Why Mates in Energy matters in our workplaces

Nicholas McCallum

It’s more prevalent than many realise, affecting one in three people.

“This is normal. And not talking about it is not helping.”

John Brady from MATES in Construction says to a room full of power industry workers.

The elephant in the room is mental health. It’s a large beast in many homes and workplaces, but too many people choose to ignore it and hope it will go away.

“You come to work with a broken leg, we put on you light duties. You come to work with a broken heart?”

That’s the main message of the charity group Mates in Energy, an offshoot of the MATES Program, which has branches in the construction and mining industries. Its purpose is to raise awareness about suicide and mental health on the jobsite.

With one in 20 workers on average afflicted by suicidal thoughts, “Connectors”, people who undergo the training, are actively encouraged to seek out their workmates and hit the nail on the head.

Every year 190 construction industry workers take their own lives. That’s one worker every second day, making suicide a more-likely cause of death than a workplace accident. Young male workers are two times more likely to be the ones who take their own lives.

Research by Melbourne University’s Dr Allison Milner found that in Queensland, where MATES first started, suicide rates in the construction industry have dropped by almost 8 per cent.

Max Mauby, from Adelaide, said one lessons he took from the training was “how to actually have that conversation with someone about suicide and just bringing it up… to talk about it”.

“And one of the most important things l learned was just to listen to someone,” he said.

On workplaces that adopt the MATES best practice, up to 80 per cent of workers are trained as Connectors, as well as more highly trained ASIST Workers, which operate like a first aid on the site. There are also regular visits from Field Officers who support Connectors in their duties.  

“Most of our members become pseudo-councillors for the members,” said Brad Currey, an ETU Organiser from NSW, referring to the experiences of many union organisers and officials who have had to deal with mental health at jobsites they visit. 

Currey has dealt with mental health issues within his family and said Mates in Energy is a “great initiative” that “can only be a positive thing”.

“I’m a big advocate for mental health and wellbeing, across all areas not only work but family life and that as well,” he said.

MATES, which began in 2008, is there to equip workers mentally and emotionally with the right training to talk to mates on the job when they throw out warning signs.

“Often they don’t have any tools to deal with that and take on that burden themselves,” Currey said.  

Currey said those who have had the training should be able to recognise the “invitations, flags and signs” that someone going through a crisis would be putting out there.

“But also listening,” he said, was another major factor.

The power industry organiser said one of the strengths behind MATES in Energy was that it is built between workmates and peers, not prescribed from bosses.

“This comes from more from the grassroots level up, not from management down,” Currey said, adding that was one factor and “hopefully it will open people up”.

If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, you can call Lifeline on 13 11 14, Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800, Mensline Australia on 1300 789 978 or the Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467.





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