Drivers and experiences of suicidal ideation in the Australian construction industry

By Simon Tyler, Kate Gunn, Bob Clifford and Nicholas Procter

Published 12 May 2023

Key findings:

  • Challenges specific to working in the Australian construction industry may drive suicidal thoughts and distress (e.g. job demands, job pressures, job insecurity, work hours).
  • Personal challenges may also drive suicidal thinking in Australian construction industry workers (e.g. relationship issues, social disconnection, financial hardship).
  • Industry changes and focused suicide prevention strategies could address industry-specific and personal challenges.

What’s the research gap?

Australian Construction Industry workers are known to have higher rates of suicide compared to the general population. Though, not much is known about what drives workers to think about suicide.

The researchers set out to explore experiences of suicidal thoughts in the Australian construction industry. One of their aims was to create a richer understanding of what drives these thoughts to guide future suicide prevention activities.

What was done?

The researchers engaged with 15 people and discussed their experiences in individual, semi-structured interviews.

Participants answered questions based on their own experiences or their experiences supporting another industry worker, or a mix of both.

What was found?

The researchers used thematic analysis to find common themes and patterns in the participants’ experiences.

The researchers found eight themes relating to what might drive construction industry workers to experience suicidal thoughts and distress:

  1. Challenges working in the construction industry: Many participants described job pressures as driving thoughts of suicide. Long work hours, shifting worksites, workplace culture and a lack of work-life balance were mentioned. One participant mentioned working '80, 90, 100-h weeks for a long time' describing how it 'took its toll'.
  2. Relationships and family issues: Many participants spoke of relationship and family issues as driving thoughts of suicide and distress. One participant described their experience, 'If your ... home environment is, um, unhappy, depressed, quiet… then, absolutely, that plays a factor.
  3. 'Social disconnection: Several participants highlighted loneliness and isolation during experiences. For example, a participant explained how living rurally impacted the person they supported, 'I just felt like that also become a bit of an isolation for them'.
  4. Financial hardship: Many also highlighted how financial pressures had a role in driving thoughts of suicide and distress. A participant stressed wanting to 'provide for their family' and not knowing 'where the next job’s coming [from]'.
  5. Perceived lack of support: Several participants felt a lack of social support drove experiences. Describing another’s experience, a participant highlighted the effect not getting support as, 'Work has not supported him in that. Um, so then that impacts. It makes him more stressed'.
  6. Alcohol and other drug use: Participants also spoke about the role alcohol or drug use could drive thoughts of suicide, 'If I’d had a couple bottles of wine and I was tired, that was … that was where you are thinking about … Better off not being here'.
  7. Child custody and legal issues: Not having access to their children was also highlighted by participants. A participant described another’s experience of having 'two young kids' and not having 'seen them since January'.
  8. Experiencing mental health challenges, trauma or significant life events: Having experienced mental health challenges, trauma or significant life events was also highlighted as a driver. Participant described these experiences as 'trigger' or 'tipping' points.

Participants also shared what was helpful during these experiences, including:

  • Support from colleagues and managers
  • Industry-specific supports (e.g. MATES in Construction)
  • Activities and social support outside of work
  • Their own skills and knowledge of suicide and mental health.

They highlighted the need for support programs, education and changes to work hours and expectations in the industry.

Why are findings important?

Understanding what contributes to construction workers experiencing distress and to think about suicide may help prevent industry suicides.

Participants described industry challenges that contributed to distress and suicidal thoughts. The researchers highlight the need for the Australian construction industry to lessen the impacts of these challenges where possible.

Personal drivers of distress and suicidal thoughts were also highlighted. Educating the industry on the role these drivers play, may help to identify problems early, provide support and prevent suicidal behaviour.