Mental wellness in the construction sector

Suicide rates within New Zealand's Construction Industry are higher than first thought – but the MATES in Construction programme is already making a positive difference.

Research by MATES in Construction into New Zealand's shockingly high number of suicides by workers in the building and construction industries has found that the suicide rate is even higher than first thought, because several major categories of workers were missed out of the original research data.

Dreadful statistics of suicide in the sector

Speaking to a 22 October webinar hosted by the Construction Sector Accord, MATES CEO Victoria McArthur said since the programme was initiated in New Zealand ten months ago it has carried out new research into why suicide is so much more prevalent in the building and construction sector than in any other employment sector in New Zealand.

"We discovered that the real rate was about 54 suicides per 100,000 people in the building and construction sector, higher than the data that was available before MATES began its research. MATES in Construction, the Construction Sector Accord and the industry as a whole are throwing everything they can at reducing this dreadful statistic."

Powerful mix of stresses contributing to statistics

The webinar discussed the reasons behind the high levels of suicide in the construction industry.
MATES Case Manager Gloria Vetekina said research pointed to several factors that exacerbated risk in the industry.

"One, its male dominated. Men tend to suicide more often than women. We know this is because men's culture can still shame them into not talking openly about feelings and emotions. There's often no discussion about deeply personal things among men at work.

"Couple that with other factors such as a high alcohol and drug use in the industry, very long hours, a lack of job security that is endemic throughout the industry and the financial pressures that come from that, and you have a powerful mix of stresses that can make normal 'life events' such as a family death, relationship breakup, money problems and so on, seem so much more worse."

Encouraging signs of MATES success

McArthur and other MATES workers in New Zealand, along with industry representatives speaking to the seminar, all said there were a lot of encouraging signs the programme was already working in New Zealand, even though it has only been active since late 2019.

Representatives from industry players Naylor Love, Watercare and Kāinga Ora who participated in the webinar all said they were receiving amazing feedback from construction site workers about the effectiveness of the MATES programmes being rolled out on work sites throughout New Zealand.

Giving freedom to workers to speak openly and seek help

Overwhelmingly, all of the speakers agreed, the key result of the MATES programme was the freedom it gave workers to speak openly, seeking and offering help and sharing their experiences of the unique stresses associated with working in the construction and building industry.

"It's taken the lid off a culture of secrecy and shame," said MATES Field Officer Slade McFarland. "Undoubtedly, MATES has already saved lives . . . this is the feedback we have been getting and what we are seeing and hearing on worksites every day."

Fellow MATES Field Officer Ritchie Hepi said the MATES programme was strengthening the sense of whanau among workers on construction sites and empowering people to speak out. Taboo subjects such as mental illness, financial struggles, relationship breakups and other 'life events' were beginning to be shared in discussion groups, and within everyday conversations among co-workers, allowing colleagues to offer help and stressed people to seek help more easily.

Hepi told the webinar that he was keen to see more women in construction . . . "at the worksite, boots 'n' all, not just back in the office." He said his observation was that wherever construction sites had women workers, the sense of whanau was stronger and normally silent men were more likely to open up and say what was happening in their lives.

Naylor Love General Manager People and Culture Pam McGarry said the MATES programme had been received well across the construction company's sites. "We have had a lot of staff offer to be volunteers to help deliver MATES across all our sites, and that includes sub-contractor staff, not just our own team. She said people had been prompted to share their own stories of mental health struggles and that had inspired others to speak out."

McGarry's experience was echoed by Bronwyn Struthers, Head of Health Safety and Wellness from Watercare, who said that the programme built the confidence of supervisors to both identify the signs someone was struggling and also the best way to offer help. She said MATES was creating a strong sense of family on work sites.

Contributing to major culture change

Georgina Ellis, Building Social Outcomes Lead from Kāinga Ora – New Zealand's largest building services purchaser – said that the housing provider had picked up on the MATES programme from the beginning ten months ago and it was contributing to a major change of culture among the staff of contractors and sub-contractors at building worksites.

"MATES empowers the workers to have conversations. That really is its most powerful achievement . . . it is changing the culture of silence and allowing men to speak openly, share their stories, encourage other, seek and offer help.

"The feedback from our worksites throughout the country has been overwhelmingly positive. We're hearing that MATES has already helped a number of people who might otherwise have joined the sad statistics of suicide in this industry."

Webinar video

This webinar was recorded on 22 October 2020. It includes speakers from MATES in Construction and representatives from Naylor Love, Watercare and Kāinga Ora.

Watch the full webinar(external link) -

Last updated: 19 November 2020