economic Relations of Work
  • M Haan
  • C Hewitt
  • G Chuatico
MATES Helping Mates: A History of MATES in Construction Queensland
  • G Shannon
Forthcoming. “Plastic Agency - Mobile Construction Work in the Oil Sands.” Labour and Industry: A Journal of the Social and Economic Relations of Work
  • M Fard
  • S Dorow