Shining a light on a dark time – an interview with Dave Burt

Dave Burt is an owner and director of Team Cabling, an electrical business that operates in Auckland, Waikato, Wellington and Christchurch. In February this year Dave published his first book ‘Lengthening the Shadow’, detailing his struggle with depression and how he has fought to overcome it.

Electron spoke with Dave about how struggling with depression led to him opening up, writing a book and how having an understanding of mental health struggles has changed how he runs his businesses. 

What is your background in the electrical industry?

I have been in the industry for 40 years, having started off as an apprentice at 17. Along with business partners I now own four electrical businesses, with over 100 staff.

When did you realise that you were suffering from depression?

I had been feeling down for a while but didn’t talk to anyone about how I was feeling for a long time. In the end my wife, who is a nurse, noticed I was struggling and said “I think you’re depressed”. She got me to talk about it and encouraged me to go to the doctor. You can often feel unmotivated to do anything about it so her recognising that there might be a problem and recommending I see my GP really helped me out. Often people don’t realise how bad their mental health situation is.

How widespread is mental health as an issue in the construction sector?

When I was doing some research for presentations that I gave this year, I found out that although health and safety is a big deal in the industry, we actually lose six times more workers to suicide than accidents. The construction industry has the highest reported suicide rate of any industry in New Zealand; higher than farming or forestry.

The construction industry is a male-dominated sector and I think that we don’t really talk about our feelings or reach out. We need to change the culture and have a different view on what ‘being tough’ means. We need to change it to meaning being there for your mates and speaking to someone if you’re struggling.

What are you doing as a business owner to support mental wellbeing?

In twenty years of self-employment I probably had one conversation about mental wellbeing with a colleague or employee. Since my book came out in February, it’s opened up so many conversations around the subject.

Overall as a business we are generally trying to discuss mental health more. We put articles in the newsletter, raise the subject in health and safety meetings and have provided every employee with a copy of the book. Through reading the book my employees get to know about the struggles I have had. We are putting programmes in place within the business and employees know where they can go for help.

Wellbeing in the construction industry is in its infancy; however there are some great wellbeing programmes out there. St John Ambulance runs a Mental Health First Aid Training Course, the Mental Health Foundation has a ‘Five Ways to Wellbeing at Work Toolkit’ and in Australia there’s ‘Mates in Construction’ which uses training as a tool to raise awareness of suicide rates, risk factors and solutions. This programme is heading to New Zealand soon.

How did you decide to write a book?

I’d started a gym challenge that meant I had to run three kilometres a day. Every day I got up early and went for a run and would have thoughts rattling around in my head. I’d get home from the run and jot down some notes. One day, I read all the notes and started writing the book. I never intended to publish it!

What is the book about?

The main focus of the book is mental wellbeing, set to the backdrop of the ten week challenge and how it was for me living and dealing with depression. Through writing the book, I realised that my life is not much different to everyone else’s. People wouldn’t have known that I struggle with depression - I had become a master at hiding it. I would go to work and put my game face on. After the book was released, a huge number of people rang me and said “I didn’t think this was something that you would be dealing with”.

Did the gym challenge benefit your mental health?

Yes the gym challenge really helped with my struggle. To complete the challenge I had to get up early to exercise and be organised with preparing the right food. It was quite hard out and a big change to my lifestyle – it got me out of my rut. There’s a strong correlation between mental wellbeing and physical activity which I found it really useful.

What steps would you recommend for someone to take if they realise they are struggling with their mental health?

I would recommend that they speak with someone that they trust and let them know that they are dealing with a challenging situation.  The first port of call would be visiting their GP and seeing what they recommend.

I would recommend a combination of things;

  • Talk to a trusted person
  • Go and see your GP
  • Establish a support network
  • Physical exercise