MATES In Construction build online 'Smoko Room' to support workers

updated By James Perry

While many professional workers have been able to continue to work from home during the lockdown period, that isn't possible for many other industries like construction.

Slade McFarland, field officer for MATES In Construction who work to raise awareness of suicide and mental health within the construction industry says the lockdown, and subsequent shutdown of construction sites has impacted greatly on the workers most affected.

"That uncertainty is so real for them, they’re just like us. We’ve got families. I’m fortunate, I’m lucky I’ve got a boss that’s still paying us, still doing it and I feel guilty actually to be real. I feel guilty because I have to justify that I do my job every day, and there’s some of these guys out there that lost their jobs and now they’re freaking out about where’s the next pay coming in," McFarland told Te Ao Māori News.

As a result, they've set up an online 'Smoko Room', where those who are struggling can join a forum with the likes of McFarland. They can then discuss the issues at hand, and to seek help as they navigate through the current situation. 

It was launched last week and provides for up to 5 people at a time to chat with the team at MATES in Construction for up to 1 hour at a time, with the ability to hold more than one a day if needed. 

MATES in Construction launched in New Zealand in November last year. Just last month they announced McFarland as the national field officer to lead the rollout of suicide awareness programs in worksites addressing the high number of self-harm incidents in the industry.

A report released last year showed construction had the highest number of incidents in the year to June 2019, with 47 people taking their own lives. CEO of MATES in Construction, Victoria McArthur says services such as theirs are needed more than ever.

They've increased the amount of their 0800 111 1315 phonelines to seven, "So you know someone will be on the other end of that phone within seconds of ringing so you’re not going to be waiting for an hour."

"We’re looking at all sorts of ways, video communications, and the Smoko Room is the biggest initiative to actually just bring people back into an environment where they feel they’ve got their mates around them, they’ve got that peer support, they’ve got somebody that they can check in with," McArthur says.

McFarland facilitated the first online discussion last Wednesday and says they discussed how people are coping living in their bubbles, and what that looks like for them. He says that some have been able to keep to some daily routines, such as daily church services, or talking with whānau across the country or Australia.

"We did talk about that some of us have that privilege of having a backyard that we can go to and not many of our construction workers will have that ability to actually just walk outside and have a bit of space, and they can call that free time.

"So we still do exactly what as we do,  we do it in pairs, and if there’s a way that we have to remove ourselves out of that video chat, is to try and get hold of that person as quickly as possible, so we don’t disrupt too much of the actual content that the guys are talking about at one time," McFarland says.

Staying home is a challenge for many construction workers. However, McFarland says the workers understand the importance of doing so to protect themselves and their families from COVID-19.

"It’s a real test on their patience too because now you’re having to live within your partner's space, your kids space. Their environment was away from home and in a workspace where they’re seeing their levels of achievement each day, cause they’re seeing the building going up.

"Once you take that environment away from them, and put them in an alien environment which they are right now, it’s almost at the point now where they’re quite caged. It’s almost like an animal mentality, when anybody’s caged up they’re going to try to find a way to get out.

"But we realise that if we do break the rules, or do go outside of that we’re finding ourselves potentially could be affected, or we’re infecting others," he says.

Victoria McArthur urges people within the construction to reach out for help if they feel the need, 

"This isn’t the time to just sit back and struggle on your own. There are resources out there for you. There’s the like of ourselves if you want to engage with us.

"There’s all sorts of other resources, but this is the time to reach out for help. Don’t sit back and try and push through this on your own. It’s the time more than ever to actually check in with your mates and make sure everybody is ok around you and that you’re ok as well.

The Online Lunch Room is open every day and can be found at 

McFarland says registering is a "pretty simple and straightforward process," by registering and choosing a day that suits. After a phone outlining the program and invitation to the Lunch Room will be sent.

Need to talk?

Free call or text 1737 anytime 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)
  • Samaritans:  0800 726-666
  • Youthline:  0800 376-633, free text 234 or email
  • What’s Up:  0800 942-8787 (for 5 to 18-year-olds)
  • Kidsline:  0800 54-37-54 (0800 kidsline) for young people up to 18 years old. Open 24/7.