A report published by the Building Research Association of New Zealand (Branz) has found that the suicide rate in the country’s construction industry is the highest of any industrial sector, and is largely the result of a "toxic" culture of on-site bullying.
Construction workers account for 6.9% of all suicides in New Zealand, marginally higher than that of farming and forestry, which sits at 6.8%.
Chris Litten, head of industry research at Branz, said a consistent message emerged from its survey of the industry. "We found that the culture of toxic masculinity is really rife. The ‘take a concrete pill and harden up’ attitude is really prevalent in the industry."
He added that construction’s boom-and-bust cycle played a part by giving workers either too much work or too little, calling it "really draining and stressful on people", because booms result in long hours, fatigue and a greater incidence of separation and divorce.
People interviewed cited intolerance of workers who varied from the white, male, heterosexual norm, drug and alcohol abuse, the low status of construction as a career and conflicts between young and older men on site.
The ‘take a concrete pill and harden up’ attitude is really prevalent in the industry– Chris Litten, Branz
However, the report also found signs of improvement. One interviewee said the increasing number of women in the industry was improving site culture, and interviewees in leadership positions described fostering a working environment where employees were encouraged to ask for help, or accept it when offered.
The authors of the report, Kate Bryson and Anne Duncan, said there was an "indisputable appetite for culture change" among interviewees. They added that this could be as simple as "asking workmates how they are".
Not everyone in the industry agreed with the Branz’s interpretation of its data. Rick Herd, chief executive of construction firm Naylor Love, told Radio New Zealand that the report overplayed bullying, and suggested a more likely cause was economic insecurity experienced by managers of smaller companies.
He said: "That’s where I believe we’ll find, when more research is completed, that the biggest issues around suicide and mental wellbeing are going to be most prevalent."
A copy of the report can be downloaded here.
Image: Auckland: the centre of the New Zealand building boom (Alan Collins/Wikimedia Commons)