4th May 2021
Trigger Warning: Mentions of suicide
From June 2017 to June 2020 two thousand and seven people lost their lives to suicide in New Zealand. The annual provisional suicide statistics for 2020-2021 are yet to be released.
New Zealanders are disturbingly familiar with the tragic, far-reaching influence of suicide. It’s no secret we have the worst rates of youth suicide in the OECD.
Although ecoPortal continues to explore organisational health and safety, and how we can make incremental improvements to improve safety and wellbeing, we have not touched on the topic of suicide.
The reality is, to discuss mental health for safety leaders, without any mention of the elephant in the room, simply feels irresponsible. Using one particularly potent example, our construction industry is suffering, with significantly higher rates of suicide than any other industry. In the past three years, one hundred and sixty construction workers lost their lives to suicide in New Zealand. Construction is a cornerstone industry in the health and safety sector, with high incident rates and risks involved. Initiatives such as Mates in Construction is a shining example of an organisation seeking to change these statistics.
However, all industries are prone. There are no exceptions.
As the conversation unfolds nationally, there is undoubtedly an urgency and exponential heightening of awareness. Work is being done. It has to be done. We’re all collectively understanding that we cannot only discuss mental wellbeing - à la yoga or meditation - without confronting these tragic statistics and acknowledging the shadow that looms over New Zealand.
Behind an individual choosing to end their life are a multitude of factors that contribute to a sense of hopelessness. Depression is not the only reason: other mental illnesses (bipolar disorder, or BPD for example), traumatic events, chronic illness, isolation, addiction and grief can all contribute to a greater risk of suicide.
In this article, we explore useful things New Zealand safety leaders can do in the workplace to help improve the emotional support system for employees. These are actionable strategies that can be implemented fairly easily and can send a clear message to people: you are not alone.
Why New Zealand?
We have a unique culture here in NZ. With much to be proud of, as we well know, we’re a country that punches well above its weight.
Much of New Zealand’s Pakeha history comes from rugged, problem-solving settlers, who endured brutal climate conditions to survive and establish a life. Much of the Maori population suffered directly (and still do) from the far-reaching impact of colonisation, and unequal opportunities for much of the 20th century.
This unique amalgamation of factors has created a culture that is both humble, but deeply proud and patriotic, tough yet kind, occasionally passive-aggressive - yet friendly. It’s a strange dichotomy. This juxtaposition, coupled with the highest rate of teen suicide in the OECD strongly suggests New Zealand can be a tough country to grow up in, and find your feet.
Of course, the problem extends beyond youth.
In pockets of New Zealand, especially more close-knit rural communities, there can be a strong clique-like culture, where friends are firmly friends with each other. Researchers from the Victoria University of Wellington have found that newcomers to our country often have difficulty assimilating to our culture, and find that making strong social connections can be a lonely process.
Researchers have also noted that an overwhelming majority of Kiwi men have noticed the pressure to be emotionally resilient (tough guy) and over half find it difficult to open up emotionally and talk about their feelings. This mentality is influenced by the ‘Southern Bloke’ stereotype, rooted in the Pakeha settler who was a rough, rugged, stoic man, unwilling to show weakness. Certainly, this is clear in the male New Zealanders we revere - Sir Edmund Hilary, Richie McCaw, etc. While this is not inherently a bad thing, these attitudes coupled with any mental struggle or lingering depressive thought, make it difficult for many men to feel truly comfortable speaking up.
Albeit a sweeping generalisation, New Zealand has a culture of modesty to the extreme. Kiwis often value humility to a fault; we are expected to remain humble and never talk up their own achievements, which tends to manifest into tall poppy syndrome.
Despite all this, the fact remains that our country has a lot to be proud of. In many fields, we punch above our weight frequently, and as a nation, we’ve had to rally and get through multiple national disasters. Just like we’ve had to recuperate with the White Island disaster, the Christchurch earthquakes and more, we must take the same resilience to shake up the dark side of our culture, making it okay to talk, be emotional and vulnerable.
- JUST LIKE WE'VE HAD TO RECUPERATE WITH THE WHITE ISLAND DISASTER, THE CHRISTCHURCH EARTHQUAKES AND MORE, WE MUST TAKE THE SAME RESILIENCE TO SHAKE UP THE DARK SIDE OF OUR CULTURE.
What can Kiwi businesses do to help?
There are many steps we can take. Being aware of how our cultural landscape shapes the conversation around mental health and how we approach emotional vulnerability is the first step.
Here are several more:
- Consider implementing an EAP service
EAP (Employee Assistance Programmes) are employer-funded third-party services that provide assistance to help monitor employee wellbeing in the workplace. They’re a great incentive that pays off helping to reduce sick leave, absenteeism, and increase motivation and wellbeing for a happier, productive workforce.
The range of services depends on the programme provider you choose. The key benefit of an EAP is that employees have direct access to confidential professional help when they need it, and your organisation has a clear way to measure and track employee wellbeing. The business benefits from happier and healthier employees - it’s a win-win.
Part of these services can include benefits such as an anonymous weekly mental health tracker that can follow stress levels in your workplace. Collecting this kind of data can help H&S professionals make better informed decisions about company-wide movements - i.e. knowing the best time to host a social Friday drink based on collective stress levels. This data could also be used to help find relationships between heightened stress levels or poor emotional health in different departments, and causal factors (i.e. new managers, or a different office space might cause a spike in stress).
EAP services offer clear communication for your employees about where to go when they need help. Sometimes having visual reminders that explicitly state phone numbers and contacts for confidential help can make all the difference for someone who needs it.
These services are confidential too. People won’t feel job-related pressures associated with reporting any issues. Sometimes people avoid speaking up to save face, because they don’t want to cause any further problems in the workplace. Having a designated third-party to listen helps.
Focus on building strong relationships with employees and between employees
A sense of loneliness - feelings of disconnection and isolation - is a huge risk factor for mental illness. Ensuring that the workplace is an arena where friendships are cultivated and relationships are strong, so they can provide support for each other is a critical mental wellbeing factor.
Having good relationships makes everyone’s jobs easier. Everyone on the team can trust one another to get their job done, and to keep each other's best interests at heart. Employees can work with greater autonomy when they have a positive relationship with their manager, who can trust them to do the work. Leaders can also feel more comfortable delivering bad news, or enforcing the rules - the sometimes uncomfortable part of the job.
Humans are, by nature, social creatures, and we need strong interpersonal connections for our mental wellbeing. When times get tough, we turn to our support networks for a shoulder to lean on. As a leader, you’re responsible: either the support network extends to the workplace, or it doesn’t.
- HUMANS ARE BY NATURE, SOCIAL CREATURES, AND WE NEED STRONG INTERPERSONAL CONNECTIONS FOR OUR MENTAL WELLBEING. WHEN TIMES GET TOUGH, WE TURN TO OUR SUPPORT NETWORKS FOR A SHOULDER TO LEAN ON.
- Take interest in employees’ financial wellbeing
In the 1% Safer book, Occupational Health Physician, Alex Morales, tells the story of a social worker in the HR department of a Chilean manufacturer, who helped turn their accident rates around, by examining socio-economic profiling of workers. Their team noticed that a vast number of workers were in deep debt with different creditors, and also experienced family psychosocial problems at home. These external stressors were impacting their productivity and accident rates.
Rather than reprimanding their employees for high accident rates, the company decided to try an alternative, holistic approach. They incorporated new practices into their workplace, encouraging workers to seek financial help provided by the company, and to self-identify when their personal emotional burden was particularly high on any given day - and as a result, saw a sharp drop in incident rates.
Providing something as simple as confidential financial help can be incredibly useful for employees. Many people are financially unprepared for unexpected events or struggling to wade through debt. Financial wellbeing is an often-overlooked area of mental health, but such a great source of stress for so many people. Providing even a simple budgeting service can help set your employees up for greater financial confidence, and relieve them of a great stressor. Incorporating a confidential money management advisory source, with guidance for debt management creates a greater quality of life.
Money management creates freedom and a deep sense of security.
Lead by example
With all these great incentives to help reduce stress, it’s also critical that managers and leaders within the organisation normalise engaging with them and speaking up about their mental health - the idea of ‘leading loudly’.
When people ask how you are, be honest and clear about what’s going on. Encourage speaking up and being vulnerable about any tough times. Use your flexi-time frequently. When you act as an example to employees, you normalise making mental health and wellbeing a priority.
- This article is not here to shame our country and point fingers. Rather, we’re highlighting the critical strategies that can act as a beacon of hope for people feeling hopeless. Kiwis share a wonderful, collective resilience that needs to be firmly established in mental health too.
We are a great nation, full of inspiring stories and have a strong history of punching well above our weight in success. However, we have an undeniable darker side, that has seen too many New Zealanders lose their lives to suicide.
Operating in the health and safety industry means a lot of responsibility lies on all of our shoulders. We have to keep the conversation going around exploring what the most effective strategies are that we can implement into our workplaces - to keep our people supported and safe.