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Suicide prevention for young workers in the construction industry

Safe Work Month and Mental Health Week 2020

Research has found that young males working in the construction industry in Queensland are at a higher risk of suicide and are twice as likely to take their own lives than other young Australian males.

    Chris Bombolas: Good morning everyone and welcome to our presentation on suicide prevention for young workers in the construction industry. Thanks for joining us and for supporting this year's safe work month. With a host of events scheduled for today, right through until the end of October, I'm Chris Bombolas the media manager for the Office of Industrial Relations and your host for today's discussion.

    We're here to talk about suicide prevention for young workers in the construction industry. Now whether you're a supervisor, apprentice, health and safety representative, or have a loved one working in the construction industry, welcome one and all. I recognize some viewers may find the content of this discussion distressing. If you or someone you know, is looking for support or help contact triple 0 immediately if it's an emergency. Or Lifeline's 24 hour hotline on 13 11 14.

    Sadly young males working in the construction industry in Queensland are at a higher risk of suicide and are twice as likely to take their own life than other young Australian males. These are frightening statistics, and we all have an important role to play in turning this around. It can be prevented. Today we're going to talk about what's going on in the construction industry and the unique risk factors for young workers that are contributing to this over-representation.

    To explore and discuss these issues, as well as give you practical strategies you can use in your workplace to support young workers, I'm joined by CEO of Mates in Construction in Queensland, Jorgen Gullestrup. Mates in Construction is a mental health and suicide prevention program designed for the building and construction industry. Jorgen is a suicide survivor and brought this lived experience and his background as a construction worker to the design of the Mates Program. Welcome Jorgen and thanks for being with us here today.

    Jorgen Gullestrup: Thank you for having me, Chris.

    Chris Bombolas: Pleasure. Jorgen tell us a bit about yourself and why you were inspired to start such an invaluable community organization like Mates in Construction.

    Jorgen Gullestrup: Well, about this time you probably worked out that this accent is not Australian. So I was born in Denmark and I'm a plumber by trade. I developed a mental illness when doing my apprenticeship and I survived suicide. And I actually arrived in Australia as part of my recovery to reinvent myself as a working person. And in Australia I did what migrants do so well, I told Australians everything you did wrong and why you should do things more like we do Denmark. So the natural progression was to become a union official. And through that I was a union official for 13 years and I lost several mates to suicide, and that was an experience that other people in similar roles to myself had, and we started talking about is this right? Is this just what our industry is like, should we accept this?

    And it led to the industry saying, we need to get some research done. And then we partnered up and we got some research and that actually showed us that suicide rates, amongst workers in the industry were particularly high and particularly amongst young workers, it was very high. So we got that report and we sat down and we looked and said somebody should be doing something about it. And somebody never turned up and we realized maybe somebody was us. And that was the start of Mates in Construction was the industry simply said, "We can't, we can't accept this to go on. This is not okay and we have to make a difference." And that became the start for Mates in Construction. We were funded by the Building Employees Redundancy Trust to just go out and find out what can we actually do as construction workers to make a difference to this.

    Chris Bombolas: Your experiences, both in life and work and your passion and the work of Mates is invaluable to the industry. As well as that passion, as you've touched on this, putting a lot of research over the years to help shape programs like Mates. A report released earlier this year, showed some very alarming statistics about high rates of suicide and suicidal thoughts for construction apprentices. Can you tell us about that report, a little more about it and what were the goals of the study and who were they actually targeting?

    Jorgen Gullestrup: Yeah, so we've been working in this industry since 2008 now. And we've been going through that and we're talking to workers on site about how we look out for each other's and our mental health and how we approach people who are struggling. We've also been going to apprentices and providing them life skills training so how do we actually deal with relationships and drugs and alcohol and all of those kinds of things. And we came to a point where we said, perhaps we need to just have a look at that again, is that the right approach? And we got this brilliant idea that perhaps a starting point was to actually talk to apprentices about what they were experiencing before we started designing something for them.

    Chris Bombolas: Fair enough.

    Jorgen Gullestrup: So we conducted a number of focus groups and we got apprentices together and asked open questions about what makes it difficult at work. What makes it hard to get it to work in the morning? And what came back was very overwhelmingly that a lot of bullying was often an issue that apprentices felt powerless in dealing with. They felt that they had one go at getting their apprenticeship, and if they spoke up about the circumstances they were finding themselves in, perhaps they wouldn't be able to complete their education.

    So we got that back and said, well, they didn't tell us much about doing life skills, but it certainly told us that there was some issues we needed to understand better if we wanted it to be serious about suicide prevention in the construction industry. And with that, we then went back to Griffith university who did the focus group studies for us and said, we need to understand this better and we designed this study where we went out to close to 1500 apprentices and asked into all the things we had uncovered through those focus groups and said, what is your experience about bullying? We asked them directly, have you experienced bullying? And we asked them indirectly about whether you have been exposed to the kind of circumstances which would equate to bullying. So that's the background to that report.

    Chris Bombolas: Yes. And we will link to that report at the end of this event for our digital viewers, and on our website for those who want to read it a little later. What were some of the topics covered in the survey? And then there is a hesitancy to speak out. Were they happy to speak out in a survey situation?

    Jorgen Gullestrup: Yes, there were. I want to say two things because the construction industry is a great industry. It's a fantastic place to live and we're creative and all that and so it's very easy when we talk about mental health and suicide to think doom and gloom and it's all bad. Well, the survey first, it told that by far most apprentices had a good experience. More than 70 per cent of the apprentices felt that they were well supported, we're supervised, we're respected by the employer. So what we are talking about is what's happening for minority apprentices in, but a significant minority.

    Chris Bombolas: Yeah. And we can't forget about them, can we?

    Jorgen Gullestrup: No, we can't forget about them and we need to address them because they're the ones who are in crisis, but I don't want to beat up the industry because the industry is actually a good place to be. More than 30 per cent of the apprentices had experienced some kind of bullying. So when we asked directly, about 30per cent, when we asked indirectly about the type of things, which would indicate bullying it was actually even higher.

    A lot of the apprentices who had experienced bullying had significant, really poor mental health. 13 per cent of them actually had poor mental health to such a degree that it would qualify for a diagnosis of severe mental illness. And more than 30 per cent of them had so low social wellbeing, that it would qualify for a depression diagnosis. So we are a saying a significant part of the industry are not thriving. Big part of them are, but a significant minority is not thriving.

    And the other bit that we found out, we asked them, have you thought about suicide over the last 12 months? Is that something that have come to your mind? And really concerning to me was that more than 30 per cent of the apprentices had actually had thoughts of suicide within the last 12 months. That makes sense, because we also find that the age profile for suicide in our industry is significantly younger than it is for other men in Australia.

    So it actually tells us that within our industry, there's some things happening that means that young workers are not thriving as well as they should. Young workers actually become ill because of what's happening. And some people actually die because of what's happening. And we have to do better than that. As a construction worker, we can not accept that I don't think employers accept that , I don't think unions accept it. This is not okay.

    Chris Bombolas: Yeah. That isn't alarming statistic. And let's go through that again, that 30 per cent of apprentices surveyed almost one in three, indicated having suicidal thoughts within the last 12 months. So that is a damning stat in itself. Suicidal thoughts among the Australian population in general is 2.3 per cent. So you can see that's almost what 14 times greater. And we're talking about 30 per cent for the construction apprentices. Based on this study, why is the rate so high?

    Jorgen Gullestrup: It's a difficult one. I think in a lot of ways, when you think about it, the apprentices have one shot at it. Like it's difficult to get an apprenticeship now and finding someone to take you on and all that. So when you get in there and it doesn't live up to your expectations, asking for help can be really difficult because you think it might actually impact on, and for some people it will impact on their apprenticeship, but it this better to get out of an apprenticeship than not survive it. So for a lot of the apprentices, they fear that they're not actually capable of speaking up.

    Chris Bombolas: So they not only don't speak up, they feel as though it would be against them career-wise, to actually say something.

    Jorgen Gullestrup: When we did the focus groups, we spoke to one particular apprentice who talked about having a nail gun pointed at his head and threatened to be shot. This young fellow had worked with that tradesman before, and was working with that tradesman two or three months afterwards. That's not okay. That is a physical assault. People need to be prosecuted for that. But for a young person to stay in that environment actually tells us what the odds are for them. And so it's a real concern. We have to be better at that as a community.

    Chris Bombolas: So, what's going on with our young construction workers that it's having such a massive impact on their mental health? Why are they putting so much pressure mentally on themselves?

    Jorgen Gullestrup: The interesting thing we found from the study was that the youngest worker, 'cause often when we talk about this, it's like a transition from school to work, and it's about trying to find your feet in the industry. The youngest workers, the 17 to 18 year olds were actually the ones who had the best mental health. And it was the apprentices who have been in the apprenticeship a little bit longer who were struggling the more. So if perhaps when some of the reality and some of the day to day stuff starts kicking in that this... Mental health and suicide is not that straightforward. When we talk about other workplace health and safety issues, we can see whether the hammer is missing, we can see whether the penetration is not covered. We take mental health with us, from home to work, we take all our life with us in terms of our mental health and that impacts on how we deal with things. And then something happens to us at work that either makes it worse or better and stuff. So it's not so much.

    Chris Bombolas: It's not an individual thing it's a combination.

    Jorgen Gullestrup: We can't put a ban or we can't say don't do that anymore. We just have to be more aware of it. And we have to actually start building more supportive work environments where we speak up, we are not bystanders, we don't accept it, we actually take responsibility for what we see when it happens to other people.

    Chris Bombolas: Again, you mentioned it earlier, we don't want to bash the construction industry, but the results and the stats are clearly concerning. And there is, from my point of view, and I think there would be others that would say the same thing, a bullying culture. And it's a real issue within the industry. Can you explain what is bullying and what bullying is not? And give us some examples. I remember at one stage, I think it was one of a friend of our son, an apprentice, came home and explained the day he was gaffer-taped in front of his peers and every apprentice that was their initiation.

    And this is the difficult part of it because we might've done things for yonks and it's just been part of what we do as an industry. It's actually what makes this industry great, we have a fairly reverend way of dealing with things and our own language, our own way of doing things, so this is actually, we don't want to lose that. That's what makes us construction workers. That's what makes us who we are. What is important about bullying is how is it actually received? It's about checking in with the person, was this actually funny? Like in my own time, I went through that. I was covered in grease and I was nailed to the work bench and all those kinds of things that would be unacceptable today. Culture have moved on and we have to be prepared for that. We also have to be prepared for the fact that as an industry, the apprentices we have today are different to the apprentices we were when we went through. when I went through our dropped out of school halfway through grade nine, because I went on strike, I was not going to do any more schoolwork and the only way I was going to make anything was to get.

    Chris Bombolas: Use the hands.

    Jorgen Gullestrup: And that was what I did and that's how I got into it. When you look at a lot of appendices today, we have done year 12, got a driver's license, have done pre-vocations. They're actually very well prepared. So to expect them to accept what I accepted as a 15 year old is not right. And that is actually what is bullying? What is bullying is when we repeat some behaviours on and on, and it's not received as fun. So bullying is defined by the receiver, not by the giver.

    Chris Bombolas: Could I then put it in simple terms? Perhaps one generations joke or fun is another generation's bully.

    Jorgen Gullestrup: Absolutely, absolutely. It was so many different things in life. When I came to Australia in 1988, I would have lit up a smoke and we would have had a smoke. Now we don't do that anymore. The things that changes over time, and this is one of them, we just have to get on board with it.

    Chris Bombolas: Work environment and the culture obviously have a huge impact on apprentices. We'll talk in a minute about how workplaces employers, supervisors and young workers can start to address these issues. But first I want to talk a little bit about other factors that affect how young people operate in the workplace. There are a number of characteristics that are unique to younger workers compared to other workers. Can you tell us about them?

    Jorgen Gullestrup: I think we have to be like it takes a while for us to a great experience, but even just physically developing like we have a different perspective of risk when you are 17, 18, 19, 20, and that's often why young workers get into as much trouble as they do. So we have different, and we need to allow for that. We have different levels of development, even though that we employ at our people and they are young adult people. So there are certain things about that that we need to have a little bit of extra care around and just be aware that we don't have the full picture and we don't have the full experience.

    But I also think that we need to accept that we don't have the same power. When I've been in the trade, I've supervised I've been, got along with, I lose my job. It's another six months and I get another one if it's really bad. We don't have, so we actually need to really be prepared to be nurturing around the younger people. We actually need to be prepared to check in with them and say, how's this actually going with? Is that all right? And you know, was that fun? Are you thriving in your opinions? Are you getting what out of it, what you want, because that's why there isn't it?

    Chris Bombolas: And I guess the old days of, the supervisor disappearing going, working in another section, leaving the young apprentice unsupervised all day, not checking in until the end of the day is really risky and probably something that we could leave behind from yester year.

    Jorgen Gullestrup: Both in terms of physical risk, in terms of mental risk, but also in terms of actually teaching, their apprentice is particularly there to learn and that requires supervision.

    Chris Bombolas: So if you're a young worker in your team, or if you have a young worker in your team, no matter what size business or what year they are into their apprenticeship, understanding these attributes should be a starting point to help them develop and gain experience and confidence as Jorgen has told us. There is a great toolkit on our website, the young worker safety toolkit that helps employers understand these characteristics and encourages action in the workplace to build the capabilities of supervisors, managers and of course, those young workers. If a young worker is less likely to speak up or recognize safety risks, and they are being bullied or experiencing some personal struggles on top of that, it is really easy to see how it can affect their mental wellbeing. And the events of this year are adding even more pressure onto our apprentices. How has COVID-19 impacted on the industry and in particular young workers, Jorgen?

    Jorgen Gullestrup: This has been a tough time, hasn't it? And I think that we are still going towards an even tougher time to come and that's really concerning. And often the younger workers are perhaps the most vulnerable workers in the industry because when businesses start downsizing and starting to do what they have to do to survive a very difficult climate, you do what you have to do and you maintain your assets, and perhaps a lot of the apprentices would be in a difficult and a vulnerable position. But I also think that it's going through this period we've had, we need to really focus on what is it actually people need, rather than... One of the things we really experienced in Mates as the COVID crisis hit was that the construction industry is a face to face industry. We don't read a lot, we don't write a lot. We talk and we interact and stuff like that. When we started to self isolate and socially isolate and start shutting down, for instance, we found that a lot of workers, our case management within Mates increased. More and more workers actually came forward and said, I need some support now because I'm struggling. We try to refer them through to counselling, which we often do, but the counselling was only offered online or by video, and it meant that although that the need for the service through case management actually increased, our counselling delivery actually decreased because people couldn't get the service in the way that was actually appropriate to their culture. So I think that when we particularly talk to young workers, but talk to the industry, we can't just have one say, this fits you. We have different cultural context, and what works in a white collar type scenario will not work in a blue collar type scenario where we come with different history and different background.

    Jorgen Gullestrup: In the midst of a pandemic, what are the emerging issues that are faced by young apprentices, young workers? 'Cause we should say that there are also older apprentices who are not experienced. So they're in the same boat. They might be a little wiser as far as their headspace is concerned, but they lack experience as far as work is concerned. And how are they affecting their mental health? Like there's gotta be a juggling thing.

    Chris Bombolas: Well this is a really worrying trend. What came very early because we were fortunate when, fortunate as you can say in the pandemic, but when the crisis hit, the construction industry was able to continue working as an essential service. So as workers, we went to work and it took a little while for us as an industry to work out how to do this differently and safety and all that. So a worker went to work at a time when everything was shutting down and people starting working from home, people were withdrawing school was closing, and we are worried about our families, just like everybody else. And we went to the same work sites and often worked in the same areas, in the same lunchrooms and stuff like that.

    So you have that sort of stuff where service was withdrawing from us. There was almost a, am I putting my family at risk? And what happens if our industry have an outbreak, am I going to be stood down before job keep? And all those kinds of things came in. Can I bring it home. So all of those kinds of things were really big issues. So what we found in Mates in Construction was a lot of the focus on the preventative that work we're doing through training people and making people supportive of each other in terms of giving them the skills, that shut down, because that was sort of not the absolutely most important thing. And we then had to found other ways to say, how do we actually get out to workers, where they are in a way in a place where they're comfortable to connect with us where we can actually do it face to face, so we can do it in a way that we are more comfortable because asking for help is hard.

    Chris Bombolas: It is difficult.

    Jorgen Gullestrup: It is hard. It's a, I remember when we first started Mates in Construction and we'd been doing it for a few years and I was going through a separation and life happens to us, doesn't it. So I was moving into this little unit and I was having a dark night and I thought, well, you know, I've handed out 10,000 pins with phone numbers saying seek help. So I wasn't going to call my number because I didn't really want to talk to myself, but I thought I've got to call the men's helpline.

    So I called them and so, I hung up three times before I had the guts to stay on the line for somebody who actually answered the phone on the other end. That gives me an enormous respect for somebody to have the guts, to reach out and say, I'm not coping. I'm not all right. Like I was in the business of telling people to do this. So it actually means to me that what we need to do is we don't need to tell people to reach out for help. We need to reach into them. We need to say, how are you going, Chris? What's going on for you?

    Chris Bombolas: Mobile devices get such a bad rap these days that they're overused. Can they be used as a tool to get to people? To reach out to people that could be potentially struggling?

    Jorgen Gullestrup: Of course they can, but we have to be careful that they don't just become a cheaper way of doing what we're doing otherwise it's not necessarily the most effective way. What is effective is what often happens to us when we are in crisis is we keep a stiff upper lip. We keep going because, and often we will go to work because that's where so much of our hope sits our ability to earn a crust and deliver.

    Chris Bombolas: But it's also the Aussie attitude. You keep going.

    Jorgen Gullestrup: You keep going.

    Trudge through it. And we'll try to keep it together. And we do our very best and it's a little bit like balancing, you know, but we are not very good at it. So actually, so what happens is that we're much more like, you are much more likely to pick up when I'm struggling if you know me. If we're together then. So it's about saying, how do we actually have that language where you can actually offer help to me, offer support to me, say "Chris, that's not you. You're normally chatty, you're normally all of these kinds of things, and you're not today. That's not you, but how do it? We can do that. And then what happens for me, who's in a crisis, who trying to keep it together, who reaching out for help is really difficult because part of reaching out for help is to admit that I'm not in control of my own life. And I'm a fixer and I'm supposed to fix stuff when it's broken. And I can't fix my life. Somebody actually reads into me, that means that I have enough value to you for you to actually notice me. And we've already taken the first step.

    Chris Bombolas: It is such a complex issue with a lot of factors influencing the outcomes for young workers. We know that every employer must have systems in place to help and support workers. What are the basics for a system to successfully manage mental health risks in construction particularly.

    Jorgen Gullestrup: I think this is a great way of coming at it. There's two ways we can look at this. We want to create mental wellbeing in the workplace, absolutely, because having a healthy workplace is a good workplace, but we also want to manage risk, is two things we need to do. Managing risks is the law, creating wellbeing as a really good thing as well. So we need to have systems in place to do that in the construction industry and maintenance construction is part of the systems. We've developed the blueprint for better mental health and suicide prevention, which is a document that is supported bi-partisan across the industry at a national level that can give employers some guidelines and support about what is the practical ways of actually creating a mentally healthier workplace in your particular workplace. In terms of Mates in Construction what would be? The basics of it for us is, a good way to manage risk is actually to put a system of early detection in place. So it'd be better if we can get to a point where we stop people getting in crisis, that's a big ask, but if we at least could pick up when people are in crisis and connect them to help as early as possible, we will save lives. So what we do in Mates in Construction, we get onto a work site, we have a one hour conversation with everybody on site. We talk about what the issue of suicide and mental health look like as an industry. But it's our problem, it's a problem we have as an industry, employers, workers, government, everybody, and we have to solve it together. How do we need to fix it? We need to fix it by look out for each other. What does it look like when one of our mates are struggling. How do we pick it up? How do you start a conversation around that? How do you connect people up to help? So it takes about an hour. Everybody get a white sticker, white sticker on the heart had the means that on this site, we have a social contract around this.

    Keep being reminded this is what we're doing. We get volunteers from there, and somewhere between 20 to 30 per cent volunteers, we go back to the employer and we try to train a minimum of one in 20 of the workers, as we call connectors, they get a green sticker. They get a four hour session where we talk about how do you actually start a conversation about mental health and suicide, and how do you motivate people to accept help? And then we have key workers on site, which get a blue sticker. We haven't got a lot of imagination when it comes to stickers, we just change the colour. But they get a blue sticker and they get applied suicide intervention skills training. So when somebody is at risk, how do we actually give them that first aid that makes them safe for now? And when you think about it, this is what we do about safety.

    I've been in the industry for 30 years. I have done safety induction on every single site. I have done 30, 40, 50 safety inductions in my career. And let me tell you, they have a lot of similarities in them, but we keep doing it every site, because we want to remind you that this is what we do, this is a social contract and it's a site around safety, general awareness training is at. I go onsite, they would have people I go to, if their handlers are missing, there'll be the safety committee or the Workplace Health and Safety officer. We have connectors. I have a heart attack on site, I will trust a builder's labourer to give him CPR. Absolutely prefer if he doesn't do the open heart surgery, but CPR, yep, here and now.

    Chris Bombolas: He got good hands.

    Jorgen Gullestrup: But and the same thing with mental health, if people don't get that lifesaving support when they are at risk, many people will not make it to the professional support they need.

    Chris Bombolas: I would guess that's particularly pertinent when they're trying to reach out. If they do not get that immediately, it could be your scenario where you have hung up three times before you actually engage in that conversation.

    Jorgen Gullestrup: Absolutely.

    Chris Bombolas: The report, as we've spoken about mentions key factors such as stress levels, attitudes to their own mental health and drug and alcohol use and abuse as other factors contributing to poor mental health. And we've spoken about the impacts of COVID-19 on young workers. Managers may not understand that their young workers need development to manage these issues as well. What can be done to support these other factors? So we are talking about the other stuff now.

    Jorgen Gullestrup: Absolutely. So the first thing is we have the best possible work environment. The other bit is to be as prepared for that work environment as well, but it comes in that order because we can teach resilience to apprentices but if we don't provide the right environment for them, it's an unfair skill to give them, to be honest.

    Chris Bombolas: They can't use it.

    Jorgen Gullestrup: We can't use it because they need to have a receptive work environment to apply that resilience in. But there's of course stuff we know that when you come straight out of school, how do you have relationships? What is expected of you at work? What is your rights and duties at work? Suddenly you get a pay packet, with a pay packet come a risk of using that pay packet and so what does that mean for drug and alcohol? How do we actually have a healthy relationship to drugs and alcohol? How do we deal with crisis? There's lots of skills that we actually know can really equip people for that. So Mates in Construction provide a life skills package for apprentices that give them some of those life skills tools, part of it. But these are the type of things we can actually give apprentices that equipment to better deal with issues as they come up.

    Chris Bombolas: To make them make better decisions to put it in that kind of frame when they are confronted with difficult decisions to make.

    Jorgen Gullestrup: Absolutely. How do you have a framework for making good decisions? How do you get the right advise?

    Chris Bombolas: Thanks Jorgen there are some great practical ideas there for employers and supervisors and of course the young apprentices themselves, the solution is not one dimensional, as we've mentioned before, it won't work with just one of these strategies. So it's an overarching strategy really. Work places must have a system in place to manage mental health risks, that means creating a positive culture, driven by leadership, good, positive leadership, intervening early. That was one key message that Jorgen mentioned earlier, early intervention, nice and early and supporting recovery. So it's a threefold system that we need to employ.

    We have to invest time and resources to get educated, shift the culture and create a supportive work environment. There are two presentations on our website, one for supervisors, and one for young workers that stepped through leadership workplace, culture, risk management, work design, and some suggested action you can take immediately to better understand and support young workers. We'll have a link to those at the end of this event and I strongly encourage supervisors and apprentices to check them out. As you said, checking in regularly should be a part of the workplace system, Jorgen, but what do we need to be aware of when doing these check-ins? What are some of the warning signs? Because we are not experts in psychology and people skills, warning signs that somebody is not coping, that they're struggling a bit, and ultimately may lead them to suicidal thoughts.

    Jorgen Gullestrup: I think the three things we really need to be aware of around the people, so people might go through life situations, so often what happens, life happens to us. And so it could be a separation, could be a death of a loved one, lots of things that happen, often things that are about a loss. So somebody in your work environment having a loss of something, maybe a job, maybe financial security, maybe health. That's a starting point because something I had that I no longer, how I'm going to cope without them? What's happened and we start ruminating then we try to keep the business as normal because we don't, when you, you know, I don't really want to burden everybody else with my problems and I got nothing and all of those kinds of things that sits with it. So the next thing we're looking for is change of behaviour.

    Somebody who sort of normally, entirely becomes a bit quiet. Somebody who's normally quiet, becomes overly chatty. So we are looking for change and behaviour, something that's a little bit out of the ordinary, again that doesn't tell us that somebody is suicidal I think it just tells us that something is different. We add that to the fact that we know whether they've had some sort of loss. The last bit is that we have a gut feeling because sometimes we just know, yeah we do. But often, what happens is when we know the things that we sort of just feel is that we dismiss it. We don't dismiss it because we don't care, but we dismiss it because we are worried about not knowing what to do.

    So what we are saying is really what we are going for those three things is knowing that somebody have had a loss or some significant change to their life, noticing that there's some sort of change in behaviour one way or another, going on that gut feeling that tells us that it's time to pay some attention. What we then encourage people to do is to say, call out what it is you're seeing. So Chris I know that you are going through those troubles at home, and I've noticed that you're certainly biting my head off without any good reason whatsoever. And that gives me that sort of feeling that not all is right. Is that all right? Oh yeah, yeah, it's all right. It's fine, no problem. Well, is it really? So what we're trying to do is trying to give people the most possible room to actually allow.

    Chris Bombolas: So an opportunity for them to open up is basically what.

    Jorgen Gullestrup: And remembering that most people hang up three times before they have the guts to stay on the line. So give people plenty of room and be a bit probing and asking questions into it because people know that you're doing it from a position of care, and they're just testing you out, saying can actually trust you enough to go into this area, which is about stigma and not coping and all those kinds of things. And for you as a helper, be really upfront. So when I see this, I'm worried, could this be about suicide? Are you worried about suicide or? Oh no, no, no, I'm just going through a tough time. Oh yeah, that's all right, but let's get some help anyway.

    Chris Bombolas: If a supervisor, peer friend or family member is worried about someone and has noticed some of the warning signs that you've spoken about, how can they approach this? How do we just open that door slightly ajar?

    Jorgen Gullestrup: It's about asking those questions and about calling out what you're seeing, offering people and ask the question. We asked the question. We have to recognize that the person was struggling is the one doing the hard work. They're the one who's hanging up on the phone. So it means that what we need to do is we need to ask questions in a way that shows that we are as comfortable as possible with the topic.

    This is why we really think it's important to have connectors and assist workers or people who have these basic skills that are comfortable this is actually know what to do about this. But even if you don't keep a phone number handy, and ask anyway, because what happens is when you're talking to people, they're not acting on their thoughts, they actually engaging with you and that's a good thing. And what we have to remember, because part often we shy away from this. There's a whole heap of professionalism around mental health that you have to be doctors and of course they know what they're doing, but when somebody is struggling, their choice is not between the best qualified doctor and you it's between you and nothing. And even bumbling and making mistakes and asking the wrong questions, the wrong way is better than nothing. That's what we know from the statistics.

    Chris Bombolas: There's no doubt it can be hard to initiate that conversation, but it could be life changing and I'll put this to you from your perspective, as someone who's been at both ends of the spectrum, wouldn't it be better to have asked the question and put your size 10 boots in your mouth and there's nothing really happening, than not have asked the questions at all, and something happens to Fred, your co-worker, and you regret that for the rest of your life?

    Jorgen Gullestrup: Absolutely. I think one of the things, two things I want to say here first is we live our life forward. So quite often, when we talk about these things, we look back as that would have, should have, could have, and some people who might be watching this might have lost to suicide and then start asking well, should I have. No we can only live forward, we can do things differently.

    We can't change what happened to us in the past, but going forward, I want people to think about, if you are asking somebody about suicide and about their mental health and they are okay, what's the worst thing that could happen. The worst thing that could happen is that you have showed them, you care, and you have a bit of an awkward laughter and you move on. If you take the choice, not to ask somebody about what's going on with them, and they are suicidal, the worst thing that could happen is you can actually lose a mate. So if you're weighing up the risk between losing a mate and having a bit of an awkward situation with someone, I know what I will take.

    Chris Bombolas: Sobering thoughts and thank you for opening up about that, because that is an awkward situation that many of us would rather avoid, than actually go through. We have young workers and apprentices watching today, Jorgen, as well as supervisors. So I'd like to put out a couple of scenarios for you to work through with me and get some advice out about how to manage these situations.

    These are generic, and let's call our young worker this time, Mike, for scenario one, he's in his second year of a structural apprenticeship with a medium-sized business, right? So that paints the picture of where he's at. He's recently moved out of his parents' home and he's now got a bit of financial stress. So that's a stress he didn't have previously, he's got that now with bills starting to get on top of him. It especially hits home at the end of every weekend, after going out with these mates, living it up over the weekend, and it makes him feel like absolute crap, right? Since he started his second year there are a couple of older workers who put him down daily. The all typical scenario, you'll never make it in this industry, give up now, before you embarrass yourself, and it goes on. It's been happening for months and with the stress from home and his new living situation, he's feeling really down. He wants to give up, Mike talks to his supervisor who tells him to, "Toughen up mate". Just harden up, you'll get over it, come on. And it's just part of the gig.

    Obviously there's poor support and a breakdown in the relationships in this workplace. Perhaps the supervisor's not skilled at all, doesn't want to go through the conversation, what should Mike do? He's been left, hung out on, you know, left out on a limb.

    Jorgen Gullestrup: It's difficult.

    What happens with these kinds of things is when we have all of the things going on, it becomes like knot. One thing is tied in with another and it seems like, it all becomes one big problem where like a bowl of spaghetti, how do you sort it out? It's completely all over the place and how do you deal with it? It's hard because reaching out for help is also very difficult. It is important however to find that help somewhere. So yeah, at a very simple level call a helpline. Be prepared to hang up in somebody will you know, just sometimes we just have to do things that are difficult.

    What it often helps you with to talk to somebody else as you start being able to separate things out bit by bit. I remember one of the biggest things that I ever learned in my biggest crisis, and perhaps one of the things that kept me alive was to breathe. Simple thing as to breathe when all of those kinds of things hit me for once, and it was like, I felt like I was exploding. Taking a deep breath and be conscious of inhaling and exhaling, and suddenly I felt a level of control over what I was feeling, which was really. So what can we say? Well, you can go to the people who are having a go, what you will, maybe that will help maybe it will not help actually.

    Perhaps the best thing is to do, to actually find somebody to talk to. Mates in Construction is they're 24/7 1300 642 111. And there would always be somebody who can come down and just have that conversation. How do we breathe? How do you deal with one thing at a time? How do we actually sort it out? Maybe this apprenticeship is for you, maybe it's not for you, but let's not make decisions when everything is rambling. Let's make decisions when we can actually see things, one thing at a time.

    Chris Bombolas: And I'll share something personally for me in my situation, when I had a crisis in my life, and you've sought professional help, and you've had some guidance, what seems like an insurmountable problem, then suddenly you have a new aspect to it. It's not as bad as you think it is.

    Jorgen Gullestrup: It's an interesting thing when you engage in counselling. In some ways, it can be a really disappointment because you think that somebody's going to come and tell you all the solutions to your problem, no. People just teach you some skills to actually sort your own problems out. And you actually, because you're going to be your own driver on this and make decisions.

    Chris Bombolas: Look, I think it's so important for workers in this situation to know what is happening is wrong and they can take action. That's a very important, basic factor. So sticking with this scenario, you're going to watch, should the supervisor have done differently?

    Jorgen Gullestrup: This is much more, because this is actually where we can do something in terms of the environment in some ways. This apprentice is exposed to a hazard at work, and we know how we deal with hazards at work, and we follow the hierarchy of control. We do a risk assessment and they'll be quite clear if you did that in those circumstances as a supervisor, you would know that you would actually have a duty to intervene and you have a duty to deal with this. One other things is awareness. I don't think that, being around in this industry for 20 or 30 years or for 30 years at least. I haven't met too many bad people. Like I've met thoughtless people, I've met people who are all over the place, but I've actually, I haven't met anyone to say let me go out and hurt people. Let me go out and injure people because that's what I feel like today. Nobody wakes up today and say, I'm going to be a bastard today. It's not how we work.

    Sometimes it's all actually about awareness. Like, actually going to people say, what is bullying? What is the real impact of bullying actually? What does that mean for people exposed to bullying and stuff? My guess is that those tradesmen who puts Mike down, they're repeating what they're repeating and they're doing it because they thought that's the way you bring apprentices up. One of the things that was really frightening when we got the report in 2006, the AISRAP report that was the foundation. The focus groups amongst tradesmen was to say that tradesmen almost felt that bullying of apprentices was a duty because it was about hardening them up for the industry. Well, I don't want to work in an industry where you have to be hardened up.

    Chris Bombolas: And it's been passed down the line hasn't it. It happened to me, so I'm going to take it out on the young guy.

    Jorgen Gullestrup: We have to break the chain.

    Chris Bombolas: And look, it does come back to having that system in place. Supervisors need to be proactive and show strong leadership to call out inappropriate behaviour and support young workers through tough times. Alright let's move on to scenario two. This time we'll call our apprentice Jose. Jose is a fourth year apprentice, and he's been working on a large commercial project. He's got a couple of good mates on site and they catch up outside of work as well for a bit of social time. Jose's mate told him that some of the other workers had been playing pithy, practical jokes on him, belittling him and threatening him to end his apprenticeship if he told anyone about it, so he's sworn to secrecy, he couldn't tell anyone.

    While he was always up for a laugh, the joke had gone way too far, he said it was happening so regularly now that he hated going to work. That's a bad place to be in for a start. Jose noticed his friend withdrawing from their social circle, drinking more, even blowing up at one of their friends for no real reason at all. He knew his friend was struggling. What steps should Jose take to help his mate? And he wants to help him.

    Jorgen Gullestrup: The first thing is to make sure that Jose is safe so that we actually need to work out. It's not uncommon for people who are exposed to that to think that their own life has no value anymore to them. So the starting point is actually talk about mental health and suicide. Say already I've noticed all of these things you're telling me about all of that, that you're being exposed to this at work, that's hard. Sometimes when people are going through that much, they are actually thinking about ending their own life. They think they can't go through it is that what's going on. Well, we then ask if that is the case, then listen, hear the story about that because what's happening at work is things that's happening to you. What happens with suicide is what you feel about it.

    So we actually say, what do you actually feel about it? Because often when we connect with what we feel about these kinds of things, we become a lot less certain, we become a lot more confused about it and then we then start saying, well, actually, perhaps we are not so certain about what's going on now. Maybe we should just give it a rest. Maybe we should just stay safe for now and just move on and perhaps we can do some things at least with that. At the end of the day, this plan belongs to Jose because he would know whether this it actually drives him.

    So we then start talking about, okay, how can we deal with this? Is there anyone who could potentially help you with this? Can you talk to your supervisor? Can you talk to a counsellor? Can you talk to your union? Can you talk to a co-worker on site? What sort of resources have you have? But Jose and the mate would actually work that out together. What is often the temptation Chris is that you tell me about a problem, I know exactly what it is because I've been through it myself. And I said, what you need to do is you need to go and talk to your supervisor and then you need to talk to your mom and dad and then you need to call this meeting and do it by tomorrow. When we do it this way, you have absolutely no investment in this. And you don't want to be told what to do. So what we are saying to people is what we want to do is we want to connect with people and how they feel about. Help people realize that it's not that clear as you see it and let's work a plan up together about how we actually deal with it.

    Chris Bombolas: It is quite a common scenario, I think for the industry where apprentices become the brunt of the jug, as I mentioned at the beginning of a program where it's not having a laugh or just a joke, it's important for apprentices to realize this is actually bullying and it's not okay. If you're experiencing something like this or you see it happening in your workplace, there are actions you can take as Jorgen has mentioned, to call this unacceptable behaviour out. So call it straightaway, call it ‘I don’t appreciate it.’ Supervisors for you, you need to act when these scenarios are brought to your attention, don't put it under the carpet, don't put it in the too hard basket, progress it, move it act on it. Hopefully these examples have given our apprentices some tools and resources and a bit of confidence so that they can understand when to speak out, when to speak up, how to speak up and where they can go, if they aren't well supported in the workplace, there are alternatives.

    Again, if I can refer you to a couple of resources on our website, there are two films called "The Right Start" that play through some scenarios with young workers in construction and give a great insight into the role and influence supervisors and managers have. Go and view the films, show them to your workers and be a positive influence. Maybe we can then just change everybody's attitude and the why they react and act. Finally, Jorgen, you've worked with the industry on suicide prevention for a long, long time. And the Mates program is recognized globally for what it's done and what it is doing and what it's going to do in the future. Can you tell us about some of the progress you have seen in the industry? And you said you didn't want to bash the construction industry, here's a chance to talk it up again. Has there been some positive change, particularly in the mental health space?

    Jorgen Gullestrup: Absolutely. I think this is probably one of the, when you're working things from day to day, it's easy that you can't actually see the big picture because you're in the middle of the reeds. But when I look back to what the industry, how the industry was looking at this topic in 2008 and, or look at the conversations we're having today, it has become better. We know that the suicide rates have been falling, the relative risk of suicide has been coming down. We can't claim any sort of causal relationship with that, but certainly things are getting better.

    The fact that we are having discussions about general mental health and wellbeing in the workplace now was not discussed as we had in 2008. So we are moving in the right direction, we are taking on board and people are actually driving and thriving on taking this on board as their issue. So I think that we come a long way. I still think that we got a way to go, but this is actually one of the things that I think is really encouraging. The construction industry we have a long history of taking big issues on board, and we often have this view of the industry as being this sort of, you know, confrontations placed with all of those kinds of things. We actually have a long history as an industry of taking big issues on collectively as an industry and dealing with them and making a difference. And I think that over time we look back at mental health and suicide prevention. This was one of those issues we actually tackled as a united industry to make a difference because we just couldn't accept it.

    Chris Bombolas: We should be proud of it.

    Jorgen Gullestrup: We should be proud of it, absolutely.

    Chris Bombolas: Absolutely. And it shows that we can change attitudes, we can change trends and ultimately we can change culture. We can minimize the risks and reduce the rates of suicide for young workers in construction. We simply must and we can't stop. Even though you've said, we're moving in the right direction, Jorgen, we have to keep going. Just before you go, can you give us your top three or four actions that supervisors and their apprentices can take away from today? We've had a big, long discussion about the issue and the trends, but what are some practical tips, three or four of those they can take away from today's program?

    Jorgen Gullestrup: I think, firstly we need to increase understanding of bullying in the workplace, not just for apprentices, but also for us as tradesmen or more experienced people within the industry. So actually understand what it is and understand that this is something that is moving. B, we need to make sure that apprentices have a voice when they feel that they are being apprentices. Is actually make sure that there's somebody who will believe you, somebody who will accept you when you come this and make it very clear to the apprentice that this resource is available to you. I think the other bit we need to make aware is we need to make aware of that mental health and suicide is an issue that affects all of us within the industry and we need to maintain that momentum of actually raising awareness and early intervention within the industry ongoing, beyond this issue of bullying, being a specific part of it, but at a broader level as well.

    And I think we need to consider mental health and suicide as part of our workplace health and safety obligations. I think that in 1988, safety was slightly different in this industry than it is today. We've now made it much more of a normal way of doing business that when we set the sites up, we have plans and we have processes and we have ways we manage it. We actually need to get to the same place in terms of mental health.

    Chris Bombolas: Well, I think that's a great way to wrap up our in depth and informative chat. Thanks again Jorgen for joining me today and for the work you do in suicide prevention and Mates as well of course. It's been a tough subject, but a necessary one. Thank you again.

    Jorgen Gullestrup: Thank you for having me.

    Chris Bombolas: Keep up the great work.

    Jorgen Gullestrup: Thank you very much Chris.

    Chris Bombolas: I'd like to remind our viewers that if this discussion has caused any distress and you or someone you know, is looking for support or help, contact triple 0 immediately if it is an emergency or Lifeline's 24 hour hotline on 13 11 14. We will have a list of resources and websites available on the closing screen of this event and on the website, we'll link to the resources I have mentioned previously and throughout this program, but also information on work-related, stress, health, and wellbeing, and risk management. Managers, supervisors, and peers remember that everyone has different levels of resilience. After today I hope you will look for ways you can provide your apprentices with additional guidance and support to create a safe workplace where no one walks past and accepts inappropriate behaviour. No more turning a blind eye.

    To all the construction apprentices out there, you are the future of this industry and you are valued. I hope you feel more empowered to speak out for yourself and your mates. Hopefully everyone watching this will take what you've learned here and commit to doing better to support apprentices improve mental health outcomes and prevent suicide for young workers in construction. Thank you all for watching, a speaker from an earlier OIR safety webinar Dave Bird, gave us five words, which may just open an awkward conversation and save someone's life, even a mate of yours. What's happening in your world? Feel free to use them.

    On behalf of Workplace Health and Safety Queensland and Mates in Construction look out for each other. Work safe. Home safe.