The man is not a machine – Changing the building industry one brick at a time

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The man is not a machine – Changing the building industry one brick at a time

"Sometimes when I hurt myself whilst growing up my father would say to me, “Is it bleeding?” If I replied “No” then he would say that it didn’t hurt. But it did. As I grew up I took on Dad’s saying more and more to the point where I wouldn’t even stop when I hurt myself at work, or if it was bleeding a lot I would just wrap it up with my old friend, Mr Gaffa Tape."

I am sitting across from Tony, a bricklayer and friend of mine. As I am a builder our conversations often turn to our observations of the building industry. Both of us have been in the industry for over 20 years, and as such have seen much.

Some time ago, after hearing of the high rates of depression and suicide in the construction industry, Tony and I began talking about the impact that the culture of the building industry has on men’s health.

This inspired me to invite Tony to share with me his experiences of growing up, of becoming a man in the building industry, how it changed him, how it affected his health, and how he has since turned his life around.

The first thing I notice about Tony is that he is not a big man ...

But he is a typically fit tradesman, with muscles well defined from years of hard work. Yet what intrigues me at the same time is that he looks relaxed; there is a gentleness and ease in the way he carries his frame. His muscles are not held tense and hard, with veins popping out, but they are definitely there – just more relaxed and non-threatening. He looks young for his age, and his eyes have a sparkle in them that says he loves his job and is not burnt out by life.

Being used to the hardened, weathered exterior that most construction workers exhibit, it intrigues me to hear a bricklayer talk so introspectively, and to meet a man who does not look worn down by his job. Guys in the building industry just don’t talk about this kind of thing; it’s considered taboo, a sign of weakness.

“Now I am in no way blaming Dad for the lack of care I gave myself. I was the one ignoring how my body was physically feeling, but it was a way of being a man that was passed on from father to son. I didn’t see the point in taking the time to tend to myself properly and I saw myself as fairly tough, like my Dad – that I was able to work on despite an injury or not feeling well. I put my job before me, as I was taught to.

It was all about getting the job done; it didn’t matter what price my body paid.

I basically turned myself into a machine.

But what I forgot was that a machine needs regular maintenance or eventually it will need to be re-built, and inside this machine is a human being; inside this machine is a body that can be fragile, vulnerable and not necessarily built for the kinds of abuse that we like to think it can handle. So that’s what I have been doing of late – re-building myself back to that original, pristine condition that I remember as a boy.”

As our conversation unfolds I start to find it slightly uncomfortable. Strange is it not, that as men we find it weird to talk about taking care of ourselves, that it is seen as a sign of weakness.

I remember at this point watching a nature series on the great Indian Tiger ... one scene has stuck in my thoughts forever. The tiger got a small thorn in its foot. It had three cubs to feed but it took three days off to rest, heal and get its body back to readiness for what it needed to do. We think of the tiger as a symbol of strength, yet here it was taking care of itself, over something as small as a thorn in its foot.

How crazy it seems that we do not seem to have the same respect for our own bodies as human beings, and as men in particular.

“I can honestly say that I thought I was indestructible. Real men were tough and only felt pain if they lost an arm or something, or so I thought.

Yet the irony was that ten years ago I was burnt out and ready to leave the building industry: fast forward to the present and it’s like I am a new man. I actually feel like I am getting stronger every day, not just physically but within myself. For many years I never felt that I was important but through taking care of myself I have realised that I am, and that has made not only my health but my relationship with people so much more enjoyable as I now put myself equal to all."

"I am reaping the rewards of taking care of myself"

Yes, Tony has changed – for the better – but the world around him has not. The construction industry continues to foster a culture that says it is weak to look after yourself, weak to show any form of vulnerability.

Yet the statistics show that men in construction are twice as likely to suicide than males not in construction. Is it possible that this emphasis on being hard and tough discourages men from truly taking care of themselves and getting help when they are feeling depressed?

My conversation with Tony leaves me pondering whether we have been sold a lie about what it is to be a ‘real’ man. Maybe true courage is not to ‘man up’ and tough it out in front of your mates. Tony has got me thinking that true courage is to show sensitivity, and that starts with being able to admit that a splinter does hurt, to admit that it does feel good to stop and get a band-aid and some treatment – despite the ridicule one might face.

What a different industry it might be if we had the courage to own this side of ourselves as men, rather than hide it from the world.

  • Thumb small adam warburton

    By Adam Warburton, Builder

    I am a builder and a husband. I do not profess to live a life of extremes, but subscribe to the virtue of simplicity, dealing with all the same daily challenges most of us face. I love my wife... my job, my family…oh, and the world.

  • Thumb small tony steenson

    By Tony Steenson, Brick/Blocklayer

    Happily married and with two adult children,Tony is a deeply caring and passionate man who loves the simple things in life such as sharing a meal or helping out friends and family.