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Turning the Tables on A Hyper-Macho Culture . . . and Saving Lives

Turning the Tables on A Hyper-Macho Culture . . . and Saving Lives

This particular C-Suite post has nothing to do with bids, but - arguably -
a lot to do with management and leadership.

With more progressive corporate leaders viewing their responsibility as more than simply satisfying the stakeholder, I'd like to present to you an inspiring set of interviews I recently conducted with various leaders in the engineering and construction sector.

Woven together, they tell the story of the sad suicide statistics associated with this sector. They also, however, tell of an active and industry-supported approach towards radically reducing this tally, and finding sustainable solutions to the problem.

Jordan Kelly

Changing ingrained perceptions, attitudes and behaviours in any context is well-recognised as, at best, a tough call and slow-going . . . a job for only the self-punishingly persistent.

One would suspect, therefore, that de-stigmatising the way the hard-edged, hyper-macho Australian construction industry thinks of, and deals with, topics such as mental wellbeing and suicide would present a less-than-enviable challenge.

Certainly that's the way it started out, when former plumber and trade unionist Jorgen Gullestrup became the inaugural Chief Executive of Mates in Construction – a national non-profit organisation dedicated to reducing the sad and unacceptable suicide statistics that have long plagued the industry.

Today, however, Gullestrup leads one of the most avidly supported programs of its ilk in Australasia. The enthusiastic and ever-growing support it enjoys is a reflection of the effectiveness with which it is addressing this dire and pressing problem.

'Thirteen in Three Months'

Mates in Construction had its roots in one of the more unexpected outcomes of the 2001 Cole Royal Commission into conduct in the building and construction industry.

Gullestrup – in his then-role as Secretary of the Queensland Plumbers' Union – had pressed the Commission to recognise something he saw as a major issue facing the industry: suicide. As part of his evidence, he presented a list of names of all those, from within the construction industry, whom had suicided within the previous three months.

"There were 13 names on that list," he says. "That tally reflected one out of five death pay-outs from BERT (the Building Employees' Redundancy Trust – an organisation that took it upon itself to help a deceased worker's family).

"I urged the Commission to take a look at why we were witnessing such a high rate of suicide."

Similar evidence was given by, and urgings forthcoming from, other broadly-related industries and their unions, including the CFMEU (the Construction, Forestry, Mining & Energy Union).

In an initiative that was to ultimately come to fruition in the form of the now phenomenally impactful "Mates" (as it is affectionately known within construction circles), the retired secretary of the CFMEU, one Hughie Hamilton, along with a group of widely respected industry leaders, rallied funds from other unions, from employers' associations, and from the Queensland State Government to fund a dedicated research project to measure the extent of the problem nationally.

That research – conducted by Griffith University's Australian Institute for Suicide Research and Prevention – produced Suicide in Queensland's Commercial Building and Construction Industry: An Investigation of Factors Associated with Suicide and Recommendations for Its Prevention' . . . a report demonstrating that, for every two individuals who had suicided, at least one had first spoken to someone about their suicidal intentions, and a quarter had previously attempted suicide.

Yet – in this 98 percent male industry – only seven out of 100 had sought professional help.

Construction Workplace Characteristics Create the ‘Perfect Storm'

Compounding the highly gender-imbalanced nature of the industry, is the fact that construction workers not only work in the often uncertain environment of projects coming to an end, they work long days (and often nights), and frequently – in a states like Queensland and Western Australia, where industries like mining are prominent – spend prolonged periods away from home, working on remote sites.

These characteristics of the construction workplace create the "perfect storm", in terms of suicide risk.

In April 2007, Gullestrup was approached by BERT to take $400,000 in seeding funds and create a suicide intervention program, with the agreed brief to increase the seven out of 100 who sought professional help statistic, to 50 in 100.

Aside from his keen and well-researched awareness of the issue, Gullestrup had two additional and highly motivating reasons for accepting the challenge: He had been personally involved in the aftermath of several workplace suicides during his time as a union official. He had also himself been a victim of serious clinical depression.

A Dane who immigrated to Australia in 1988 he had, before leaving Denmark at age 23, suffered depressive bouts so long and so intense he hardly remembers the period of his life that stretched between his eighteenth and twenty-third birthdays.

Depression: ‘One Big, Ongoing Dark Cloud'

"It was just one big, ongoing dark cloud," Gullestrup says. "I quite literally can't remember very much detail at all. Apart from the intensity of the depression, I was heavily medicated.

"I do know that I fell into the trap of trying to self-medicate with a mix of antidepressants, amphetamines and sleeping tablets. And, because depression can leverage itself into an alcohol problem, I do know I did that too."

He points to the insidious nature of the condition:

"No-one can really say what causes it. In fact, if you know what it is, it's probably not depression.

"All of us have setbacks and down times, but depression is a whole different kettle of fish. It's a dark cloud that just lingers on and on and you don't know why, even when good things are happening to you and you know you should actually feel good. Then you start thinking poorly of yourself at any available opportunity, and you get into a whole downward spiral.

"I strongly suspect that living in the long winters and short days of the northern hemisphere didn't help, because the condition literally disappeared from my life as soon as I arrived in Australia. I've never experienced it since."

The illness may be gone, but his keen awareness of the debilitating and dangerous frame of mind it puts its sufferers in, remains.

Awakening to the Hidden Nature of the Problem

Shortly after his arrival in Australia, Gullestrup became involved in the trade union movement, first as a delegate and then as an official. In 2001 came his appointment as the Secretary of the Queensland Plumbers' Union.

"That's when I awoke to the fact that the industry, at large, had a real problem with both depression, and what can be its most awful end result: suicide. Several of our members suicided and one particular case really shook me up and took me to a new level of awareness – not so much of the problem, but about it.

"A fellow I knew well and who was only a few years older than me, got laid off from a major renovation project when that job came to a close.

"Getting laid off in this industry is nothing unusual, of course; for a blue collar construction worker, job security is eight hours' notice. But it must have been a trigger for this guy – because he went straight back to his parents' house in Melbourne and suicided.

"We had a collection, and together with the money available from the employers, along with the various industry funds, I went to see his widow to see what I could do.

‘Didn't Anybody Notice Anything?'

"She asked me whether anyone had noticed anything, since he spent more time at work than at home. At that moment it dawned on me: there could be any number of people I see in the industry on any given day that are entertaining thoughts of suicide – and we'd never know.

"That realisation suddenly combined with my own earlier struggle with depression, and the whole matter took on a pressing urgency for me. I felt a real need to dispel this totally unfounded notion that only a specific type of personality suicides or that someone thinking suicidal thoughts will behave in some obvious manner.

"I realised right there and then – and certainly subsequent research and the work of Mates has borne out – that so many signs that indicate someone's not doing well, we just don't see in the moment if we're not alert to it. They seem far more obvious after the fact, though.

"I felt that the industry and its leadership should be looking for more insights into, and exercising more power over, this sort of situation – before, rather than afterwards.

"So when I was approached to put together a suicide prevention program and build a team around me to implement it nationally, it was both a very natural career progression and a wonderful opportunity to spearhead a solution."

The Search for A Precedent

In commencing Mates in Construction, Gullestrup first sought some sort of precedent program or framework. He and his small team of founding staff researched suicide prevention projects that were in place elsewhere.

"We looked at OzHelp in Canberra, Incolink in Victoria and, nationally, Lifeline. We also investigated the Federal Government's Living Is For Everyone program, and a particularly good one in Canada, called LivingWorks.

"We were actively influenced by elements of all of these, especially LivingWorks, which is a community development model based on the conviction that everybody has a role to play in suicide prevention."

Gullestrup and his small and tightknit team of founding staff were keenly aware that the key challenges they'd be faced with, in formulating a program for the construction sector, would be primarily of a cultural nature.

They knew, therefore, that the program's initiatives had to be couched in "construction worker language" versus that of either academia or of the broader community.

‘It Had to Be Gritty & Masculine'

"If we were going to have an impact in our world we knew the program and the communications would have to be very gritty and masculine.

"We thought about the very male-dominated nature of the industry . . . and about how, for example, it's traditionally been considered men's role in society to fix things – the toaster, the toilet, whatever – that's what it means to be a man.

"We realised that when our own life is broken it threatens our masculinity to reach out and ask somebody else for help to fix it. It's seen as a sign of weakness to ask for help.

"That was highlighted by the fact that, about a decade ago, BERT had offered an employee counselling program free of charge. It was the offer of 16 hours' counselling for any employee and their family. It received very little uptake.

"So we asked ourselves, if the industry's culture is going against us, what is going for us? And what we concluded was this:

"As much as the Australian ethos says it's not OK to ask for help for ourselves, that same ethos says you stick by your mate at all costs.

"So that's the angle we took – and also how we came up with the name, Mates in Construction."

‘Hard & Direct'

The next decision Gullestrup and his team took was to hit the topic hard and be absolutely direct about it.

"As uncomfortable as it was for them, it was important that we gave them something concrete they could wrap their arms around. We decided to go with – rather than against – that very male, cut and dried, ‘just show me what needs fixed' attitude."

The first year was tough going.

"It was like we were dispensing cholera; hardly anybody wanted to know us. It was the typical, hardened attitude to mental health:  ignore it and it will go away as an issue.

"But a few sites were very supportive," Gullestrup said. "We had some early scores that really helped us break through. One of these was when one of Abigroup's senior people in Queensland, Steve Abson, introduced it into the company's sustainability program. Steve was also President of the Queensland Major Contractors' Association at the time, so his action really set an example for the industry at large. It went a long way towards helping us cut through the ‘mental health' stigma."

Acceptance On Site Key to Success

Notwithstanding the importance of that support, the Mates in Construction board and staff team wanted, equally, to gain acceptance at site and individual worker level.

"We were of the conviction that we wanted to be welcomed through the front gate by the workers, rather than shoehorned in the side door by management.

"We wanted to be seen as being independent of everyone – employers, unions and anyone else. That was important in making sure everybody felt OK about using us . . . that they saw us simply as being there to offer a solution to a very big problem."

The completely free-of-charge Mates program is implemented on a site-by-site basis, at three levels:

Level 1:  Provision of general awareness training for everyone on site – from the project manager to the apprentices.

Level 2:  The seeking out of volunteers to become "Connectors" (an individual whose role is to be available to listen to a concerned party, and to facilitate a connection between the at-risk person and the best source of assistance).

"In short, a Connector is a mate who can keep you safe while connecting you to help."

Level 3:  Training of "Assist" (Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training) officers.

"Assist" is a globally-recognised suicide intervention model that directs the caregiver in his or her establishment of a safety plan to protect the person at risk.

Provision of training in all these levels of the program is one of the primary functions of Mates' 30 full-time staff, as is supporting volunteers in performing their respective roles through case management and a 24/7 help line.

Mates in Construction personnel have a construction industry element to their backgrounds, with some also having social work and psychology qualifications.

Broad Base of Financial Support

Today, the Mates in Construction program enjoys generous financial support from a variety of construction industry-related redundancy trusts, from industry superannuation schemes, from training funds, from employers and even from Governments i.e. Federal, along with some at the State level.

"To give you just one example of how everybody has gotten behind Mates (which has allowed us to expand as rapidly as we have), Laing O'Rourke made us their preferred charity in 2013 and raised $130,000 for us in that 12-month period. Again, that's only one example. The support is phenomenal now."

Mates was approached recently with a more left-field fundraising idea by a labour hire company whose management and personnel had been impacted by a colleague's suicide.

"They wanted to organise a walk of the Kokoda Trail, an initiative through which they planned to raise $100,000 in sponsorship funds. They've now signed up 30 people to walk the trail (which is due to take place in September this year), and they've organised events like a launch luncheon."


Gullestrup believes that – having broken through the initial resistance put up – the primary reason Mates enjoys such strong support is the number of people, particularly in the construction sector, whom have been touched, in some way, by suicide.

"When we do a presentation or a training event, we ask how many people have had their world impacted by someone's suicide," he says. "It's rare that less than half the hands in the room go up. This issue really is relevant to a huge cross-section of people – and especially those we're getting in front of."

If the support Mates receives is impressive, more so are the results they're achieving.

In 2013, Mates in Construction staff conducted interviews with a geographic cross-section of the Assist officers the organisation has trained. Between the 69 volunteers comprising the research sample, 231 suicide interventions had been successfully carried out.

"What this tells us is that there's a lot of people receiving help from the program.

"What's more, even though we've case-managed about 2000 clients since we started, our interviews with the Assist volunteers indicated that this is just the tip of the iceberg, with many more people getting help on site through the broader reach of the program.

"And that broader reach is extensive: We now have 50,000 general awareness-trained (first level) workers, 4000 connectors (second level), and close to 500 suicide first aid workers.

"But let me make it real for you with an example of Mates in action:

"A very remote Queensland infrastructure project experienced a workplace accident in which a worker died.

"The site was so remote that management couldn't get expert counselling help out there for several days. So what the Mates-trained Assist workers and Connectors did was – in recognition of this as a possible trigger event – they photocopied Mates in Construction logos and put them on the doors of their own dongas, telling everybody that, ‘If the sign is on a door, knock on it at any time of the night or day.'

"They didn't actually think anyone would take them up on it. But not only was their collective offer very much taken up, the people that went through those donga doors talked about multiple issues that had been troubling them in their own lives, not just the fatal accident. In those remote environments particularly, there are so many issues workers can be grappling with, many of which arise through being away from their families.

"That initiative was seen as having been so impactful that it was integrated into the camp's normal daily life from that point onwards."

‘Mental Health is of Equal Priority to Physical Wellbeing'

Now National Apartments Construction Manager for Lend Lease, Adam Moore was first exposed to the power of Mates in Construction during his 16-year tenure with his former employer, builder developer Mirvac.

In 2012, the company was contracted to build temporary accommodation for remote workers in Queensland's resource-rich Surat Basin.

The population of this region has doubled in the past three years by virtue of the number of Fly In, Fly Out ("FIFO") and Drive In, Drive Out ("DIDO") workers required in the construction of the resource (especially LNG) industry's extraction and export distribution infrastructure.

Also involving the provision of lay-down areas (i.e. storage areas for the loading and unloading of materials to be used in the construction of gas pipelines), the scheduled timeframe for project completion was 14 months.

Moore – as the state's construction manager for Mirvac – had concerns about how his crews would handle the long periods of social isolation.

"Our guys would be away from their families for three weeks at a time," Moore points out. "I felt it was highly likely that that was going to take some sort of toll on some of them. You have to understand just how remote some of these sites are. The only connection these guys have with the outside world is by phone, and some of the camps don't even have that; they're too remote for reliable telecommunications, particularly in the establishment phase of a camp.

"Certainly, after the project went live, we noticed that morale grew noticeably lower over time. We spoke to guys on the site and made a particular note of the fact that those we'd had working for us on Brisbane sites, who'd been fine there, were now struggling with the disconnection issue out west.

"The remoteness really does affect them after a time – especially when they're working out there for 21 days straight, bar one day. It's a long time, and it's very different to working in the city, where you go home every night to your family.

"Out there, you work 10 to 12 hours and live in a donga. And you mix only with the other workers in camp; so it's easy to get a little skewed in your outlook on life during those periods . . . call it cabin fever or whatever. It can get to the psyche – and if there are already problems in a person's life, it's not exactly a good combination for peak mental fitness.

"Certainly, at a company level, we did everything we could do in a tangible sense . . . an on-site gym, table tennis facilities and the like. But, for the most part, that only addresses the physical activity issue.

"Mental health is of equal priority."

At Least As Relevant to the Remote Construction Community

So he proposed Mirvac provide funding for the 12-month residency of a Mates in Construction field officer in the Surat Basin. As an act of goodwill towards the broader construction community operating in that region, the Mirvac budget covered the field officer's salary, on-costs and vehicle.

"We recognised that we needed to be working on this aspect of camp living at a deeper, more ‘human-to-human' level. Putting the Mates field officer in place achieved that."

Morale in the camp improved noticeably after the field officer had been in place for about two months.

"The guys told us how good it was to have someone to bounce things off – although they didn't necessarily need or want someone to fix things for them.

"And it was really important to them that the individual in this ‘confidante' role not be a company person. They didn't want to be unloading to someone they worked with every day.

"Now, it's well-recognised than when morale lifts, typically so does productivity. A happy workforce is a productive workforce. And – in the construction industry – a happy and productive workforce equates to lower levels of safety-related risk.

"So the benefits are manifold: a more contented workforce, better teamwork, fewer safety-related incidents, higher rates of productivity, and lower staff turnover."

‘Lower Turnover A Commercial Indicator of ROI'

On the note of turnover, Moore says his crew stayed together throughout the entire project.

"Turnover is a huge issue in the oil and gas industry; especially on the projects way out west.

"But the workers that started our project were, largely, the same ones that finished them. That's a huge statement of satisfaction in this industry.

"In my view, Mates in Construction is the best program that's been rolled out in the 30 years I've been part of this industry – and there are always plenty being implemented – drug and alcohol awareness, safety, health and fitness, and so forth. But I've never seen a program that generates the sort of results Mates does. And it's generating them in an area in which they're clearly needed.

"It's a very macho blokey industry. This is about guys who wouldn't normally talk to each other when they're doing it tough. Mates breaks down that unproductive macho-ism and helps them relate to each other at a deeper, healthier level.

"And it does that by coming from the angle that says it's not a weakness to ask for help. In fact, particularly if a mate is running rough, it's your duty to notice it. It's a very strategic re-angling of that central tenet of the Australian culture."

Leaders Have Key Role to Play in Success of ‘Mates'

Steve Abson – formerly Northern Region General Manager for tier one constructor Abigroup and now Chief Operating Officer for mid-tier Ostwald Bros – was another early, and avid, supporter of the Mates in Construction concept.

Abson is an active industry leader, having been a director of the Building Employees Redundancy Trust (BERT) and President of the Queensland Major Contractors' Association (QMCA). In both roles he was able to give the then-fledgling Mates organisation a wide platform across the state's construction environment.

Abson says:

"This kind of social contribution resonated quickly with me . . . there'd been supporting research done that provided some fairly damning statistics around suicide in the industry.

"It illuminated not only the issue but also the urgent need for it to be addressed. There were clearly multiple issues feeding the problem, not the least of which were the gender imbalance in the industry, the fact that males are (in general) incredibly poor at talking about their feelings, and the geographic remoteness in which many within the industry find themselves working.

"As someone in the Queensland construction industry who was in a position to influence change, I felt compelled to respond to the challenge.

"QMCA was a particularly effective vehicle to achieve that . . . it could be promoted broadly throughout the membership. But I felt I had to be seen actively embracing it myself; to demonstrate that this was a program that needed an internal platform and made a part of ‘business as usual', rather than a quick flash in the pan.

"So I incorporated Mates into Abigroup's sustainability plan, which ensured it would actually get rolled out on projects.

Instant Return

"One of the striking memories I have of its early impacts was this:  Within 24 hours of rolling out the program on our Northern Busway Alliance project with SMEC and the state's Department of Transport and Main Roads, we had a response from a worker whom had been experiencing suicidal thoughts . . . and who was pretty close to doing something about it.

"Straight away we saw what a positive impact the Mates program can have; it led to an intervention that saved that man's life. It was an instant return that validated, both at a personal level and at a business level, why we were doing it."

Abson says senior executives and industry leaders have a key role to play in the success of Mates within their companies – most especially by making the program and the issue to which it relates, an acceptable subject of conversation at all levels of the organisation.

"You have to normalise it as a topic. That's the secret to cultural acceptance of Mates. Support it with your language, and de-stigmatise it by talking about it regularly and widely within the company.

"It's only in the last few years that society at large is becoming more mature and capable of having open conversations about mental health.

"It's now incumbent upon leaders in the very blokey construction industry to make sure that same level of comfort – or at least acceptance – surrounds the topic in our world. And one of the ways to ensure this is to shun the academic-speak and couch it in the basic language of the construction worker."