Work stress is seriously harming the mental health of the people building Australia, according to new research from Queensland’s Bond University.
Almost 500 participants (84 from small organisations, 124 from medium organisations and 281 from large organisations) were involved in the research.
Of those participants, 253 were construction project managers (CPM), 124 were construction administration personnel (CAP) and 112 were people across non-construction business at large (NCB).
The research found that work pressures were the main source of stress for CPMs and affected their ability to perform their jobs.
In contrast, workers across business at large said non-work issues were the greatest contributors to stress.
Professor Alan Patching, the report’s author and who was project director for construction of the Sydney Olympic Stadium, is calling for systemic change in the Australian construction industry to protect workers’ mental health. The consequences of failing to act included suicide, he said.
Professor Patching detailed that a cut-throat approach to tendering and wafer-thin profit margins were driving the stress epidemic.
“The current most commonly used contracting system effectively often requires tenderers to bid with low or no margin prices and/or to offer reduced construction time in order to win work,” he said.
“That, in turn, requires appointing more experienced and usually already over-committed construction project managers to manage the project in a way that drives some level of profit from it.”
“Many of the participants in my research told stories of the impacts of this on their health and on their family life that were disturbing, to say the least, with some reporting having experienced suicide ideation.”
Professor Patching noted that even those construction companies sensitive to the issue of employee stress tended to deal with it via employee assistance programs after the fact, rather than take steps to avoid and manage stress before it escalated.
“That’s better than nothing, but it’s often a bit like closing the door after the horse has bolted,” the Professor commented.
“It would be far better to avoid a lot of stress by ensuring that workloads are appropriate and prices and schedule times for projects are reasonable.”
Professor Patching said construction industry culture was a key stumbling block to taking action.
Research from 2009 showed absenteeism due to stress-related illness increased dramatically in every area of business except construction, despite concerning suicide rates among construction workers over the period of the study.
“It was not that construction people were not experiencing stress-related illness, they simply did not report it for fear of appearing weak in an industry reputed for its tough image,” Professor Patching said. “My research confirmed that this attitude is still very much alive and kicking. It needs to be eradicated.”
Professor Patching says the Federal Government’s recent announcement that it would bring forward $3.8 billion of infrastructure spending was an opportunity to also fast-track mental health initiatives in the industry.
“What better time to include a component of education regarding stress impacts and how to avoid and manage them,” he said.
“Better still, what better time to really think about contracting approaches that safeguard taxpayers’ interests, provide a reasonable return to contractors for work well performed, and ensure that no one ever has to knock on a construction project manager’s door and tell his or her family that their breadwinner will not be coming home again.”
Below are some key points from the research:
Personal experience of stress-related issue
- 58 per cent of participants agreed or strongly agreed that they had experienced stress more consistently than they would have liked over the preceding months, compared with 23 per cent who somewhat disagreed or strongly disagreed.
- 40 per cent of CPMs rated that stress over the previous month at 70 per cent or higher, compared with 32 per cent of CAPs and 27 per cent of NCBs
- 6.1 per cent of CPMs rated that stress over the previous month at 90 per cent or higher, compared with 4.2 per cent of CAPs and 3.6 per cent of NCBs
General perceptions of stress
- Stress was more caused by work factors for CPMs and by home factors for CAPs and NCBs
- More CPMs considered their work to be stressful than did CAPs and NCBs
- CPMs and NCBs from small organisations believed stress affected their ability to perform at work more so than NCBs from small orgs
- CPMs from medium organisations believed stress affected their ability to perform at work more so than CAPs and NCBs from small orgs
- CPMs and CAPs from large organisations believed stress affected their ability to perform at work more so than NCBs from large orgs
Attitudes to training of leaders and employees in stress avoidance and management
- The majority of participants disagreed or strongly disagreed with the proposition that stress should be a matter left for individuals to address and was not the responsibility of employers (68 per cent of PCMs, 55 per cent of CAPs and 52 per cent of NCBs)
- The result above was reasonably consistent across organisation sizes, with fewer participants employed in small organisations disagreeing or strongly disagreeing with the proposition than those from medium or large (44 per cent from small orgs, 53 per cent from medium and 69 per cent from large either disagreed or strongly disagreed with the proposition)
- Participants across role types either agreed or strongly agreed that organisations should train their leaders and managers in stress avoidance and management techniques (90 per cent of CPMs, 81 per cent of CAPs and 75 per cent of NCBs)
- This level of agreement was consistent across organisation size as well (73 per cent, 83 per cent and 88 per cent of participants from small, medium and large organisations respectively).
Existence of stress avoidance and/or stress management program in the participant’s organisation
- 81 per cent of small organisation participants, 56 per cent of medium and 39 per cent of large organisation participants reported that their employers had a stress avoidance program (usually working hour rules and processes oriented) in operation
- A surprising 36 per cent of participants from large organisations were not sure whether or not their organisations had a stress avoidance program in place, compared with approximately 6 per cent of small organisations and 10 per cent of medium
- Construction participants were somewhat negative towards stress avoidance programs, and an early pilot study to the full research indicated that this was because to adopt stress avoidance practices commonly used in general business (such as limiting hours worked per week or number of weekends worked per month) actually tended to increase stress for construction employees, especially when they were behind schedule and approaching a non-movable contractual deadline
- Notwithstanding the above, approx. 14 per cent of CPMs agreed or strongly agreed that their stress avoidance program was effective, compared with approx. 20 per cent of CAPs and 15 per cent of NCBs.