Construction company launches mental health campaign after boss loses brother to suspected suicide
Cecile Meier

After his brother and partner in the family construction business died by suspected suicide, Chris Hughes wasn't sure what to tell his staff.

Should he tell them the truth or should the family keep the circumstances of Jonny Hughes' death on New Year's Eve secret?

The 31-year-old father of two young children had been battling depression and had work and relationship problems but still his death came as a shock, Chris Hughes said.

"We didn't realise how bad it was. You can't help but asking yourself what more you could have done so he didn't get to that point."

It was a difficult decision to make with the shock and grief of losing Jonny still raw. But they had noticed staff struggling with mental health in the months prior. They were working with the Mental Health Foundation on ways to open conversations about it within the construction industry, which has the highest suicide rate of any sector in New Zealand.

A report from Site Safe last month showed the number of suicides in the sector had risen over the past four years, with 339 suicides recorded between 2007 and 2017. The report identified contributing factors including job insecurity, long working hours, masculine culture, social isolation, substance abuse and relationship issues.

In this context, telling the truth seemed inevitable. Hughes and his family gathered the 120 Christchurch-based staff and told them about the suspected suicide. A counsellor was brought in and staff were encouraged to talk if they felt distressed about the death or if they had any issues of their own.

A flood of employees, managers and clients came to Hughes afterwards to share their own struggles with mental health, or experience losing a loved one to suicide. Some of them, he would have never suspected were struggling.

"A lot of employees worry about what the boss will think if they ask for time off or to reduce working hours to deal with a personal crisis. But employers want a happy, healthy work force and if that means helping someone through a rough time, then so be it.

Asking for help went against macho and "tough guy" attitudes in the industry.

"Some guys are afraid of talking to their own families about it. How do you change that?

"We need to get in before it gets to that point."

Last month, the company brought in a psychologist to discuss tools on how to deal with work pressures. Talking about rugby players getting performance psychologists helped spread the message to the mostly male audience, Hughes said.

On Friday, it is bringing in Mike King to a health and safety event for 600 staff and contractors to discuss mental health. 

Hughes also took part in a Mental Health Foundation video campaign aimed at the construction and forestry industry, which will come out later this year.

"If we can stop one person from [taking their own lives], we've succeeded really."

Everyone, including Government, employers and families, needed to do their bit to reduce the country's suicide rate, he said.

He welcomed reports of the Government's draft plan for a 'no suicide' future but said it was a shame it failed to include specific targets. 

"Just like in business, you've got to measure results to check that what you are doing is working."

Mental Health Foundation chief executive Shaun Robinson said the construction industry had specific pressures and employers had a legal responsibility to protect their staff's mental wellbeing. Many, like Hughes, were already doing so. 

"When a suicide happens, it impacts over 130 people on average. Everybody on a work site or in a company, especially small family-owned ones will be affected."

But employers were often afraid of saying the wrong thing. It was a matter of opening the conversation and making it a normal thing within a workplace to talk about mental wellbeing, Robinson said.


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Lifeline – 0800 543 354 or (09) 5222 999 within Auckland

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Suicide Crisis Helpline – 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) – or email or free text 5626

Anxiety New Zealand - 0800 ANXIETY (0800 269 4389)

Supporting Families in Mental Illness - 0800 732 825.

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