The importance of MATES

Mental health and wellbeing in the building industry is the focus of MATES in Construction as it seeks to reduce the high level of suicide among construction workers. By John Burfitt

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There’s a reaction Marc Finnigan admits he’s now used to whenever he visits construction sites and building companies to talk about the importance of mental health and wellbeing in his role as a field officer with suicide prevention program MATES in Construction.

“It will often start with a room full of these big burly construction workers, and there will be a few who will have a laugh and give a bit of attitude as we start talking about taking care of their mental health,” Finnigan says.

“But the laughs quickly stop when we speak about the facts and figures regarding suicide in the construction industry and how it is more likely that the people in the room could die from taking their own lives than from a workplace accident. That is when we see people nodding their heads in recognition of the fact we have a problem in this game.”

In 2019, 210 construction workers died by suicide, a figure based on coronial data using ANZSCO codes to identify workers, which is more than one person every two days, a figure higher than the Australian average for men. Among younger industry workers, it’s almost 2.4 times higher.

Other MATES research claims one of the reasons behind the high rate of suicide is workers often find it difficult to discuss their feelings and emotions with their work colleagues. The highly transient nature of work, along with the increased pressure of project timelines, have made social support more difficult.

But it is pressures outside of work that can be even more problematic, such as financial difficulties as well as relationship problems. This is particularly dangerous for younger workers, Finnigan says. “Of the suicide cases in people aged below 24, in 75 per cent of those cases, some sort of relationship breakdown occurred just before they took their own life.”

MATES was established in 2008 and provides suicide prevention through community development programs on sites, and by supporting workers in need through case management and a 24/7 help line. The goal is to build awareness of the issues and to encourage supportive workplace environments where every person is asked to play a part in looking out for each other.

“We are dedicated to making mental health support as common as wearing a hard hat on the job site,” Chris Lockwood, MATES national CEO, says. “Preventing suicide starts with a conversation. Let’s talk, let’s connect, and let’s save lives together.”

The MATES support program has field officers who visit workplaces to explain program initiatives and offer training to volunteers to create onsite networks to help workers support each other and to create an overall healthier workplace.

The Australian Building and Construction Industry Blueprint for Better Mental Health and Suicide Prevention was launched by MATES in Construction in 2018, with the support of Beyond Blue and a range of other building organisations.

The blueprint outlines an integrated approach to mental health in the workplace, such as promoting mental health practices among workers and early intervention strategies for people at risk. To date, almost 20 companies have signed on.

“MATES has trained more than 300,000 people across the construction, mining and energy sectors,” Lockwood says. “From this, we’ve been able to build a volunteer workforce of over 30,000 people who know how to have the difficult conversations that can save a life.’’

Marc Finnigan worked 30 years as a carpenter before joining MATES in 2021. He says other MATES research reveals that of the people who suicide or contemplate it, 93 per cent want to survive.

“The real barrier that stops those of us in the construction game from reaching out to each other is we still think it is weak to show emotion or to show we have feelings, and that needs to change,” he says.

“It takes real strength and courage to admit you are struggling and need help, as that is the powerful move. We need more people in our field to realise that, and that it is crucial for them to shift their thinking about all of this.”

During his time in construction, Finnigan has had two co-workers who took their own lives. He believes there were warning signs that were missed at the time.

“It is a matter of noticing those little changes in a person’s behaviour, which might be subtle, but they could be masking a whole lot of things going on for that person,” he says. “It might be the guy who you work with and normally joins in with everyone for a break, but then he starts sitting

quietly on his own or having his lunch alone in the car. That’s the time when you need to quietly ask the question, ‘I’ve noticed you’ve been spending a lot of time alone—is everything okay?’

“Just initiating that kind of conversation could be the start of helping out and letting your co-worker know you have his back, you’ve noticed a change and are there to help out with support if he wants it. It comes down to being a good mate, and just looking out for each other.”