Bullying and suicide in construction – does building culture need to change?

Bullying and suicide in construction – does building culture need to change?

Bullying and suicide in construction – does building culture need to change?

Suicide in the building industry has been a topic of interest of late, and with good reason.

  • In Queensland, apprentices and other young workers in the building industry are twice as likely to commit suicide compared to the national average for other young men[1]

  • In 2003, it was reported over a 4 month period that 41% of all construction industry related deaths were due to suicide[2]

With figures like these, the fact of suicide in the building industry can’t be written off as just something that happens. So why are these men, and particularly apprentices, choosing to take their own lives? What is it about the construction industry culture that attracts its disproportionate share of suicides?

In 2006, a major report was commissioned into suicide in the Queensland Building and Construction industry. Amongst its findings into the reasons for the high rates of suicide in this particular field, it noted that; “there appears to be a culture within the industry that endorses heavy alcohol use and bullying behaviours (directed towards apprentices specifically).” It went on to say that; “the high rates among the younger workers in the current study could be related to the pressures associated with joining a ‘masculine’ industry, which (as reported from focus groups) has a bullying culture, particularly directed towards apprentices and those new to the industry.”

This is significant, and whilst there are many reasons that ultimately contribute to suicide, this is an issue that is deeply worth exploring as it is a culture towards which all who participate in the building industry play their part – whether they are the instigator of the bullying or passively contribute by standing silently on the sidelines saying nothing.

Tony Steenson (a bricklayer by trade), and Adam Warburton (a commercial builder), both of whom have over 20 years experience in the industry, lift the lid on this bullying culture and ask us to deeply consider why we have allowed this culture to proliferate when clearly it serves no one – neither the abuser nor the abused.

The Bullying Phenomenon

Bullying has been around for as long as we can remember and it would be fair to say that we have all witnessed it at some stage of our life. It is a common occurrence at school, often increasing in intensity as we reach high school, to the point where picking on someone, pointing out their flaws, and making fun of others is all considered a normal way of being and just a part of life. Age and size play a big part in this. With boys, generally the person bullying you is older and/or bigger than you and they want the authority. Perhaps they weren’t listened to as they were growing up so they try to control another by forcing them to obey what they are saying. Perhaps it is their way of protecting themselves – by subscribing to the “shoot first and ask questions later” approach. Whatever the reason, we all know from childhood how much it hurts to be on the receiving end of bullying.

“But the bullying doesn’t stop after we leave school. The same dynamics are there waiting for us in adult life.”

Starting work for the first time can be just like entering high school, where you are stepping into the unknown. You are vulnerable and at the bottom of the pecking order; you are looking to your peers for what is required. As men, we condone our treatment of apprentices or young labourers by saying that “We’ve got to toughen them up” or “we all went through it”. Yet there is a big difference between true mentoring, providing discipline, and just simply dishing out abuse.

We treat our apprentices the same way we were treated, seeing it as the toughening up period, or rite of passage into the industry. We excuse ourselves into thinking that this is for their own good. But is it really?

If we look back, do we dare ask ourselves how we would have liked to be treated, had we been given the choice? Or have we hardened up to the point of kidding ourselves that it was best for us? Perhaps we dare not admit that we have given up on life being any different. Perhaps we dare not admit that the way we were brought up was not right, that in truth it hurt. “That’s life” as we say.

Young men are quite impressionable and look up to their fellow workers, as we did when we were young.

So are we setting a good example by being responsible in the way we act? Would we want to act this way at home with our loved ones? Are we then all guilty of perpetuating a building culture that in truth, no-one would choose if they really felt they had a choice?

Let’s look at it for a second from the bully’s point of view. They may see a fresh face and body of a young man enthusiastically entering the work force. Maybe it makes them remember how they used to be – maybe it hurts too much to remember how they were at first, before that fresh-faced innocence was beaten out of them – and they tell themselves that they want to teach these newbies that it’s ‘not all beer and skittles’, so to speak. Soon enough the comments begin and they are offloading all of their unresolved anger and pain at how they have been treated onto the next generation – the comments all of us are familiar with. They dress it up by saying they are just “taking the piss out of someone”, that it is a bit of fun, and it is even seen as trying to help them by “thickening their skin” – getting them ready because this is what working life is all about. Meanwhile we all stand back because we accept it as being the Aussie way.

But these comments do hurt, at any age.

Nobody likes being told they are useless or a waste of space, and when it’s laced with profanities it’s even worse. We are taught through observing those that walk before us that real men don’t dare show their feelings or emotions. We are meant to be the solid, unresponsive men who let the abuse roll off us like water off a duck’s back. Deep down and in reality we all know however, that this is not the case. We all know we are sensitive to being hurt. We also know that we hold back expressing how we feel.

But if we don’t stop and name the game we are all playing, where and when is it going to end?

Why is the fact that suicide for young people in our industry is twice the normal rate, not enough to stop us in our tracks? Which generation is going to be the first to put their hand up and say “enough”? And how is it possible for the new generation coming through to make that call when it is the older generation that holds the upper hand?

With the fear of losing their first job hanging over their head, young men who are employed often put up with emotional bullying – and for a young man starting out, possibly with a family, he needs the income. So what starts out as a few comments can escalate if nothing is said: the bully knows that he has power over the apprentice/worker and his confidence in knowing how much he can get away with grows to where the abuse can become a thrice daily occurrence. Nothing or no one is questioning his behaviour so he doesn’t consider that how he is treating this young guy is crushing him.

And what about the young man getting abused?

Yes, he should speak up, but it can be quite an intimidating time and he may not know where to turn to as he may be bullied by several men at work, and if the men at work seem friendly with the boss he often thinks that the boss will take the co-workers’ side over the new guy. Often he will accept the abuse, such is his need and desire to fit in.

So that leaves a young man left out in the cold, feeling alone and being abused. Everyone knows that constant abuse can be devastating. What is worse, we have developed a culture where a man feels ashamed and weak for feeling hurt, so often that young man is not going to share his pain with anyone. In such a situation, he is not many steps away from becoming withdrawn and depressed, a path that may start him out on a self-medication plan with drugs and alcohol so he can numb the pain that he feels on a constant basis. Alternatively, he may harden up and in time become the bully.

Or perhaps he may decide to stop it once and for all through suicide.

Could the path to suicide start by not expressing how you feel?

Not every young man who is being bullied is going to suicide, and we clearly cannot say for sure that the building industry culture is the only reason for suicide, but the fact that the suicide rate in construction is twice that of other industries is cause to stop and consider what is going on. What is also worthy of note is that for every completed suicide another twenty or thirty attempt it!

Even more to the point, why should the rate of suicide alone be the wake up call that is needed to tell us that the culture of the industry is hurting us?

The building industry is plagued by a myriad of other issues that are rarely if ever talked about. Depression, drug abuse, work dis-satisfaction, burnout, exhaustion, and domestic violence also sit quietly in the background, affecting more men that would like to admit to such problems.

Men in the building industry like to pretend that they can handle it, that they can deal with it. But it is naive to think that we can be one way 10 hours a day, 5-6 days a week, and then magically think that we do not bring that abruptness and hardness home to our wives and children and extended family. It is time to stop and consider who we truly are and truly want to be.

Construction is a hard, physical job, but why do we let that hardness determine who we are as men? Why do we let it own us? Why do we let it change us? How have we so easily forgotten the ease and open-ness that we shared with others when we were boys?

Yes, it is easy to say that such open-ness does not serve us in the real world, to say that the way we were as boys has no place in a man’s world.

Yet it is equally obvious that the hardened exterior, the tattoos, the 5 day growth and the gruff voice is not working either, and neither can it hide the fact that as men we are suffering the consequences of how we have chosen to be – in our relationships, in our health, in our mental state of being.

It is easy to give in and say that this is the culture of the industry, the culture of being a man and I can’t change it. But culture is only made up of individuals. It is individuals who make culture, not the other way around.

So how different would it be if we could learn to feel comfortable communicating with each other instead of not sharing, bottling up and waiting for the pressure cooker we turn into to blow off steam – usually at the expense of another?

Whilst no-one is actually to blame for someone committing suicide (there are many contributing factors), each and every one of us has a responsibility in the fact that we are always communicating with people, and how we respond does have an effect on all those around us.

Clearly it is time we got honest with the fact that the way we foster the culture in the building industry is not working – for us individually, for us as a society. It makes no sense that we put on the hardened shell to go to work, but then change who we are the moment we hold our daughter’s hand. Why the disparity? Why do we change who we know we can be if given the chance?

It is time to question deeply the way we hold ourselves as men – for the betterment of all – so that we can re-connect to and express from the deeply caring and courageous men that we would want our young children to know us to be.

With that in mind, which generation is going to be the one to change?

Which man will put his hand up and finally say the way we are going about things is clearly not working; that we are going to be the ones ensuring the next generation does not have to experience the emotional hardship we had to endure?

As Albert Einstein said, “The world is a dangerous place to live;
not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it”.


  • [1]

    Australian Institute for Suicide Research and Prevention. (2006). Suicide in Queensland’s Commercial Building and Construction Industry. Nathan, QLD: Griffith University.

  • [2]

    Cole, T.R.H. (2003). Final Report of the Royal Commission into the Building Construction Industry. Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia.

Filed under

DepressionBurnoutBullyingStressDrugsDomestic violenceExhaustion

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Photography: Clayton Lloyd