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Mental health in the workplace – the last frontier

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Mental health in the workplace is becoming an increasing concern for many industries in New Zealand. In particular the construction, agriculture and hospitality sectors have been under fire for having a workplace culture which has led to significant mental health issues among staff and a high representation in suicide statistics.

The Government’s 2019 Budget announcement of $1.9 billion of extra spending on mental health will go a long way in helping Kiwis get support from their GP; however the workplace is still an area where many feel uncomfortable discussing mental health issues.

Research suggests traditional workplace programs such as EAP’s (Employment Assistance Programs) and mental health policies are still uncomfortable for many New Zealanders.

The corporate sector is leading with tailored and progressive mental health programs which engage staff and reflect the specific needs of their businesses. Evidence suggests targeted programs which understand the unique needs of each industry are necessary to deal with mental health challenges in the workplace.


In New Zealand, male-dominated industries such as construction and agriculture have been in the spotlight with the highest representation in damning mental health statistics.

These environments represent the many issues surrounding masculinity in New Zealand where men are three times more likely to commit suicide than women.

Recent reports have painted the construction industry as the most problematic. In 2016, a report by the Suicide Mortality Review Committee showed 7 percent of all working-age male suicides were in the building sector, the highest of any local industry.

Industry organisation Site Safe published the first investigation into suicide in the construction industry last month. The study looked at 300 coroner’s reports of suicide in construction workers to determine what has led to significant mental health issues in the industry.

The report identified many contributing factors such as job insecurity, long working hours, transient working conditions, masculine culture, social isolation, mental health issues, and substance abuse as well as relationship issues.

Massey University Clinical Psychology doctoral student Andrew Walmsey, who worked with Site Safe and the Building Research Association of New Zealand (BRANZ) on the report, said masculine culture was a major factor.

“What we know in terms of counselling and psychological therapies is that men are less likely to use these services than females and when men do use these platforms its often in an acute state, so I think male-dominated environments do create a lot of barriers for reaching out.”

Walmsey said many of the issues in the industry are being addressed in countries such as Australia and the United Kingdom. However research in New Zealand has been slow.

“In Australia, suicide rates in the construction industry are high compared to other occupations, same in the United Kingdom, so I think research is starting to come over and we’re starting to use that to make a difference.”

Massey University Clinical Psychology doctoral
student Andrew Walmsey. Photo: Supplied

Site Safe and BRANZ’s study provides recommendations for dealing with mental health issues, namely industry-led education programmes such as those by the Mental Health Foundation, education about mental health as part of industry training and increased funding and work in the mental health sector.

Walmsey’s current research, which he expects to complete next year, focuses on men’s perceptions of seeking help and using counselling services, as well as the effectiveness of shoulder-to-shoulder interventions.

Shoulder-to-shoulder interventions have been “very successful in engaging men” in the UK and involve taking part in a shared task such as a sporting exercise or community project. Trained mental health professionals also join in these activities, using them as a way of engaging men in conversations about wellbeing.

In Australia a programme called Mates in Construction has been celebrated as an example of how the industry should be dealing with mental health. The Mates in Construction program was started in Queensland in 2008 as a response to high levels of suicide among Australian construction workers.

The Mental Health Foundation’s Mark Wilson said industry programmes like Mates in Construction are a big part of the solution.

“I think Mates in Construction would be a really good example of how workers can help each other and it’s all about implementing wellbeing programs.”

Walmsey also said the implementation of the programme in New Zealand would be a good step towards “normalising” talking about mental health.

Solving the mental health crisis in construction is complicated by the fact the majority of the industry is made up of small sub-contractors, making it difficult to implement wide-reaching initiatives.

Running a small business also takes a significant mental toll with research earlier this year by MYOB showing 31 percent of small to medium-sized business owners reported experiencing a work-related mental health condition.

In 2016, a report by the Suicide Mortality Review Committee showed 7 percent of all working-age male suicides were in the building sector, the highest of any local industry.

Site Safe’s recent study also found self-employed business owners in the construction industry were twice as likely to have work-related factors related to mental health issues

Walmsey said the industry needs to provide extra “support” for small companies to help them deal with the mental challenges of being self-employed.

Wilson agreed that small businesses are harder to reach through mental health initiatives.

“The construction sector is a tricky one because you’ve got a lot of sole operators and it’s pretty relentless kind of work and that’s a complex thing of getting to people like that, who may be stressing about the financial side of things, working with a young apprentice, the stresses of managing that.”


The hospitality industry is a “toxic environment from the top down” according to workers’ rights activist Chloe Ann-King.

Ann-King, who has spent 14 years in the industry, said there are numerous issues which have led to problems with mental health and suicide.

“Low pay, major breaches to minimum standards of employment, no breaks, often no holiday pay, wage theft is rampant. It’s not recorded and a lot of workers don’t even know they’re being stolen off, they just think that’s how it is. No access to sick pay, it’s predominantly an unregulated industry, employment law isn’t really enforced and sexual harassment is pretty rampant and almost the accepted norm.”

Suicide cases both internationally and locally have shone a spotlight on the many factors that have led to mental health issues in the industry.

In June last year celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain committed suicide after years of success, shocking the industry. In 2017 Auckland chef Matt Bing took his own life after living with depression for a long time. In the same year top Australian chef Jeremy Strode, an ambassador for suicide prevention, also chose to end his life.

Marisa Bidois, Chief Executive Officer, Restaurant Association of NZ

The Restaurant Association’s Marisa Bidois said they began taking action towards mental health and wellbeing after many of their members raised concerns.

“We had a number of chefs who were members coming to us, saying that we think this is something that could be an issue. We don’t have any stats so we’ve really sort of relied on the industry saying that they would like more information, but I think it’s a national problem.”

Bidois said there were many factors contributing to mental health issues in hospitality, however only some were specific to the industry.

“I think there are issues that are very similar across the country to be honest, I think something specific to our industry, some of these things can be working late at night, losing touch with friends and family who are working a 9 to 5 job.”

Bidios said the association had been working with the Mental Health Foundation to implement wellness training for staff and business-owners.

“It’s really about educating our industry about wellness and how individuals and business owners can manage that, because there’s no one thing that is necessarily going to trigger mental health issues. It’s usually a combination of different things, so we want to empower and educate people around some of the things that they can do to mitigate potential mental health issues.”

Ann-King said the association is “clearly in favour of the bosses”, focusing only on the mental health of owners, chefs and high level staff, while ignoring those at lower levels who are suffering the most.

“I don’t think any action has really been taken for the bartenders and the floor staff, there’s quite a bit of action around chefs having their mental health looked after. The hospitality associations have made a big fuss around the mental health of chefs, who are predominantly male and can often be quite bullying. So they are looking after the very people who are often the problem.”

Sexual harassment is particularly prevalent, Ann-King said, and is something that has led to her developing some of her own mental health issues.

“There are only so many times you can be harassed and outright assaulted in your own workplace before it starts impacting your mental health and we can’t even afford therapy because we’re paid so poorly.”

The data around sexual harassment in any workplace is unknown given the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment only began recording allegations in July last year.

Spark’s Grant Pritchard said organisations need to look beyond
the traditional ways of approaching workplace mental health.

However across the ditch a survey of hospitality workers by the union United Voice found almost 90 percent of respondents had been sexually harassed in some form at work. Ninety percent of those who featured in the survey were female.

Nineteen percent of those who had been harassed also experienced sexual assault at some point while working in the industry.

Ann-King said she has worked in both Australia and New Zealand and the experience is “pretty similar”.

“Imagine going to your workplace and you’ve got an 11 percent chance of not being sexually harassed and it’s something like 19 percent having been outright sexually assaulted at work. But we’re not included in the #metoo movement because we’re poor workers and we don’t matter.”


Just about every major organisation in New Zealand’s corporate sector has an employee assistance programme (EAP) and a workplace policy around mental health. However, telecommunication giants Spark and Vodafone found that a one-size fits all approach didn’t work for them.

Spark’s Grant Pritchard said organisations need to look beyond the traditional ways of approaching workplace mental health.

Pritchard has spearheaded a major overhaul of Spark’s mental health support for employees and also acts as an advocate for changing the way businesses approach mental health.

His journey began with the loss of a friend and colleague. Four years ago Pritchard was unable to talk about his own mental health, now he is leading one of New Zealand’s most progressive and successful workplace mental health programs.

“Losing my workmate was really the thing that made me decide that I didn’t want to work somewhere that said nothing and did nothing about mental health. That’s why I’m really proud of what we are doing at Spark.”

Beginning with an open dialogue at a staff conference in 2017, Spark has been heavily engaged in mental health initiatives in the workplace, building up a volunteer staff of around 650 employees and today having almost 60 percent of staff engaging with its mental health platforms.

Pritchard said the only reason employers should need to invest in mental health is that “it’s the right thing do.”

However there is a strong business case for mental health investment in the workplace. In 2014, a PwC report estimated that every dollar spent on workplace mental health actions would generate $2.30 in benefits to the organisation.

In November last year the report from the Government Inquiry into Mental Health and Addiction found that every dollar spent on mental health services will repay New Zealand with $3.50 in productivity gains and other benefits.

“Your people will love it and from a business and financial perspective it just makes total sense,” Pritchard said.

Vodafone’s Manaaki Support Network is similar to Spark’s programme and is made up of a group of volunteers from every level of the business who are trained to deal with mental health, domestic violence and other challenges.

Vodafone’s Lani Evans said Vodafone had in place “robust” EAP programmes and policies, however they weren’t connecting with or engaging staff.

Vodafone’s Lani Evans. Photo: Supplied

“Vodafone had some really incredible policies around things like mental health, bullying and family violence. We didn’t get a whole lot of uptake with those, so people knew these policies and they were really robust and well-written but people weren’t necessarily using them.

“The Manaaki Support Network came from the idea that actually in order to make those policies accessible we had to make them more human, safer and warmer. We don’t do that by having really good words that are written on a website somewhere, we do that through people.”

Evans said it’s important to allow employees to bring their “whole selves” and not just their “professional persona” into the workplace.

Pritchard agrees and said the idea that you can completely separate your work life from your personal life is “unhealthy” and “unrealistic”.

“A lot of what we’ve been doing is about tapping into people’s real selves and saying before you were professional, before you were a lawyer or a comms person you were a human and if you’re feeling lost, if you’re going through a tough time at work or home, you don’t need to do it on your own.”



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