Knowing it would face many workplace wellbeing issues, along with health and safety, the Well-Connected Alliance (WCA) aspired to build better lives as it built the NZ Transport Agency’s Waterview Connection project.
The WCA created a Better Lives Committee, dedicated to running health and wellbeing initiatives around the project’s six main construction sites. The Waterview Connection is New Zealand’s most ambitious roading project, with up to 1000 construction workers accessing the Auckland roading site each day.
“It’s about creating better lives for everyone – enriching the lives of our workers and their families with stronger relationships and good work,” says Victoria Middleton, an occupational nurse for Fletcher Construction, who was also the Committee’s chair and the project’s wellbeing advisor.
Health and wellbeing messages were spread face-to-face as Victoria regularly visited each of the project’s six sites, speaking at tool box meetings. The Better Lives Committee also used the project’s written communications – the weekly project newsletter called Quick Connect, the Better Lives newsletter and the Better Lives Dashboard (see below for examples) – to communicate simple messages and ideas to take home and share with family/whānau.
They also used these communications to publicise company-supported social activities, such as fun runs, fundraisers and other community-minded activities. “The site administrators would print our communications out and put them up on noticeboards. The workers did read them – I often saw the guys sitting, reading them on breaks,” Victoria says.
Victoria and the committee concentrated on common themes to help improve workplace wellbeing. They shared ways to get active, eat well and manage fatigue. They also addressed mental health issues, including depression, and health issues such as diabetes or high blood pressure. To prevent sprains and strains they instigated regular morning stretches on site.
They also – importantly – put a lot of effort into encouraging workers to quit smoking.
“We’ve seen a major culture shift around smoking since the project’s been going. When I started you could smoke pretty much anywhere on site,” says Victoria.
Office workers had to walk through people smoking outside the buildings to get to work. “They didn’t like that. We’ve got a drug and alcohol-free site, so I questioned why we didn’t also have a smoke-free site.”
While Victoria hasn’t achieved a smokefree site yet, smoking is now restricted to certain areas. “I asked about smoking areas when I arrived but got turned down. Then one superintendent declared a newly built area to be smokefree, and little by little that spread.
“Now there’s no smoking anywhere people are eating. There are covered areas for smokers away from the main break sheds, and office workers aren’t allowed to smoke by main entrances. There’s far more respect for non-smokers, and smokers manage each other – you see them telling each other not to smoke in certain areas and to pick up their butts.”
To illustrate the change in attitude, Victoria is planning to do another survey to see who’s smoking so she can compare it to a survey taken when work started on 2012. That survey found:
- 17% of all workers smoked
- 8.3% of office workers smoked
- 37% of site staff smoked.
She says it’s probably an unlucky coincidence, but a lot of the people on the project have been affected by cancer.
“We had one smoker die of lung cancer early in the project, only three months after diagnosis. We painted a gantry yellow for the Cancer Society and named it after him. His death and others being diagnosed with smoking-related illnesses has motivated quite a few people to give up.”
And when they come looking for help, help is ready. “I’m very subtle,” says Victoria. “I know that if I push anything, they will push back and go against what I say! A little bit of education, speaking the right language and not using medical terminology, goes a long way.
“I always say, 'I’m here, I’ve got what you need and I can get you up and running and support you'. We’ve got starter packs of nicotine replacement gum, lozenges and patches so they can see what works for them.” These medications are subsidised through the Quitline and other health providers.
She also encourages her quitters to use My Quit Buddy, a quit smoking app developed by the Australian Government.
Victoria enjoys sharing how quitting smoking completely changed one worker’s life. “One of our guys fell asleep on a fork hoist and it turned out he had sleep apnoea. I got him in for a chat and some health monitoring. He was overweight and he wanted to give up smoking.
“I got him a hospital appointment to have him checked out – it took him three months to make it there! Then he got the support he needed to quit smoking.”
“Three months later I saw him out riding a bike. He’d lost 20 kilos and was moving to Australia to join the police. He thanked me, saying I’d saved his life and possibly his kids’ lives through all the behaviour change at home. It’s just the best story.”
Importantly, like all their wellbeing programmes, the project’s nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) is open to all workers, whether staff or subcontractors. “We treat all the guys and girls the same. We don’t discriminate. And the feedback we hear is that they are proud to be on this site because they’re looked after and included. They’re not separated or segregated and love being treated as part of the team.”
For more information about how the Better Lives Committee built better lives, please email Victoria Middleton.
WCA’s work has been recognised with a Heartbeat Challenge Award from the Auckland Regional Public Health Service (ARPHS).