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Approaching mental health

Approaching mental health

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Mental health is an issue across the construction workforce, but apprentices are particularly vulnerable. A HIA/Beyond Blue webinar explores how we can support the future of our industry.

Gabrielle Chariton


Contributor to Housing

Under pressure, stressed out, overwhelmed and not coping: today’s apprentices face unprecedented challenges in their daily lives and at work, and it’s taking a toll on their mental health. We know this because, tragically, the suicide rate among apprentices is two-and-a-half times that of the Australian community average. 

In light of this heartbreaking statistic, the HIA Charitable Foundation and Beyond Blue recently hosted a webinar to provide more insight into mental ill-health in the workplace. 

‘Our aim is around empowering you with ways to support your business and your people to decrease these alarming [suicide statistics],’ says HIA Deputy Managing Director Kristin Brookfield, who moderated the webinar. ‘This includes recognising signs to watch out for and how you can approach someone you’re worried about.’ 

Three panellists contributed their expertise to the discussion: Russell Holtham, General Manager of HIA Apprentices; Dr Grant Blashki, GP and lead clinical advisor for Beyond Blue; and James Hill, an electrician and mental health advocate who has experienced depression and come out the other side.

Mentally healthy workplaces foster positive, supportive relationships between team members.
It’s not always easy to know when someone’s struggling with their mental health.

Why are apprentices vulnerable to mental ill-health? 

While the factors contributing to depression and anxiety are multi-layered and complex, Russell Holtham says that today’s apprentices ‘put a lot of pressure on themselves’. Our life is so fast-paced, we just don’t have time to stop, think about what we’re doing and enjoy what we’re doing.’

Grant Blashki agrees. ‘Things are pretty fast [for young people],’ he says. ‘Their phones are at them 24/7. Some, unfortunately, get caught up in the gambling. I think there’s a lot of pressure with social media, comparing your life to other people’s the whole time.’

Specifically in terms of workplaces, Dr Blashki says consistently unmanageable workloads can also contribute to mental health issues, particularly in the younger cohort, along with bullying, discrimination and job uncertainty.

What are mentally healthy workplaces?

At the most basic level, mentally healthy workplaces foster positive, supportive relationships between team members, and place the same importance on mental health and safety as they do on physical health and safety.

‘We’re making sure that everything’s physically safe, but we don’t actually check in and go, how are you today?’ explains James Hill. ‘A mentally healthy workplace starts with the fact that we’re actually openly talking about this.’ He suggests that safety risk assessments extend to ‘things within the job that can impact us and impact our mental health negatively’.

Dr Blashki says it’s about ‘good management of the worksite and reasonable workloads, making sure people have the skills for what they’re being asked to do’.

Silicosis is caused by inhaling silica dust when working with certain types of stone, tile, engineered stone and masonry.
Tradie Health is a world-leading initiative dedicated to improving the lives of tradies living with silicosis.

Red flags – how to spot signs of depression in a colleague or yourself 

It’s not always easy to know when someone’s struggling with their mental health. But Dr Blashki says there are common signs to look out for, such as anger, a short fuse, getting into conflict, drinking or even gambling. ‘It might be someone who looks obviously depressed and is talking about negative things. Or it could show in a drop in performance, coming in late or missing lots of days.’

He also refers to ‘presenteeism’: ‘You turn up to work, but perhaps your brain is still at home. You’re physically there, but you’re not committed to what’s going on.’

Because some of these ‘red flags’ aren’t always obvious, it’s important for managers to develop relationships with their apprentices. ‘[When you get to know someone] you get sort of a longitudinal picture of what’s normal, and when they are really getting wobbly.’

If an apprentice is in trouble, what do I do?

The unanimous advice here is that you need to talk to them, and you need to listen to what they have to say. But a tokenistic ‘How are you?’ probably won’t elicit much more than a ‘I’m fine’. 

Before you approach someone whom you’re worried about, James Hill suggests doing some homework first – checking out the Beyond Blue website, saving the Lifeline number in your mobile, researching support options in your local community – so you’re prepared if they do need professional help.

When you reach out, he says, ‘it needs to come from a place of care and concern’. Think about why you’re concerned about them (for example, they’re more snappy than normal) and ‘use that evidence as the key to opening the door’: I’ve noticed that you’ve been a bit grumpy lately. I’m really concerned about you, and I want to offer you a bit of support.

‘Once that conversation is happening, you’ve already got your resources saved on your phone. If they have three to five different options, they’re empowered to make their own choice and are more likely to follow that through.’

Dr Blashki says that men sometimes find a face-to-face conversation ‘agitating’, so he suggests a ‘parallel talk’ that may include simply driving or walking together, kicking a footy or fixing something.  And, he adds, don’t put too much pressure on yourself to ‘solve’ their problems. Opening up the conversation and listening is enough. ‘You don’t have to become their counsellor, but you could link them in with Beyond Blue or their GP if they’re having a bit more trouble.’

‘We’re proud to be able to contribute to this potentially life-saving medical research,’ says Pino Monaco, Chair of HIACF.
‘‘We want our apprentices to be the best tradesperson they can be and it’s our job to help them,’ Russell Holtham says.

MENSS for mental health

As someone who has first-hand experience with depression and mental ill-health, James Hill devised the MENSS strategy to protect his mental health each day: 

  • Mindfulness 
  • Exercise 
  • Nutrition 
  • Sleep 
  • Social connection

Mental health support options

To find out more about supporting apprentices on your worksites, check out the Beyond Blue resources. Also, watch the HIA/Beyond Blue webinar: Webinar recording – Wellbeing at Work/Apprentices and Mental Health.

To access immediate assistance for someone you’re concerned about:

Beyond Blue: The Beyond Blue Support Service is a free telephone and online counselling service is open 24/7 for everyone in Australia. Phone 1300 224 636 or contact via webchat.

Lifeline Australia: Australia’s leading suicide prevention service, this national charity provides Australians experiencing a personal crisis with access to 24-hour crisis support. Phone 13 11 14.

First published on 20 November 2023

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