Re-inventing Kiwi 'tough tradies' mentality

Electrician Dave Burt shares his story about battling depression Photo credit: Supplied

After undergoing 19 surgeries and spending hours on hospital wards, Long Bay electrician Dave Burt slid into despair. But he hid it so well no-one knew he was struggling.

Burt is a successful businessman, Master Electrician board director, and owner of Team Cabling on the North Shore. He's also proud to stand up and admit he's battled depression.

"When I felt depressed I was terrified people would find out. I didn’t want to be judged and defined by a mental illness, and I didn’t want people to think less of me. It was only after my book 'Lengthening the Shadow' was published that I effectively let the cat out of the bag," Burt says.

According to Site Safe’s Suicide Mortality Review Committee (2016) the New Zealand construction industry has the highest proportion of suicides across all industries in New Zealand. At 6.9% it is marginally higher than farming and forestry at 6.8%.This means 6.9% of all employed male suicides in New Zealand are committed by the construction industry workforce.

The report says there is currently no NZ research to explain why the rate of suicide for the construction industry is so high, or what the underlying mental health issues for the workforce might be. There’s also no data on the prevalence of depression and suicide among electricians specifically. However Site Safe is currently working with BRANZ to highlight the issue.  

Physical activity and writing a book helped Dave overcome depression. Photo credit: Supplied

Burt has his own ideas about why this figure is so high. “We work in a stressful industry which by its very nature is challenging. There’s a tough image to live up to, my mates are tough so I need to be tough too.”

"We probably need to redefine the image of what a 'tough tradie' is. It can be as easy as taking time out to find out how someone is, even if you feel awkward. As blokes I don’t think we do enough talking," he says.

"We’re also not dealing with the situation as a country and our government needs to be doing more, and as a result of this people are not getting the help they desperately need," he says.

Freedom of physical exercise

A gym challenge 'saved' Dave. "For me physical activity really helped me. I was running 3kms a day, so I was alone in the morning and able to think about everything properly. It was almost like complete mindfulness. I also kept a diary about this time and wrote in it every day, which is how my book started."

As a director on Master Electrician’s board, Burts thinks if you hold office in any industry you need to lead by example. "I'm more than happy for people to think if Dave’s crazy it’s alright for me to be crazy too."

Initiatives like a buddy system for young apprentices could help Photo credit: Supplied

"Other electrical companies have requested copies of my book for their staff, and we've given it out to our team. My main message is 'mates need to look out for their mates'. Since the book came out I’ve had people ring me and say ‘you’re the last person I would think had depression’, and then they open up and tell me their stories. There is some tough stuff people are going through."

Burt says a constructive tool in place at Team Cabling is a buddy system for young apprentices, which they will implement over the next few weeks.

"It’s making sure people do ask the question, tell me what’s happening, and normalising this. Don’t wait for your mate to say something, feel confident to ask at an appropriate time in an appropriate way."

More noise needed

Burt thinks there needs to be more noise around this sensitive subject, and appreciates Master Electricians is doing what it can to shine some light on the topic in their next upcoming seminar series.

Dave Burt with the Chairman of the Electrical Workers Registration Board Mel Orange Photo credit: Supplied

Master Electricians NZ CEO, Bernie McLaughlin says "We are right on board with Dave and we want to play our part in helping those that are struggling in our industry and the wider construction industry, however we can."

Unconditional love and support from his family, and wife Jo, has been crucial for Burt in turning his life around. "My grandkids are a great part of my world, and my wife Jo is my rock."

Asked if he ever gets tired of listening to other people’s struggles, Burt says no. He’s happy to be a lifeline for others.

"Say you’ve played rugby all your life and now want to coach to give something back. This is what I’m doing now, I’m using my life experiences to give something back, and hopefully help some people who may be in a dark place."

You can hear Burt speak at the next Master Electricians seminar. He'll talk about his experience, the tools he used on his road to recovery and possible industry solutions. Plus he'll front a Q&A session.

See more about the other topics Master Electricians will be covering in their next seminar series by going to the Master Electricians website.




1737, Need to talk? Free call or text 1737 any time for support from a trained counsellor

Lifeline – 0800 543 354 or (09) 5222 999 within Auckland

Samaritans – 0800 726 666

Suicide Crisis Helpline – 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) – or email or free text 5626

Anxiety New Zealand - 0800 ANXIETY (0800 269 4389)

Supporting Families in Mental Illness - 0800 732 825.

Alcoholics Anonymous - 0800 AA WORKS, or

If it is an emergency or you, or someone you know, is at risk call 111.

This article is created for Master Electricians.