Suicide — our industry is ashamedly the best at it, but why?

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Mike Fox

EasyBuild director Mike Fox says it’s no wonder there is a high suicide rate in the incredibly combative NZ building industry. He offers some practical tools that will help builders survive. 

There are two industries that lead the statistics in participants ending their own lives — the construction and farming industries, with the construction industry winning the mantel hands down.

In fact, suicide is a whopping 34 times more likely in our sector than any other.

Why is it that our colleagues see no other way through the challenges and trials that they face than to tragically end their own lives? And leaving behind shattered families, bewildered friends and colleagues asking “why”?

Statements like “I had no idea they were struggling”, “if only they had reached out, I could have helped”, “I wish I knew”, “such a waste of an amazing life”, are all too common after the catastrophic event.

Mental health issues do not discriminate — and it affects the best of us, whether it be the site labourer, carpenters, site manager or chief executive.

But our industry, above all others, seems devoid of answers as to how we can make a difference.

For some people, no matter what’s going on at work, you may always be susceptible to challenges with your mental health. For others, it may worsen because of work pressures.

It may manifest in a myriad of ways — depression, anxiety, substance misuse, suicidal thoughts. But no matter how it rears its head, it’s important to remember that others feel the same, you are not alone, and there is always help.

There are extremely worthy organisations such as Mates in Construction who are raising awareness and doing great work to help prevent suicide in the construction industry, with a wide range of resources available for us to use.

This is a great start, but to get to the root of the problem systemic change needs to occur to help reduce the industry-specific stressors that may be contributing to the rates of suicide we’re seeing among colleagues.

Those that have been building for more than 20 years will remember an industry that was more cooperative, less aggressive, less regimented, and certainly far more satisfying to work in than today’s risk-averse, highly regulated and stifled environment.

But what’s changed? And how is our current system adding to the stress we carry?

Our industry has always been tough with tight deadlines, job insecurity, unexpected delays and weather issues — the list goes on. You name it, the builder has to solve it and then warranty it for 10 years.

But our current system has created an unhealthy environment. There’s no denying that stressful situations and added pressures contribute to our overall mental health and well-being.

A solid approach needs to be taken to address and reduce some of the underlying causes of stress that are driving so many of our good people to take their lives unnecessarily.

This article is not intending to place blame on anyone, but to highlight some of the stressors our industry faces, identify these as opportunities for improvement, and start a discussion about how we can reduce the pressures on all of us.

In days gone by, if you were planning a project you would visit your local authority and discuss it with the appropriate people. You would work together to find the best way to achieve the outcome, and collaboration would produce a reasonable result.

However, as an industry we seem to have lost sight of the real objectives, and have become a country of petty rule enforcers, creating jobs for Clipboard Charlies getting job satisfaction out of enforcing minor or unimportant misdemeanours.

With the Resource Management Act, leaky buildings and a required tightening of the Building Act, we’re now in a place where local authorities no longer want to work collaboratively, and are more concerned about collecting revenue and protecting themselves from liability.

A system once designed to help projects go ahead has inadvertently become obsessed with finding all possible ways to avoid risk.

Successive layers of compounding regulatory change have now reached a tipping point, such that the system is overloaded with mindless process and risk-averse behaviour.

Many local authorities are halting progress on projects with excessive requests for further information, inspections, re-inspections and regimented administration processes.

This behaviour is reluctantly understandable and, unfortunately, will never change until lawmakers address the joint and several liability rules that make the last man standing responsible for every building fault, regardless of whether they caused them or not.

Everyone is looking to cover their backsides, pushing liability away and increasing costs, and the result is a huge loss of productivity.

Australia has addressed the joint and several liability problem in their own construction industry, and we should look closely at what we could adopt to make improvements here.

To make matters worse, many local authorities now have a new beast in the form of consent enforcement officers who prowl sites looking for something to catch you out on.

Their very existence is, no doubt, measured by how many fines or prosecutions they can attain.

Combining this with overzealous Worksafe inspectors looking for someone standing on a saw stool, the life of a builder has become just that bit more unpleasant.

Among many things, building inspectors are required to fixate on handrails and possible falls that a private resident might have within or around their own home.

However, that same resident is trusted to cross the busy road outside their home, walk along a waterfront with no handrail protection, or drive a vehicle at 100km/h along a road without a median barrier. Where is the relativity in all of this?

Health and safety inspectors hound professional tradespeople who are proficient and experienced at working from heights as if they are incompetent to assess risk.

These same inspectors’ actions are now putting DIY consumers at risk, who typically don’t have experience working at height but aren’t bound by the same health and safety restraints as builders — and are unable to afford to pay a professional to complete the work with the added cost of scaffolding.

It’s a scenario that inadvertently forces consumers into completing their own repairs and work — and who knows what the quality of this work will be?

The number of industry participants lost to suicide far outweighs deaths by accident. It is a hard industry to be in at the best of times and, with all these compounding factors, it is not surprising that so many good builders end up looking for careers elsewhere or throwing their arms up in despair.

In addition to dealing with an increasingly hostile regulatory environment, the builder is the meat in the sandwich between the client’s expectations and the delivery of their project.

On the one hand, clients’ expectations have increased, while on the other, the quality and abundance of the workforce to deliver projects has diminished.

Decades of insufficient training and boom-bust cycles have left us with slim pickings when it comes to quality trades.

The industry is currently hopelessly over-committed with workload, the builder is left competing for resources that are less than optimal, and is often stuck paying subtrades big fees for poor performance and questionable quality.

It has become an incredibly combative industry to have to work in, and if you allow it to get on top of you it’s no wonder we are losing so many good people who just can’t see a way through.

Many times throughout my own career, I’ve wondered how the hell I’m going to get through this, and I’m sure I’m not alone in this thinking.

Tools to survive

Here are some of the tools I have used to survive, and I hope some of them will help you too:

No matter how big a problem seems, there is always a solution. I haven’t seen or experienced a building problem yet that can’t be solved. Talk to your colleagues as it will have happened before, reach out to others for advice and you will get an answer to it. 

Think of the worst possible outcome, write it down and think to yourself, “can I cope with that?” No doubt, you will see it could have been worse, your mind eases and you get on with solving it.

If you have a problem that is really keeping you awake, try and remember what you were worrying about three weeks earlier. You’ll likely struggle to remember what it was, so don’t let today’s problem consume you either. Avoid internalising the job’s problems.

Take time out to exercise and eat properly. It clears your head and gives you the energy to cope.

Treat others how you expect to be treated yourself, and you will be amazed how that changes the attitudes and performance of those around you. Life is like a mirror — what you put out will be reflected back to you.

We’re all human, so it’s ok to blow your fuse occasionally. But always be big enough to apologise. It’s the apology that you will gain the respect for, not the previous meltdown.

Share your problems with others. I can almost guarantee that others have faced similar issues. Sharing your experiences not only de-stresses things for you, but will likely help you find a solution too.

Remember, there is no shame in seeking help. Talk with your colleagues, your friends and family, or a trusted professional. A huge part of our population lives with mental health challenges, and seeking support and help is normal and vital to your own well-being.

Remind yourself that the most successful builder in town is not necessarily the busiest builder, but the builder that does less work at higher margins in a controlled and ordered manner. It is always ok to turn work down and work within your comfort zones.

Finally, and most importantly, no matter how dark a place you might be in now, it will get better. Brighter times are always around the corner so seek help and hang in there. You won’t regret it.

If we are serious about fixing the suicide rate in our industry, we need to take a holistic view of what is adding to the pressures on those in our industry, and fix the issues at their source.

Perhaps the newly-mandated government, with its “be kind” approach, will appoint a senior minister that will champion for the necessary regulatory change.

The entrapment, fine and enforcement mentality that we have perversely developed is unhealthy, and we need to have a serious rethink if we want innovation, productivity, improved mental health and an enjoyable, balanced work environment to return.

What I know is that more of the same will not cut it, and with precious lives at risk every day, we can’t continue to sit helplessly and let the situation fall by the wayside.

• This article contains the author’s opinion only, and is not necessarily the opinion of the Registered Master Builders Association, its chief executive or staff.

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