The shirts bringing colour and mental health conversations to Australian construction sites
6 November 2019 at 8:40 am
You can’t miss a TradeMutt work shirt. The patterns are loud, bright and funky, and definitely not what you’re used to seeing people wear on a construction site. But the shirts are more than just a pretty picture, they’re also saving lives, writes Maggie Coggan in this month’s Spotlight on Social Enterprise.
Australian male tradies are twice as likely to commit suicide than they would be in any other job and are six times as likely to die by suicide than they are in a workplace accident.
The shocking statistics are something that former tradies and the founders of TradeMutt, Daniel Allen and Ed Ross, have first-hand experience with.
At the end of 2015, one of Allen’s best friends took his own life, a tragedy that took Allen and Ross completely by surprise.
“The Friday before it happened, Dan got a phone call from his mate telling him that he’d just gotten his mature aged carpentry apprenticeship. It was something that he’d been working for years,” Ross tells Pro Bono News.
“And then Sunday morning, it was all over. The news just came completely out of the blue.”
He says the incident highlighted a disconnect around mental health conversation among their peers, and how desperately something needed to change.
But as it turns out, they’d already figured out half the plan.
Spending hours on job sites together, brain-storming alternative business ideas, Allen and Ross realised there was a gap in the market for alternative work-wear.
“We already had this idea of funky work shirts, and then we heard about what social enterprise was, and it was a light bulb moment of realising that this idea could be more than just a fun work shirt,” Ross says.
He explains that the bold patterns are impossible to ignore, just like mental health should be.
Each shirt comes with a message explaining that what you’ve bought isn’t just a fun work shirt, it’s a beacon of hope for people to open up and talk in a casual and non-judgemental way.
The right pocket of the shirt also features the letters YNWA, which stands for You’ll Never Walk Alone.
Ross says this is a tribute to Allen’s friend, who lived and breathed Liverpool Football Club but is also a reminder for anyone wearing one of these shirts that they will never have to walk alone either.
“The biggest thing with our mental health message is we’re not driving it down people’s throats and we want to change the way people look at it,” he explains.
“When people think of mental health, they think about depression and anxiety and it’s really heavy hard shit. I think if that was the way people looked at a broken leg, we’d never want to talk about our physical health either.
“We’re just trying to rebrand it and make it something that people are happy to talk about.”
He says from the get-go, the community response to the shirts and the impact the shirts have been having is overwhelmingly positive.
In the past 18 months, Ross has gotten calls from construction site managers with stories of whole job sites talking about their mental health because of the shirts, to a man who is now using the shirts and the conversations sparked by the loud prints to overcome his social anxiety.
But there is one story in particular that stands out for Ross.
“A bloke rang me up telling me his son had bought one of our shirts, and when the son came through the door wearing it, he asked what it was all about,” he says.
What started as a simple question turned into an hour-long discussion around the death of the man’s wife and the son’s mother, which had gone un-talked about for a decade.
“They had a teary and were able to work it all out, and I remember him saying to me that that bloody shirt was the reason they were able to talk about any of it,” Ross says.
“After I heard that story I just had to sit back for about 30 minutes and really think about how crazy it is that a colourful piece of fabric is making that kind of difference to people.”
Five per cent of the profits also go towards their NFP foundation, This is a Conversation Starter, which once fully operational will offer a free text back service connecting people directly to clinical psychologists.
Ross explains that launching this service will be a gamechanger for closing the gap on the everyday punter seeking professional help in a financially viable, non-invasive way.
“A text line is discrete – you can stop texting whenever you want, and it’s an easy way to inject people into getting the mental health care they need,” he says.
He explains that while they are not far off launching it, they need to go slowly to make sure it’s done right.
“It’s going to cost the foundation $150 an hour to operate, so we need to make sure we have the cash in the bank to support the influx of people using it,” he says.
But with positive cash flow from the first week of TradeMutt’s first presale 18 months ago, financial viability hasn’t been a challenge.
“Dan and I have been doing it solo since June last year, but we were able to hire a full-time staff member a few weeks back,” he says.
He says that one of the biggest challenges has been managing people’s expectations of what they can achieve.
“People often call up asking if we make active-wear or have more stock and as much as we’d love to do all those things, people underestimate how much work it takes to get something like this up off the ground, make it financially sustainable and also make a social impact,” he says.
Ross says aside from the five new designs launching in 2020, one of their big focuses will be to build a strong community around their products.
“Once someone comes through our door and becomes a part of our community, we want you to stay with us. We want you to see what we’re putting up on social media, hearing our messages and evolving with us,” he explains.
“We really want to create a big group of like-minded people so we can keep the message and conversation going.”
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