The benefits of paid employment go beyond money in the bank. Work can have a significant impact on our psychological wellbeing by fostering self-esteem, inclusion, routine, purpose and identity. However, it can also be a source of psychological distress. Mental health is a critical concern in many male-dominated industries, featuring established risk factors like isolated work, excessive or irregular workloads, poor physical conditions, lack of control, and cultural norms that make men’s mental health difficult to discuss.
It is critical that workers are protected on the job and that their employment doesn’t continue to impact wellbeing out of work hours. In most cases, the responsibility is on the employer to ensure their team has a physically and mentally safe working environment. However, you can still advocate for yourself in the workplace, be aware of the health concerns strongly associated with your industry and do your best to manage the factors affecting wellbeing where possible.
The physical hazards of working in construction are significant but easy to see — high scaffolding, power tools, dangerous materials and heavy vehicle traffic, to name just a few. While there has been a significant reduction in the numbers and rates of injuries and fatalities in the construction industry, it bears a tragic mantle when it comes to mental health and suicide. The construction industry is one of the highest occupational risk groups for suicide, with one death by suicide every second day. Some of the multi-faceted factors underpinning these stats include the physically and mentally demanding nature of the work, project-by-project employment and job insecurity, high workload and unrealistic deadlines. Darren Black, CEO of OzHelp Foundation — a not-for-profit provider of workplace wellbeing programs, specialising in mental health and suicide prevention — says culture is also a critical concern.
“For a long time, construction and the building site culture has been a very macho, male, testosterone-fuelled environment where the attitude is really, 'get on with it, toughen up and if you can’t cut it, then you’re not going to last here',” Black says. “The problems start early with 17, 18, 19-year-old apprentices getting exposed to this stuff.”
These young construction workers are particularly at risk of psychological distress, which has been linked to job stress, bullying1 and the use of ‘avoidance’ coping strategies2. Young construction workers are more than twice as likely to take their own lives as other young Australian men2.
“We’ve just got this very stoic culture in Australia, regrettably, where talking about your feelings and if you’re not doing okay is still highly stigmatised and we need to continue to do what we can to normalise the conversation,” Black says. “Another factor is that a lot of blokes, in particular, are really reluctant to talk about it as they also fear that if they raise that, ‘I’m not doing okay psychologically,’ they’ll lose their job, they won’t get their contract renewed or they’ll miss out on a promotion.”
Entrenched cultures can be hard to shift, but workplaces need to make a start by providing independent, external resources outside of the chain of command to ensure privacy and confidentiality when dealing with mental health concerns. If you’re still reluctant to reach out to internal resources within the business, chat to your GP to organise a Mental Health Treatment Plan which will entitle you to Medicare rebates for up to 20 individual psychological appointments per calendar year.
The transportation industry — which includes moving freight by road, driving buses and taxis — makes up 2% of the Australian workforce. Yet the latest data show that it accounts for 4% of workers’ compensation claims for injuries and diseases involving one or more weeks off work, and 17% of work-related fatalities3.
Long-haul truck driving is a particularly high-risk role, described as one of the unhealthiest and deadliest jobs in the country4 thanks to long, irregular working hours, social isolation, significant time spent sedentary, lack of job control and high job demand. It’s also the number one employer of Australian males5. The work can have both an immediate and long-term impact on mortality — long-haul truck drivers have multiple risk factors (such as smoking, obesity, hypertension, poor diet, lack of exercise, stress and sleep apnoea) that can lead to a catalogue of conditions (such as cardiovascular disease, metabolic disorders and type 2 diabetes), which are associated with increased crash risk and higher mortality risk overall.
The toll on mental health is significant —the Driving Health study found that 50% of drivers reported some level of psychological distress and one in five under 35 reported nearly double the psychological distress compared to the national average6. Working conditions constrain their capacity for good health as well as access to timely and consistent health services. Owner-operators and self-employed drivers don’t have the resources of larger companies to support wellbeing.
“The problem for them is when they’re not driving, they’re not earning an income, and so any time spent in stopping to go to see their GP, to focus more on their own health and wellbeing, is time out of the truck and time where they’re not on the job earning money,” Black says.
The Health in Gear initiative offers guidance and resources tailored to the industry, helping truck drivers to give their health a tune-up while keeping the wheels turning.
“It’s the sort of things that we often overlook or disregard, but it’s what you eat, diet and nutrition, it’s sleep patterns and ensuring you get enough sleep, it’s exercise and ensuring that you’re moving enough and the importance of social connections and networks,” Black says.
While there are risks associated with certain industries, employment practices or work arrangements within those industries can also have disproportionate effects on health and wellbeing. FIFO (fly in/fly out) and DIDO (drive in/drive out) work is one of them, which sees staff “fly in” to work at remote locations away from where they usually live and “fly out” home. Industries that use FIFO/DIDO work include mining, construction and remote service delivery. These roles come with attractive financial benefits, but concerns about their impact on the mental health of workers prompted a 2015 Western Australia Parliamentary Inquiry. A study published in 2018 found 33% of FIFO workers had high or very high psychological distress, double the general population7.
Now in the present study in the context of COVID-19 that number is 41%,” says Dr Jess Gilbert from the Centre for Transformative Work Design at Curtin University. The nature of FIFO work puts the predominantly male workforce at a higher risk of social isolation and relationship strain. The pandemic and subsequent border restrictions have meant extended time on site has taken a greater emotional toll on both workers and their families.
“Restrictions need to be strict enough that workers are safe and workplaces are secure, but not so strict that it harms workers’ mental health through them feeling isolated and controlled,” Dr Gilbert says. “While there are things that can be done at the individual level, such as self-care with good sleep, nutrition and exercise, it is just as important for organisations to provide good work design for FIFO workers that protects them from mental health risks, and enables them to keep socially connected with the important people in their lives.”
Leadership goes a long way
Showing leadership when it comes to workers’ wellbeing is critical, not only from a health perspective but the hip pocket — work-related injury and disease cost the Australian economy $61.8 billion in 2012-138. Building mental health programs into your annual health and safety plans, rather than relying on one-off events, is critical for increasing normalisation and peer support across the workforce. If you’re in a position to influence decisions around workplace wellbeing or be an example to your team, your impact could be powerful.
“What we find is when you get key managers or supervisors to step up and say, ‘We’re putting this program in place for you and we’re participating, I’m participating’ and they step forward and roll up their sleeves and undertake the health check, they actually attend the training sessions, they may even talk about their own experience,” Black says. “When those sorts of stories start to come out, it starts to normalise the conversation and then the rest of the workforce are far more likely to engage in the whole process.”
Consistency is essential for effective engagement of male-dominated workforces.
“Initially, if we show up to do a training session or a tune-up, in all likelihood, probably a low level of response and engagement, but if you show up a second time and a third time, and make it regular, you break down the barriers, you build confidence and trust,” Black says. “The workforce starts to actually believe that the company, the management, are not just treating this as a tick-a-box exercise, but they’re actually invested in it and they’re committed to it then workers are much more likely to get involved and participate in it themselves.”