There’s more to keeping a workforce well and productive than flu shots and the odd “mental health day”. As more attention is being paid to mental health in society in general, individual sectors are identifying challenges and developing tailor-made solutions. In this feature, we look at initiatives in three notoriously stressful industries – forestry, farming and hospitality – and report on the work of the suicide-prevention charity Mates in Construction and the Mental Health Foundation.
In the forest
Fiona Ewing, the Forest Industry Safety Council’s national safety director, has worked in health and safety for more than 30 years. Often, she says, health and safety advisers are seen by workers as the people who turn up to tell them they’re doing their jobs wrong.
Now, with the council and its “Safetree” programme, that view has been turned on its head. “Our job is much more around capability and capacity – how do we make sure we have all things present to make work successful?” says Ewing. Attention to mental wellbeing is an essential component of a properly run workplace.
Not all the special stresses and mental-health factors that come with forestry involve trees and heavy machinery.
“It’s an export market, so there is potential volatility that comes with relying on the export log price,” says Ewing, citing just one factor.
Another has been the move from manual to mechanised tasks. “People are more sedentary, but that doesn’t mean the job is easier. It takes a high cognitive load to operate the equipment, so you’re getting stressed in a different way. We are also seeing the effects of depression and anxiety.”
Safetree has several stakeholders, including WorkSafe and the Accident Compensation Corporation (ACC), as well as representatives from across the forestry industry, FIRST Union and Māori.
Unlike other primary industries, forestry did not keep going during the Level 4 covid lockdown and some companies went out of business, putting further mental strain on workers worried about job security.
Countering these obstacles have been developments such as the appointment of two “toroawhi”, or roving health and safety champions, to work face to face with people in crews. They also can work within tikanga principles to provide a more relatable service for Māori workers. “They are connectors of people,” says Ewing. “They are our worker champions. They have their own mental-health stories to tell and engage with workers in that way.”
Digital strategies include the KYND Wellness app, which offers information and support on aspects of both mental and physical health. Users can enter their own data and will receive notifications if any areas of concern show up. “As soon as you start to get that going, you can look to see how you address things.”
Talking Topic health cards are another item in the toolkit, giving easy-to-follow capsule advice on relevant subjects.
It’s all about that shift in focus from box-ticking to life-saving, says Ewing. “If you do it that way, it is perceived that you care, whereas before, health and safety was seen as compliance, only done to cover your backside.”
On the farm
Gerard Vaughan counts himself lucky to have been in at the start of Farmstrong, a wellbeing programme aimed at the rural sector and supported by the likes of Farmers Mutual Group and ACC. If the name sounds muscly and tough, that’s intentional.
“In terms of the culture of farming, we have taken a strength-based approach,” says Vaughan, describing how his organisation spreads its message. He says farmers have had a block about asking for help, which was seen as weakness: “You don’t let anyone know you are really struggling.”
Farmers are not only the focus of the programme – they are also responsible for its format. “We have had the privilege of being able to design the whole thing around what farmers said the challenges were,” says Vaughan. It turned out that farmers didn’t want information about health and wellbeing, which was a bit of a challenge for an organisation that set out to provide exactly that.
However, the research showed that farmers listen to farmers and were keen on any information that would help them do their job better. “We realised we needed to make it farmer to farmer because then they will listen. Farmers will make a change if they see other farmers doing something.”
Where once farming communities helped each other on their properties with the likes of haymaking and fencing, now contractors come in to do jobs, minimising neighbour-to-neighbour contact.
Based on that, Farmstrong set out to present itself as providing information about how to farm better. After all, you need to be physically and mentally healthy to run a farm. “One farmer I spoke to nailed it,” says Vaughan. “He was in his 60s and pointed to his arm muscle and said: ‘When I started out it was all about this, and now it is all about this,’ and he pointed to his head.”
Through various mechanisms, including its farmer-friendly website, Farmstrong offers practical advice under headings such as “Farm Fit”, “Healthy Thinking”, “Stress and Burnout” and others.
The initiative is helping a lot of people, but not enough for Vaughan. “We want to reach more people. Our audience is 50,000 farm owners and 30,000 farm workers, plus we are also reaching a lot of family members and an outer circle of around 40,000 contractors and suppliers.”
Vaughan says Farmstrong is keen to track how well it is doing, and surveys farmers regularly. Results so far have been encouraging: “As of last year, 18,000 farmers and farm workers are attributing some level of improvement in wellbeing to their involvement in Farmstrong.”
In the restaurant
When Marisa Bidois took on a job as CEO of the Restaurant Association, which represents 2500 businesses, around 10 years ago, she didn’t expect she would have to develop skills in the mental-health area.
“I didn’t have any experience dealing with mental-health issues,” she says. “But it has always been something I had compassion for. I have long felt that our members should understand the networks available to them.”
The people Bidois’ association represents are the business owners themselves. “When you are a small business you are playing all roles – the accountant, the head chef, the HR department – and the starting and end point for all decisions, which can lead to enormous amounts of pressure on you.”
Covid has been particularly hard on restaurants. As well as staff shortages, even the relatively short lockdown period was a big blow to the industry and it will take a long time to claw back the lost revenue.
“You don’t go from being 90 per cent down on average to a quick recovery,” says Bidois. Even though trading has been good for the past couple of months, that hasn’t made enough difference.
As well as the pressure they are under themselves, restaurant owners are being asked to take responsibility for the mental wellbeing of their staff. “That is where the association comes in – we have resources for their teams to help them to manage this. We partner with the Mental Health Foundation and have run awareness seminars and training sessions over the years. In terms of practical tools, we have guidelines around wellness within the workplace and also individual wellness for the employer.”
When people are struggling, Bidois says, “the first thing is to see what we can do to link them up practically with tools like our HospoStart programme”, which can help fill the vacancies that are putting pressure on the owners.
There is also a mentoring service, using experienced professionals who are out of the industry but can give excellent advice and keep in touch with businesses.
The association works closely with suicide prevention charity RU OK? and provides access to Clearhead, “a cloud-based platform that establishes, through a series of questions, where an individual’s headspace is at the time and can provide suggestions. The number of people engaging in the platform is a marked indication of its success.”
On the building site
Mates in Construction is an anti-suicide programme that originated in Australia and has successfully undergone a transtasman transplant. Construction has the highest suicide rate of any occupation and Mates tackles that dreadful statistic head-on.
The programme’s work, with its unique research-based, worker-focused strategy, is being recognised locally. Chief executive Victoria McArthur says energy, fisheries, printing and other industries have all shown interest in adopting a similar approach. “It is a no-brainer that if it works in one industry, as long as you do the right research and work with your unique industry factors, it is going to work across other industries,” she says.
Mates is firmly focused on suicide prevention, and more focused than many wellbeing enterprises on getting measurable results. The organisation is funding academic research aimed at getting more accurate information about the extent of suicide by industry, with results due to be announced soon.
It is called Mates because it is about people helping each other. Trainers and helpers visit worksites for informal and informative presentations. Those who give the talks have personal experience not just in the industry but also of problems with mental health and suicide risk.
“Talking about your struggles is pivotal,” says McArthur. “By bringing the conversation to the workplace, Mates normalises it, which is making it easier. It is part of their day to day. These guys probably wouldn’t otherwise have that conversation in their communities.”
It’s not rocket science, although, says McArthur, a lot of science has gone into making sure the programme is practical and easy to understand.
And now there is the will to take the message to places where there may not be the kind of big concentrations of workers that you get on a building site.
“As we expand into the provinces, we will say that we are in town and anybody can come – farmer, electrician or forestry worker. We will do a Mates in Community kind of thing, and leverage off the brand and people we have.”
“We’re all about the focus shifting to wellbeing in the workplace. We want workplaces to be safe, strong, and supportive,” says Shaun Robinson, chief executive of the Mental Health Foundation.
“They need to be safe places free of excess stress or bullying. They need to be prepared to support someone who is struggling, for whatever reason; knowing where to refer people and how to support them is part of our responsibility as employers. Our resources aim to help people do that.
“If you get that right, then naturally you will significantly reduce the number of crisis situations – as well as get pay-offs with a more productive workforce.”
Where to get help
If you are in an emergency, call 111.
Free call or text 1737 any time for support from a trained counsellor.
Lifeline – 0800 543 354 (0800 LIFELINE) or free text 4357 (HELP).
Suicide Crisis Helpline – 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO).
Healthline – 0800 611 116
Samaritans – 0800 726 666