“Do you have your high-vis? Your steel-caps? Don’t forget to put your safety glasses on.”

With permits, certificates, training and PPE, construction workers in New Zealand are well-equipped to manage the physical risks of working on site.

But MATES in Construction Field Officer Raman Lee sees one crucial piece of the puzzle is missing from these discussions.

“Where is the concern for the mental wellness of the worker?” he says.

“We are six times more likely to lose someone to suicide from a building site than we are to lose them from a workplace accident.”

One of MATES in Construction’s core aims is to advance mental health and social services in New Zealand by promoting an awareness of the prevention and control of mental distress for people in the construction industry.

When he’s on site, there’s “a group drawing of breath” when Raman reveals those startling statistics to the contractors and subbies.

But there are also signs of hope. People are widely recognising the need to take the mental health needs of workers into greater consideration.

“This conversation is becoming a lot more acceptable and is extremely well-received when we’re on site,” Raman says, “and there’s one uniform reaction to our work from the workers, and that’s gratitude.”

That acknowledgement of the stress construction workers face, and the way it can impact their wellbeing, is a key step in beginning to reduce the rate of suicide among construction workers.

To keep getting that message out far and wide, MATES in Construction is this week hosting its annual Fly the Flag event. About 660 flags will fly over 450 construction sites around the country as our construction industry stands up in support of mental health and suicide prevention.

Of the 140 Kāinga Ora construction sites MATES in Construction is currently active with, many will be taking part to help send the signal – that we are prioritising the health and lives of our workmates, that it’s normal to talk about mental health and that help is available if you are struggling.

Fly the Flag also acknowledges and remembers all those mates we have lost to suicide.

Kāinga Ora Manager Social Outcomes George Ellis said the work of MATES in Construction, and their Fly the Flag event, was more important than ever as the country – and particularly Auckland – grappled with the impact of Covid-19 and Alert Level restrictions.

“MATES and and Fly the Flag, these actually make a practical difference to people’s lives. They help people to be able to cope better and help others to be able to cope better, and we need that as a society now. It’s so important, and it’s going to get more important.”

Their work became even more remarkable when considering MATES team members were dealing with the same restrictions as others, she said.

“They’ve completely adapted what they’re doing in Auckland so they can support the industry and support sites … they’re going out of their way and they’re experiencing the same thing all of us are. It just shows how committed they are to this work and to making a difference.”

George, a psychologist, said the difference the programme was making on construction sites stemmed from an understanding of wellbeing coming first.

“Nothing’s more important than wellbeing, and productivity and the rest flows on from that,” she said.

“MATES is working because it has been designed and developed to suit the industry, and I hear the difference it’s making in the conversations I have with our build partners and hearing about how people are starting to talk – that’s where we’re starting to go as a society in New Zealand.”

More information about MATES in Construction and Fly the Flag can be found at mates.net.nz(external link)

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Page updated: 11 November 2021