Researchers from the Queensland Centre for Mental Health Research (QCMHR) participated in a breakfast workshop in June to examine what distress means to people in the construction industry.

The workshop was hosted by Mates in Construction (a suicide prevention charity established in response to landmark studies on the high rates of suicide crisis in the construction industry) and attended by 35 construction industry representatives including employers, employees, and individuals with lived experience of suicide.

Workshop participants engaged in a collaborative exercise to define distress in the construction industry context, examine how to recognise distress in co-workers, and to understand where distressed workers go to for help.

QCMHR researcher, Dr Carla Meurk said that while distress is known to be an important risk factor for suicide, and widely discussed in suicide prevention policy and plans, the concept is not clearly understood and is therefore difficult to examine.

“It is important to better understand the concept of distress, and the different meanings it might have for different groups of individuals, to inform tailored interventions to help people at risk of suicide crisis,” Dr Meurk said.

“Thanks to the level of engagement we had at the workshop, my colleague on this project, Dr Lisa Wittenhagen,  was able to arrive at a definition of distress that works in the construction industry context as: an emotional state in which individuals feel that they are not in control, overwhelmed, or are unable to cope.”

Workshop participants also identified characteristics that might be displayed by co-workers experiencing distress such as being withdrawn or reclusive, being unsettled or short tempered, exhibiting sudden changes in physical appearance, appearing fatigued, showing signs of alcohol or substance misuse, and more.

Dr Meurk said that participants felt strongly that it is important to get to know fellow workmates, including taking an interest in a colleague’s homelife and work life, to identify changes that might signal distress.

“The workshop helped participants to identify who people can turn to for support in times of distress  including “those closest to them”; “those who care”; organisations like Mates in Construction, and many others outside of the health or crisis care sector, who may listen and offer support,” Dr Meurk said.

“The group acknowledged that some might not always seek help from others and that this is not always a bad thing in situations where people in distress are practising solitary forms of self-care including activities such as “going bush”, fishing or hiking.

“They also recognised that factors such as age, gender and cultural background may influence how a person reacts when distressed or communicates distress to others.”

The Mates in Construction workshop was part of a wider data-linkage project led by QCMHR researchers through the School of Public Health at The University of Queensland. The project was commissioned by MATES in Construction and the Queensland Mental Health Commission to quantify the incidence of suicide crisis in the construction industry by examining distress-related contacts between individuals and construction industry agencies. Prior to embarking on the data linkage study, the project team identified the need for a workshop to develop a definition of distress that was of relevance to the construction industry.

The report of key findings from the workshop was published in June 2021.

Contact: Dr Carla Meurk, email: Carla.Meurk@health.qld.gov.au, phone: 07 3837 5826.

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