Research to cut the construction industry's suicide toll

Friday, 10 September, 2021

Every year 190 Australians working in the construction industry take their own lives — that’s one worker every second day. Now, new research from the University of South Australia is investigating the reasons behind such high rates of suicide in the construction sector. Supported by the industry body MATES in Construction and the Alison Milner Memorial Scholarship, the research will identify interventions that could help reduce devastating outcomes. Lead researcher and UniSA PhD candidate Simon Taylor has identified 26 potential drivers of suicide for construction industry workers, noting that while many motivators are known, others have received little attention. “Given the nature of building and construction, it’s extremely disturbing to know that construction workers are six times more likely to die from suicide than from a workplace accident. This is a terrible reality for workers and their families,” Taylor said.

Taylor added that part of the problem resides in the industry itself — it’s highly transient, with most workers employed on a project-by-project basis — providing little opportunity for workers to build workplace supports or friendships. Taylor identified another issue as persistent stereotypical concepts of masculinity, which can have a big impact on mental health. “So, when workers put up strong exteriors to detract from their issues or insecurities, they’re also shielding themselves from supports. Unfortunately, such unhelpful masculine attitudes and behaviours can result in negative outcomes, such as bullying, which can escalate over time,” Taylor said.

By examining these and other potential stressors in the sector, including work hours, job demands and legislations, the researchers hope to develop best practice approaches to reduce rates of suicide. Australian Construction Industry Forum forecasts show the building and construction sector as an economic powerhouse amid COVID-19, yet its workers are struggling. With RUOK? Day on September 9 and World Suicide Prevention Day on September 10, Senior UniSA researcher and mental health and suicide prevention expert Professor Nicholas Procter said it’s time to highlight the serious issues affecting workers in the construction industry. Professor Procter noted that suicide prevention is best achieved when individuals and communities play a part in understanding and responding to a person in need. “Asking important questions, such as ‘Are you OK?” can certainly interrupt the suicide trajectory. We can have so many touchpoints — at home, at work, even in a casual conversation with a person we may meet for just a brief period. But by making the most of various touchpoints we might just give some support to a person in distress,” Professor Procter said.

UniSA is currently launching a new Mental Health Research Fund to help tackle critical frontline issues. If you are affected by any of the issues discussed in this article, Lifeline has a 24/7 crisis support service that can help, please call 13 11 14.

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