Across the construction, mining and energy sectors, as many as 190 workers die in this manner each year – an average of one suicide every second day. Young Australian men in blue-collar trades have been hit hardest of all, being twice as likely to die by suicide than peers in other occupations.
The tide is finally turning with help from MATES, an industry-backed program that was established in 2007 to promote improved mental health outcomes in the construction industry. Significantly, MATES established a National Research Reference Group in 2013, which has grown to 10 member organisations including Deakin University’s Institute for Health Transformation (IHT).
Led by Professor Tony LaMontagne, the co-director of IHT’s Determinants of Health research domain, the MATES research group leverages partnerships with academics from disciplines including epidemiology, suicidology, and occupational health and safety, and generates rigorous research and data that informs MATES’ workplace interventions.
These interventions have expanded from construction to include workers in the mining and energy industries. Meanwhile, a trial is also being undertaken in the manufacturing sector.
Part of the research group’s work has been to examine rates of suicide across a number of industries. “We’ve recently been able to show that the suicide rate in construction workers is coming down, and it’s coming down faster than for other working males,” said Prof. LaMontagne, who is also a volunteer board member of MATES.
“That is the first time we’ve seen that, we’ve been looking for it for years. That’s against the backdrop of the suicide rate in the male population in general that’s going up.”
Chris Lockwood, the national CEO of MATES, said the evidence base developed by the reference group was helping to drive meaningful change through blue-collar workplaces.
“We know this makes a tangible difference because it continues to grow in the workplaces around the country,” Lockwood said.
He said the research group’s findings underpinned a number of critical interventions implemented by MATES. “We established the group with academic researchers from around the country to ensure we actually do step forward in a strategic way,” he said.
“If we don’t have a solid evidence base for what we’re doing, we could just be good people who think we’re doing good things. We want to be able to hold a hand on our heart and know we’re making a difference. That’s what the industry expects from us.”
MATES’ charter sets out four priorities: Raising awareness of elevated suicide rates in the sector and that suicide is preventable; building strength and resilience in the workplace; connecting workers to help and support; conducting and collaborating on research to evaluate the program, and actively participating in developing best practice in suicide prevention and mental health. This last priority demonstrates MATES’ commitment to self-evaluation and improvement through partnership research.
An example of current research is unpacking how so-called ‘Connectors’ can assist workers who may be in need. Connectors are employees who have been trained to identify early signs of distress in their fellow workers, and to offer to help them find appropriate support.
“To seek help as a man, some believe is a sign of weakness,” Prof. LaMontagne said. “But when you offer help, you’re offering from a position of strength. You’re the one being strong. And so by promoting the offering of help, you’re actually opening a side door to help-seeking.
“What we hope is that that culture of looking after each other, collectivising responsibility for suicide in the sector, spreads to workers and supervisors, not just the Connectors.
“Much of the research in this area is all about the medical models around why men don’t seek help – whereas with this model, you can come at it from a very different angle, a social angle.”
By building a close relationship with IHT’s researchers, organisations such as MATES are able to accelerate translation of research evidence into practice. This ensures research focuses on the goals that matter most.
The collaboration with MATES is one of many undertaken by IHT, which was established to transform health services and systems, making better health and wellbeing easier for everyone to achieve.
A key finding of the data gathered by the research group is that workers in blue collar industries – and especially those in construction – may be particularly susceptible to a number of factors that are unique to those industries, and which can cumulatively impact the mental health of individuals.
Blue collar workers, such as those in construction, are often subcontractors who move from one project to the next. Work can be sporadic, placing pressure on finances and relationships, and the lack of permanency or a sense of belonging can deprive individuals of a sense of control. Long or irregular working hours, along with lengthy commutes to distant worksites, can be physically draining and socially isolating. And men, who still dominate many blue-collar occupations, are generally more susceptible than women to using alcohol or drugs as coping mechanisms.
“There’s no shortage of problems to be investigating, sadly, when we talk about work and mental health,” Prof. LaMontagne said.
Lockwood said the work of the research group continued to drive “integrity and believability” into MATES’ strategic planning.
“For me, that would be one of the key reasons why I’d be looking to partner with IHT,” he said. “The brilliant researchers they’ve got working through there, and having Prof. LaMontagne on our Board, has delivered that for us.”
Prof. LaMontagne also aims to complete the work begun by Professor Allison Milner, who was an IHT colleague and a founding member of the MATES research group. She had been a leading authority on workplace mental health and suicide before she died in 2019 in a tragic accident.
“Allison had previously done research to scope the risk and protective factors for suicide in construction workers, and to track suicide rates in the sector over time.. Then she came on as the lead of the MATES research reference group around 2013. She was extraordinary,” Prof LaMontagne said.
In recognition of Prof. Millner’s body of work, MATES established a PhD scholarship in her name. Recipients of the IHT-based scholarship have continued advancing MATES’ research goals, with one of the current scholars developing a granular understanding of what Connectors do, to inform on-going improvements in how MATES supports Connectors in their role. That scholar is working with Prof LaMontagne and others, pursuing his PhD at IHT.
“That work is really honouring Allison’s legacy, and making a huge contribution to the MATES partnership,” Prof. LaMontagne said.
The ultimate goal, to eliminate suicide in construction and other blue-collar industries, remains the long-term aim. “That would be fantastic. But realistically (in the short term), we’d like to see that construction workers aren’t at any higher risk than other workers, so we can aim for that.
“We’re very happy to report that we are making progress in that direction, with some very recent research demonstrating that the suicide rate in construction workers is decreasing, and that’s against the backdrop of an increasing suicide rate in Australian males overall.”
* The partnership between IHT and MATES is also supported by Deakin University’s School of Health and Social Development.