Tradies Talk About Construction's Mental Health Crisis
What will it take to lower the sobering statistics?
Mark was 22 when the panic attacks started. They weren’t much at first, but over the next year they grew into something unmanageable; he was missing full days of work and worried constantly he wasn’t good enough for anything or anyone. Even after being diagnosed with generalised anxiety disorder and starting medication, he felt crippled by the attacks. Then, one sleepless night, Mark decided that enough was enough. It was time to end his life.
“It was 3AM and I just couldn’t stop crying,” he says from his home in Sydney. “I was so exhausted and so frustrated about how long I’d been pushing through the panic. I just thought, ‘Fuck this.’”
Mark was home alone at the time. His girlfriend, the only person who knew about his illness and a constant support, was overseas on holiday. He wrote a farewell note, but decided to say goodbye to her via an instant message, too. She was awake when his message came through. “We chatted for a good couple of hours and the next thing I remember is waking up the following morning, and she’d helped me talk myself out of it,” Mark, now 29, recalls.
But it wasn’t over. The panic continued to erode his quality of life for another 18 months. It was, he says, "extremely tumultuous. A really rough time".
Mark traces the deterioration of his mental health back to when he started a two-year traineeship in the construction industry as a hydrological surveyor.
There were a lot of pressures, he says, namely that he was paid only $13 an hour and there was no guarantee of a job at the end of it. Add to that a few mistakes on the job and some passive aggressive superiors, and Mark started to panic about his future. But pride and his working environment made him feel uncomfortable at the prospect of opening up, so the situation was left to fester.
“I didn’t want to talk about it because I didn’t want [people] talking about me behind my back,” he says. “You hear passing comments where people are called a ‘pussy’ because they’ve taken time off. It was a catch 22. I didn’t want to go to work because I was worried about making a mistake, but I also wanted to go to work because I was worried about people saying stuff about me.”
Mark’s experience isn’t unique. According to 2016 and 2017 reports commissioned by suicide prevention charity MATES In Construction, the suicide rate for men in the industry—particularly lower-skilled workers—is about double the rest of the male working population. Similarly, a 2014 PriceWaterhouseCoopers report found 25.1 percent of construction workers had experienced mental illness over the previous 12 months. The average rate for Australian men sits at 18 percent.
Given how male-dominated Australia's construction industry is—88.3 percent of workers are male—many assume the mental health issues prevalent are a direct result of toxic masculinity. But there’s more to the story than that, says Chris Lockwood, CEO of MATES in Construction.
“The tricky thing is that we don’t have all the evidence for what causes [these high rates], but we do know there’s a diverse range of stresses in the industry. The work coming in blocks, long working hours in the industry, projects running behind time," he explains. "There’s higher drug use in the workforce, too. The combination of these factors, including the difficulty in having a healthy work-life balance, can create a spiral of problems [and] a dire predicament."
According Greg*, who worked on construction sites for nine years as a form worker, a strenuous job creating specialised moulds for the pouring of concrete, it’s the lack of financial and job security that contributes most heavily to the high rate of mental distress. “A lot of people don’t like construction work, but the money is too good so you’re stuck,” explains the 33-year-old, who now works as a carpenter.
“If you begin to say no too often, [management] will push you out. You either suck it up and become a slave, or they’ll find someone else to do it," he says. "All the people at the top are usually tight-knit as well, so if you want to get in, you have to work overtime. If you’re on a salary, you’re expected to stay back, unpaid. This is the thing with construction.”
A 2015 survey from the US found that from 2011-2015, the median divorce rate among all industries was around 35 percent. For construction workers it's 38-41 percent. “They push safety and work-life balance, but then they say you have to work all these hours,” Greg says. “Having work-life balance is a lie. Everyone knows it.”
According to Greg, who believes he had undiagnosed depression during his time on site, construction workers have little true connection with each other despite working up to 56-hour days together. “Because it’s male-dominated, I don’t think many people did open up,” he says. “There’s this old culture in construction… you don’t get mocked, but you know people will talk [behind your back]. Even though it's busy, hectic work. It’s isolating.”
As pointed out by Chris Lockwood, CEO of MATES in Construction, Australian construction workers have double the rate of “life-threatening drinking” compared to the national average, and a drug use rate that’s 10 percent higher.
“There’s a massive drug culture in construction” agrees Vincent, a 30-year-old casual construction worker from Melbourne. “There’s at least 10 guys I’ve been with on site who are so high on meth.”
Vincent has been in construction for more than three years and believes this drug and drinking culture is a direct response to the pressures of the job itself, the industry’s dated “harden up” culture, and the inability to connect with co-workers beyond banter. Problems go unaddressed until they escalate, he says.
“I feel a lot of people in construction have mental illness tendencies, myself included, but construction compounds these tendencies. You realise you have these problems, but [there’s] no way to treat or deal with them, so it becomes worse and worse. If you’re working 60 hours a week, you’re setting yourself up to fall. Toxic masculinity is an easy thing to pin it on, but the issues are more complex. There’s no one clear answer.”
The construction industry appears to be aware of its poor mental health record. Charities that understand the construction work environment first-hand—such as MATES In Construction and Incolink—aim to reduce the stigma attached to opening up and in turn lower industry suicide rates. But non-profits are entirely dependent on funding, and many workers are unable to access standard mental health services due to their long shifts.
According to Jessica Hickman, who worked as a "culture coordinator" on a construction site in the Northern Territory for three years, one potential solution is to have internal services offered to workers. “Support needs to come from senior management,” says Hickman. “There needs to be qualified, trained people who know how to deal with mental health and can address it on-site.”
Throughout her time in the industry, Hickman attempted to reduce the stigma around depression and anxiety by organising regular "mental health days" offsite, where workers would discuss mental health as a whole. This despite heavy opposition from her superiors. During her stint, she says, there was not one suicide within the project her company oversaw—something parallel projects in NT at the time couldn't boast.
Overall, Hickman believes there's an “us versus them” mentality between construction workers and management. “Unless there’s a driving force behind [workers] and a connection between them, the workers won’t open up," she says. "There’s a lot of [fear] around reporting health issues to HR, in that they could be deemed a risk and lose their jobs.”
As for Mark, he believes it’s high time to ditch both the fear and the stigma. “It’s a pride [thing] that goes, ‘I can handle my problems and I don’t want anything to bring down my masculinity,’” he says. “But that’s just all in your head.”