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Having the hard conversations

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Mental illness is having a devastating impact on the lives of housing professionals, their colleagues and their families. But by working collectively to challenge cultural norms, and support ourselves and our mates, we can effect change across the industry. 

Statistically speaking, if you’re a man in the building industry, you’ve got a higher risk of developing mental ill-health than any other demographic of the population. On average, Australia loses nine people every day to suicide. Seven of these are men. Construction industry workers are six times more likely to die by suicide than by a workplace accident, while apprentices are 2.5 times more likely to suicide than other young men their age.  

Behind each of these numbers is a person – someone just like you: a bloke trying to build a career, make a living, care for his family. He could be your mate, your supervisor, your brother, the guy on your footy team. Suicide is complex and there is usually no single cause behind why a person takes their own life. But what we can do as individuals, as friends and workmates, as employers, and as an industry, is create the safety nets and supports to help men who are struggling find a way back to wellness before they reach crisis point. 

For several years, HIACF and Beyond Blue have worked together to raise awareness about mental health and offer vital mental health resources for HIA members. As part of our current campaign, we spoke to two of Australian’s leading experts in mental health – psychologist, construction industry alumni and co-founder of Mantle Health David Burroughs; and Georgie Harman, CEO of Beyond Blue– to examine the issue more closely. 

Gabrielle Chariton


Contributor to Housing

In what ways can our job put our mental health at risk? 

‘Our experience of work is determinant of mental health outcomes,’ David says. While working and gainful employment are generally protective factors for mental health, ‘work that's actually inherently really stressful, where our workplace has demands upon us that might exceed our perceived resources to meet those demands, that equation's not a good one.’

But it’s an equation that all too many of us struggle to reconcile with every single day, thanks to the way the residential building business model is structured, which puts enormous financial and legal responsibilities on the builder’s shoulders.

‘We're one of the only industries where we're totally liable … we’re essentially self-insuring,’ builder and passionate industry professional Luke Van Dyck, of LVD Industries says. ‘Same with legal ramifications, everything is geared up to the consumer not the builder or the tradesman … not to mention OHS and being responsible for everyone that works on your site.’

Over the past 18 months, this thread of uncertainty and risk has been amplified by the COVID environment. ‘We know two thirds of small business owners are feeling significant psychological distress as a result of the pandemic,’ says Georgie.

What else is at play?

Our flawed notion of what it means to be a proper Aussie bloke: the provider, the protector, ‘strong and silent’: so many men put pressure on themselves, and won’t show emotion ‘unless a good dog died or a bone’s sticking out’, David says. This reluctance to share problems or admit vulnerability means problems that might have been solvable with a chat or referral to a psychologist are left to escalate to crisis-point.

There are other, less ingrained, but equally destructive cultural causations. One is what Dave refers to as ‘comparisonitis’ – stemming from the torrent of curated perfection looping endlessly through our phone’s social media apps. The other is ‘toxic positivity’: ‘It's permeating everything at the moment, despite all the research saying that actually it creates the opposite effect to what it's hoping achieve’.

So how can we turn this around?

While policy action is needed to address some of the broader pressures facing housing industry professionals discussed above, we can work at a micro-level to support each other in the day-to-day by ensuring worksites and offices are supportive places where employees and team members can thrive and feel appreciated. ‘The importance of workplaces in protecting our mental health, in offering support and service pathways for people, in creating good cultures and providing good work, is so important in the mental health response and in preventing suicide,’ Georgie says.

We can also commit to looking after ourselves. ‘Self care is not a selfish act ... if we don’t look after our own mental health first, and our own stress and seek support to deal with that, we're no good for anyone else.’ Pay attention to your personal red flags: physical symptoms such as trouble sleeping, loss or changes in your appetite, regular headaches, muscular pain; or psychological indicators such as negative self-talk, feeling overwhelmed, irritable. ‘If these signs stick around for a couple of weeks, that's the point you've got to take them seriously. Go and pick up the phone, speak to an organisation like Beyond Blue, go and have a chat with your partner or a mate, go and see a GP.’ David adds: ‘Seeking help early is a sign of strength, it's not a sign of weakness. [As builders], we're really good at cracking on with things, so why don’t we crack on [and seek help early] when it comes to our own mental health and wellbeing as well?’

Keep an eye out for your mates

‘We know from research, in [the] construction [industry], men in particular respond really positively to help offered by their peers, by their mates, by their work colleagues,’ Georgie says. ‘If your mate starts to express those negative feelings about themselves, if they stop going out, if they don’t connect with you … if they start to use alcohol and other drugs to self-medicate … that's another really common sign.’ These are not necessarily signs of a mental illness, she adds, but they are signs that people are starting to struggle and that's the point where we need to ask how they are, and then listen to what they have to say: ‘You've got two ears and one mouth. And when we use those in those proportions, we do good in mental health conversations.’

David says these conversations need to be motivated by ‘curiosity and compassion’. The ingrained ‘she’ll be right’ attitude is neither helpful nor appropriate. ‘Even if that's really well-intended, you might be invalidating somebody's experience or making them go, “Hang on, it's right for everybody else why isn't it right for me?”’

‘We can be more compassionate, connect with people and refer them to the services that are available. I think that's a really important thing we need to get better at doing.

Can we really prevent suicides?

According to Lifeline, over 65,000 people make a suicide attempt each year, and 75% of those who take their own life are male. The numbers are simply too big to ignore, but while many of us really worry about and aren’t sure how to talk about suicide, we won’t change anything by sticking our heads in the sand. We need to confront it, head-on, one-on-one.

‘We really need to correct the misinformation about talking about suicide. It's okay to talk about suicide, we need to be talking about suicide really openly,’ Georgie says. ‘You're not actually going to put the idea in someone's head … you're not going to tip them over the edge.’ In fact, the opposite is true: ‘Research shows that when people are having suicidal thoughts the best thing you can do is to offer that support. People often say when they're going through a suicidal crisis, when they're asked how they're feeling, and then they're listened to, that is a really crucial part in them taking that next step to get [professional] help and begin the journey of recovering.’

Scaffolds and safety nets

No matter what pressures we are facing at home, financially, or in our work, there’s a whole army of counsellors, psychologists, doctors and volunteers working together to scaffold our mental health, to provide the struts and supports and safety nets to help us build stronger lives, careers and relationships, and the sector is intentionally working to obliterate the various barriers between men and professional intervention, such as cultural and generational attitudes, time pressures or affordability, by offering a broad range of channels for support. ‘The need for men-specific services is really well identified now,’ David says. ‘How can we make sure mental health services fit the needs of those who want them, how can we ensure that those professional, legitimate and qualified support people are there to assist people at the times they need them? I'm hoping my legacy is that we've been able to improve the minds of millions of men and all those people around them.’

Tips, tools and resources

Mental health and work

  • ‘We want people to focus on the things they can influence and the things they can do to take control of the environment they're in as much as possible.’—David
  • ‘[Mental health] needs to be fundamental to your business strategy.’ Georgie. Visit Safe Work NSW for affordable, easily implemented strategies to create a positive and supportive workplace. 
  • NewAccess for Small Business Owners is a free mental health coaching program developed by Beyond Blue to address the needs of small business owners and sole traders.
  • aheadforbusiness.org.au offers personalised resources, practical guidance and tools for small business owners.

Looking after your mates

  • 'If a conversation is hard, it's a conversation worth having.'—Georgie.
  • Mantle Health recommends their 4R’s framework, an extension of Lifeline’s 3R’s, to help guide early intervention conversations with men: Recognise, Respond, Refer, and Reconnect.
  • Beyond Blue’s Check-In app is designed to help young people have conversations with their mates, offering guidance on how to find the right time, what’s helpful to say, what’s not helpful. 

Real men can speak up

  • ‘This act of saying I am not doing well is a sign of strength. It's the strongest thing we can do.’—Georgie
  • ‘Mental ill health does not discriminate and if you seek assistance early, whether it's for financial health, physical health, mental health, relationship health, whatever it is, that's actually good problem-solving behaviour. That's not a sign of weakness. We need to get better at that help-seeking and connecting to the right people who can offer real solutions to us if we're at that point of vulnerability.’—David

Don’t be afraid of failure

  • ‘Failure is good, it's how you learn. Failure builds up those tools that enable you to bounce back better when you face a similar challenge in the future. Resiliency is built through adversity.’—Georgie
We are grateful for the amazing input of both Dave Burroughs and Georgie Harman, and the support and donations made to the HIA Charitable Foundation. The HIA Charitable Foundation are committed to the mental health issues that affect one in four people in the residential construction industry. For more information or to make a donation see here:  HIA Charitable Foundation
Charitable Foundation
Mantle Health
Beyond Blue