News & Views

14th May 2021

Check on your mates. It’s time we talk about mental health.

White-collar workers are being pushed to the brink of breakdown, recording stress and anxiety levels worse than many psychiatric patients.

A recent psychological survey of almost 700 professionals working on Victorian infrastructure projects has found the expectation to work extreme hours under constant deadline pressure is endangering their mental health.


Suicide is incredibly prevalent in the construction industry.


Every year 190 Australians working in the construction industry take their own lives – that’s a loss of a construction worker every second day.


Construction workers are six times more likely to die from suicide than an accident at work. According to the 2016 and 2017 reports commissioned by suicide prevention charity MATES in Construction, the suicide rate for men in the industry is double the rest of the male working population.


Australian research has uncovered that many individuals hold a strong belief that suicide is an impulsive act and that someone intending to take their own life wouldn’t show any signs and wouldn’t discuss it. But this is not the case.


The research has shown that workers find it difficult to discuss feelings and emotions with colleagues at work out of fear of being view as not blokey enough, and the nature of the work (long hours, overtime etc) made social support difficult.


While Suicide is prevalent, mental illness, addiction and family troubles are just as widespread.


A 2014 PwC report found 25.1 percent of construction workers had experienced mental illness over the previous 12 months with the average rate for Australian men sits at 18 percent. A different survey in 2015 found that from 2011-2015, the median divorce rate in the construction industry was 6% above the national average.


In addition to these startling facts, 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.


NECA members are experiencing the same pressure that is damaging their mental health


NECA has received a high number of calls through to Workplace Relations regarding employee and employer mental health concerns.

Below are some examples of recent cases that the Workplace Relations team have been assisting with:

  1. An employee stopped showing up for work and was missing from the workplace for a week. The employer wanted to undertake the abandonment of employment process, however, he was soon located at home and has now gone in for treatment for addiction, he has kept his job and his employer has allowed for time off to complete his treatment.
  2. We have a member whose employee was rushed to hospital after experiencing a severe panic attack, the employee has kept his job and was away from the workplace for one week and returned with a medical clearance
  3. An employee experiencing anger issues who was physically violent towards an apprentice, in this case the employee was unable to keep his job due to the incident being serious misconduct and grounds for immediate dismissal
  4. An employee had a fender bender in the company car due to anxiety and depression due to his impending divorce. The employee had been open with his employer, so they were aware of his current mental state and were able to discuss the accident and his current situation openly. They offered him some time off for appointments and some time to destress and focus on the things he needed to do in his personal life.


On several occasions’ issues have been raised with the Workplace Relations team as performance issues with the employer calling for advice on terminating the employee. After a couple of probing questions, it turns out the performance issues have only commenced recently or have slowly occurred over a period. Our advice has been to hold a counselling meeting with the employees to provide them an opportunity to respond to the concerns.  A number have then gone on to disclose difficulties in their personal lives, addiction, grief, and mental health illnesses such as depression and anxiety.


Most cases have resulted in employees taking a period of leave to receive treatment.


What should you keep an eye out for?

Experiencing a mental illness can affect how an employee does their work, interacts with employers, colleagues and clients, and not usually in the ways you may think.


Common concerns raised are performance issues and loss of productivity, “snapping” behaviours, confusion, arriving late to work, increased number of sick days, increased phone use, sleepiness.


Symptoms of mental health disorders may be displayed differently at work than in other situations – these are known as stealth symptoms.


Below are some examples of stealth symptoms:

  • Depression’s defining symptoms are usually low mood, “down in the dumps” and sad. However, in the workplace this disorder is more likely to manifest in behaviours such as nervousness, restlessness, or irritability — and in physical complaints, such as a preoccupation with aches and pains. In addition, employees may become passive, withdrawn, aimless, and unproductive. They also may be fatigued at work, partly because of the mood disorder or because they are having trouble sleeping at night. Depression may also impair judgment or cloud decision making.
  • Anxiety disorders in the workplace may manifest as restlessness, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, and excess worrying. Employees may require constant reassurance about performance. Sometimes, as with depression, physical symptoms or irritability may be noticeable.
  • ADHD is often considered a problem only in childhood, but it also affects adults. An international survey in 10 countries (including the United States) estimated that 3.5% of employees have ADHD. In the workplace, symptoms of ADHD may manifest as disorganization, failure to meet deadlines, inability to manage workloads, problems following instructions from supervisors, and arguments with co-workers.


What can you do?

Talking with your staff is incredibly important and ensuring they are aware of an open-door policy with no risk of discrimination.


It’s important that employees are treated fairly and no differently to how you would want your best mate, child, spouse, or sibling to be treated.


Studies suggest that treatment improves work performance but is not a quick fix, so it’s important for businesses and managers to really invest the time with their employees, and not doing so may put the business at risk of discrimination or the life of someone at risk.


Creating a mentally healthy workplace needs to be as important for organisations as creating a physically healthy workplace. Ultimately, workplace health is a leadership issue, and change must start at the top. Organisational leaders play a critical role in driving policies and practices that promote mental health. They can positively influence workplace culture, management practices and the experience of employees.


Employers should try having a conversation about what’s troubling an employee by asking questions and listening.  Offer care and support and reassure them that you want to support and treat them fairly while respecting their privacy. It’s important not to make assumptions or attempt to provide a diagnosis or counselling – but if you are genuinely concerned about someone you can encourage them to seek support and let them know you’re there to help.


While the places we work come in all shapes and sizes, mentally healthy working environments generally have a few things in common.


These are the things that should be broadly implemented within businesses.

  • Positive workplace culture. Put simply, they are places where people feel good about coming to work, and everyone's encouraged and supported.
  • Stress and other risks to mental health are managed. Stress, heavy workloads, unrealistic deadlines, poor communication, uncertainty - these and other factors can all contribute to anxiety and depression (or exacerbate already existing mental illness), and it's up to managers and leaders to keep them in check.
  • People with mental health conditions are supported. Helping employees to stay at or return to work has clear benefits, both for the individual and the business.
  • Zero-tolerance approach to discrimination. As well as being a legal requirement, protecting employees from discrimination encourages a diverse workforce and ensures everyone gets a fair go.


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