On Wednesday 18 October, a vast cross-section of Australia’s construction industry gathered in Sydney to discuss a long-standing problem within the business, and one that arguably hasn’t gotten enough air time.

The inaugural Mental Health in Construction event, hosted by Procore, was a brave and sobering event that tackled the issue head on. During the hours-long lunch, two profoundly personal and candid talks brought a predominantly masculine crowd to tears.

The marketing buzz of the day came courtesy of a question and answer session between Ian Thorpe and Jeff McMullen, preceded by a keynote from Procore’s vice president of marketing, Milton Walters. Although Thorpe’s session was deeply touching for its insights into the realities of depression, it was the first talk of the day that was especially impactful for its resonance within the construction industry.

In the wake of the event, Architecture & Design sat down with Milton Walters to further unpack the importance of talking about mental health in construction.

[A&D] You mentioned in your (incredibly moving) speech about how you felt you were able to be “vulnerable” around certain people in your workplace. How common do you think that is within the industry more broadly? Is there an expectation in such a male-dominated industry that people will “tough it up”?

[MW] Absolutely. There is a stereotype that people working in the construction industry are expected to be physically and mentally tough and so those who have difficulties with mental health often don’t feel comfortable discussing their challenges within their working environment.

[A&D] Clearly, it’s very important to have a support network at work when someone is going through what you’ve been through. But what about when people’s mental health is suffering outside of these tangible, quantifiable episodes? Do you think there’s more of a stigma for people to raise mental health when there’s no specific trigger that’s able to be articulated?

[MW] Depression is a highly common illness, but also one that can be difficult to identify. There’s not necessarily a greater stigma associated with raising mental health issues without a proper cause, but it’s certainly very hard. Which is why we need to keep increasing awareness around the signs to spot in colleagues who could be suffering, while also providing proper training on how to offer support. It is a two-way process in which people need training not only on how to help their colleagues, but also on how to create an environment in which people feel able to ask for it. This could be training that’s given in pre-start or safety meetings, or regular workshops driven by the employer or an external organisation.

[A&D] The construction industry has one of the highest suicide rates of any industry. Do you think there are certain conditions that contribute to this? If so, what do you think they are?

[MW] It’s a sad truth that construction workers are over twice as likely as any other people to commit suicide. All the research points to this. Stigmatisation and the resulting barriers to communication are a major factor. People suffering from depression and related mental health issues far too often don’t feel able and comfortable to reach out for the support they need. Which is why it’s so important for us to start to pull down these stereotypes, which are making those working in the industry feel that they can only be seen to be tough and resilient.

[A&D] In his talk, Ian Thorpe mentioned that, in sport, it can be hard to work out why you’re exhausted – whether it’s the physical exertion, or the result of depression. Do you think there’s a parallel here in the construction industry, which has such notoriously long working hours?

[MW] The working conditions in the construction industry certainly do play a major part in all this. On the one hand, construction workers are very often faced with highly dangerous situations, like working at major heights. This ultimately will have an impact on your ability to cope and support yourself when faced with times of trouble. Yes, there’s comradery on the jobsite, but also moments of great isolation.

[A&D] In the wake of the NAWIC awards this year, I sat down with one of the past recipients of their scholarship, who was talking about her PhD research in construction. During the course of her research, she visited construction sites across the country, and although she’d been working in the industry for years, was particularly taken aback by men’s reactions to the sexist and sometimes homophobic graffiti and material that appeared on sites.

Do you think that there is a pressure to conform to a hyper-masculine culture in construction? And do you think this has an impact on the mental health of not just women, but men working on these sites?

[MW] There’s no doubt that construction is currently a male-dominated industry. Alongside this, there is still an image of a mentally and physically tough construction worker; that to an extent, those working on construction projects feel compelled to conform to or at least aspire to. For anyone suffering from mental health issues, or even just a bad day, this stereotype makes it incredibly difficult to admit weakness and talk to a colleague about how they’re feeling. So wherever this stigmatisation comes from, it’s affecting both men and women in the industry.

[A&D] What do you hope will contribute to better mental health in the construction industry going forward?

[MW] Firstly, we have some fantastic organisations in Australia doing great work. Recent years have seen a growing interest in understanding why construction workers are at such risk. From employer associations such as the Master Builders Association, to trade unions, industry schemes such as the National Safety Council of Australia and not-for-profits like MATES in Construction, there is a network of organisations in Australia to improve education, awareness and support for mental health within the industry.

My hope is that as an industry, we can come together to collaboratively work together to reduce stigma associated with mental illness and empower construction workers to look after their own and their colleagues’ wellbeing. This is why Procore hosted our event, as an effort to bring the industry together to start the conversation on how we can better work together to confront this critical issue.

[A&D] Although it would be different for each individual, do you have any general advice for construction industry workers suffering through mental health issues?

[MW] My first piece of advice would be to talk to someone about how you’re feeling. Mental health difficulties are not something to be faced alone, and as soon as you have brought someone else in, you’re increasing your ability to cope by at least two-fold. This can be a friend, a family member, a colleague. But I know how hard this first step can be. There is a network of organisations in Australia who are tirelessly working to support our construction workers. MATES in Construction, Beyond Blue and Lifeline all have trained and immensely capable teams who can help you with figuring out what you’re dealing with and what to do to help yourself out of a difficult time.