Managing occupational stress among professionals in construction

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During my time in the construction industry, I have observed high levels of stress amongst my colleagues. I am sure that this observation is not mine alone.

It is thought that high levels of stress in the construction industry are due to the fact that construction work is characterised by change and uncertainty, which influences and promotes a stressful nature (Mohr and Wolfram 2010). As a result of these characteristics, work hours in the construction industry can be long and delivering projects on time and budget can be frequently compromised (Bowen et al 2013). Given these observations, I conducted a deeper study with the intent of delivering a holistic view on stress in the construction industry. I found some compelling correlations.

Haynes and Love (2004) determined that long work hours, high workload and insufficient time with family are the three most significant stressors experienced by construction industry workers in Australia. It comes as no surprise that consistent exposure to significant stressors such as these has been proven to have negative psychological, physiological and sociological impacts (Bowen et al. 2013). In fact, according to MATES in Construction (2016), every year 190 Australians working in the construction industry take their own lives. This means that construction workers are six times more likely to die from suicide compared to an accident at work (MATES in Construction 2016).

On the other hand, intermittent exposure to medium levels of stress has been proven to have positive impacts on organisational performance (refer Figure 1).

Figure 1: The relationship between stress and performance levels
Source: adapted from Forbes (2014)

Most of us have experienced some of the negative impacts of high levels of stress such as anxiety at work, trouble relaxing and disengaging after work and tension on family life. Likewise, the positive impacts of medium levels of stress (the optimal stress level) such as increased focus and determination, physiological toughness, psychological coping, emotional strength and a boosted immune system (Bowen et al. 2013). However, maintaining an optimal stress level is challenging in an industry characterised by change and uncertainty. Molen and Hoonakker (2000) found that construction companies are generally aware of the significant stressors experienced by their workers and that they are implementing varying degrees of action in order to handle them.

Employee Empowerment

The most common action in order to deal with stress in the workplace is to fix it after it has occurred (Savery and Luks 2001). For example, employee counselling and stress leave. In fact, it is estimated that the cost of stress leave and reduced productivity to Australian businesses exceeds $10 billion per annum (Safe Work Australia 2013).

A more effective action in order to deal with stress in the workplace is to give employees more control over their work. This is referred to as empowerment. Employee empowerment is defined by Business Dictionary (2015) as the “practice of sharing information, rewards, and power with employees so that they can take initiative and make decisions to solve problems and improve service and performance.” This may prevent stress from occurring in the first place and has the added benefit of promoting better organisational performance (Savery and Luks 2001). Employee empowerment has also been recognised as offering other benefits such as increased organisation reaction to problems and increased productivity and general morale (IBS 2011). As employees can take some degree of ownership in the decisions being made, it should also lead to a greater degree of unity amongst the team and more commitment from employees in attaining organisation goals.

Ward (1997) states that the “ultimate success” in implementing empowerment will hinge on the sincere commitment of both employees and management. Therefore, it is the role of managers to ensure that their organisations are truly on the road to commitment and are not merely being forced to comply. Figure 2 sets out the road to implementation of employee empowerment.

Figure 2: The road to implementation of employee empowerment
Source: adapted from Ward (1997)

When reading through these strategies, the deeper and perhaps less obvious benefits of employee empowerment become clear. For example, issuing financial information such as a “company balance sheet” may aid employees in understanding the financial implications of their actions. Knowledge of these implications may in turn set an improved baseline for better future decision making.

Ultimately, managing stress (a crucial component of a successful construction project) is not the sole responsibility of individuals, but rather needs to be proactively addressed by companies and the industry as a whole. Thankfully, it appears this is becoming increasingly recognised by the industry with organisations like MATES in Construction being established to help reduce suicide rates and improve mental health in the construction industry.

If you or a colleague are struggling with high levels of stress you can follow the link below to get in contact with MATES in Construction.

References

Bowen, Paul, Peter Edwards, Helen Lingard, and Keith Cattell. 2013. “Workplace Stress, Stress Effects, and Coping Mechanisms in the Construction Industry.” American Society of Civil Engineers. http://search.ebscohost.com.dbgw.lis.curtin.edu.au/login.aspx?direct=true&db=bth&AN=94450667&site=ehost-live

Business Dictionary. 2015. Empowerment Definition. http://www.businessdictionary.com/definition/empowerment.html

Forbes. 2014. How Successful People Stay Calm. http://www.forbes.com/sites/travisbradberry/2014/02/06/how-successful-people-stay-calm/

Haynes, Natasha, S. and P. E. D. Love. 2004. “Psychological adjustment and coping among construction project managers.” http://www-tandfonline-com.dbgw.lis.curtin.edu.au/doi/pdf/10.1080/0144619042000201330

IBS. 2011. Quality 101: Employee Involvement and Empowerment. http://info.ibs-us.com/blog/bid/46344/Quality-101-Employee-Involvement-and-Empowerment

James, A. Ward. 1997. “Implementing Employee Empowerment.” Information Systems Management. http://www-tandfonline-com.dbgw.lis.curtin.edu.au/doi/pdf/10.1080/10580539708907033

MATES in Construction. 2016. "WHY MIC EXISTS – ARE SUICIDE RATES HIGH IN CONSTRUCTION INDUSTRY?". http://matesinconstruction.org.au/about/why-mic-exists/

Mohr, Gisela, and Hans-Joachim Wolfram. 2010. “Stress among managers: The importance of dynamic tasks, predictability, and social support in unpredictable times.” American Psychological Association. https://ap01.alma.exlibrisgroup.com/view/action/uresolver.do?operation=resolveService&package_service_id=4023155570001951

Molen, H. F. van der, and P. L. T. Hoonakker. 2000. “Work stress in the construction industry: Causes and measures.” Human Factors and Ergonomics Society. http://search.proquest.com.dbgw.lis.curtin.edu.au/docview/235479832?accountid=10382

Safe Work Australia. 2013. "Mental stress costs Australian businesses more than $10 billion per year". http://www.safeworkaustralia.gov.au/sites/swa/media-events/media-releases/pages/mr08042013

Savery, L. K., & Luks, J. A. (2001). The relationship between empowerment,
job satisfaction and reported stress levels: Some australian evidence. Leadership & Organization Development Journal, 22(3), 97-104. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com.dbgw.lis.curtin.edu.au/docview/226923115?accountid=10382


Alberto Amara is the Operations Manager of Draco, a specialist construction project management company based in Perth, Western Australia.

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