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February 4, 2014

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Stress in the construction sector – health and safety

Given the high-risk nature of the construction sector, senior managers need to take the issue of stress more seriously, argues Rhaynukaa Soni. She offers her views on how and why management should engage with the wider workforce more.

Stress is the new back pain: you can’t see it or even definitively prove it, yet an increasing number of workers claim to suffer from it. As with back pain, there are those that believe that it exists, is a serious condition and needs to be acknowledged and treated. Equally, there are those that believe it’s simply ‘all in the mind’.
However, stress is recognised as a mental health issue and needs to be treated with dignity and delicacy, especially in the workplace. Most industries argue that they have their own stresses, but in a high-risk industry such as construction, stress can have serious repercussions.
Unfortunately, the ‘macho’ construction environment is not usually conducive to such sentiments. Whether you’re an operative or an on-site project manager, there is an expectation that your role will involve a degree of stress.
Given the nature of the industry and the recent economic climate, arguably there appears to be more stress among construction workers than before. Stress can come from all angles — in the form of pressure from a client, contractor, project managers or supervisors.
Not only is construction a high-risk industry, it also has its own unique challenges; for instance, the number of contractors/sub-contractors that could work on a project at any one time. Managing a diverse range of tradesmen that are working towards tight deadlines, often in restrictive spaces, can be enormously challenging.
When a principal contractor and sub-contractors work to their own standards, follow individual safety procedures and use different forms to collect data, this can lead to a duplication of work and delays, which will contribute additional pressure to the working environment.
As deadlines are being tightened and profit margins shaved, it’s vital that a project doesn’t suffer any financial loss. As with any project, construction sites face multiple pressures simultaneously, the main ones being cost and time.
While most companies boast that health and safety takes precedence over both of these, the reality is often the opposite. When faced with a deadline that can’t be moved, like a visit from a VIP or a pre-arranged public event, there comes a point when the rules are ‘bent’ and ‘creative interpretations’ are made of the safe systems of work.
Some individuals will struggle in that environment because they are up against an unrealistic deadline and they had foreseen the difficulties early on thanks to years of experience in the industry.
Others will suffer from having to compromise on their own health and safety morals to ensure that the job is carried out on time, to protect the company’s image and possibly their own position. They may still try to ensure things are done safely, though in such high-pressured environments operatives don’t always follow safe systems. As a result, there is often an increase in incidents or near misses.
Some workers may not realise that they are suffering from stress and just get on with what they are required to do. By listening to colleagues, friends and family members, they start to believe that these job pressures are normal. With so many people unemployed, they may consider themselves lucky to have a job at all.
While commentators may be cautiously optimistic about the economy, up until even three months ago construction projects had struggled financially. With mortgages to pay and families to feed, by and large, the workforce accepts stress as part of the job.
But any repercussions from an incident on a construction site are not only felt by the injured person or those immediately involved; the ensuing investigation inevitably puts pressure on the entire team. They tend to feel they are under the microscope and, in some cases, feel they are being blamed for what has happened.
The investigator in turn is tasked with trying to determine the root cause of the incident and though they are not interested in apportioning blame, the nature of questioning can sometimes make it feel and sound like they are.
With most companies now working towards some form of key performance indicator (KPI), including health and safety, incidents can all too often become a numbers game. One twisted ankle can wipe out half a million man hours with no lost time incident  — thereby making the operative, team and even management feel guilty about ‘ruining’ the company’s KPIs.
This numbers game can also lead to a knee-jerk reaction where control measures are being forced onto the construction site before a root cause is established. It means the site inspections usually get ramped up and suddenly management is on site much more.
While this should be viewed as a positive — it’s usually a reaction to a major incident — this on-site presence is often more about being visible and being seen to do the right thing rather than truly engaging with the workforce to prevent further incidents.
If managers approached health and safety in the same manner that they successfully tackle technical, quality, environmental, cost and programme challenges, the workforce would arguably suffer from less stress.
Yet, it is not only the demands of the job that cause stress. Many operatives, supervisors and even managers tend to work away from home for long periods of time, meaning time spent away from their families and the usual support networks. Depending on what shifts they do, it can mean that they see their loved ones very infrequently, especially if they are based overseas.
Construction sites also tend to attract a diverse range of cultures and nationalities. This can present significant challenges for the principal contractor when they consider to what extent they need
to accommodate different cultures — for instance, should they provide a prayer room or possibly a contemplation room?
Although this may not strictly be a health and safety issue, in the modern workplace, diversity has to be respected and there must be inclusion, especially when long-term isolation from family is taken into account. Decisions about what should and shouldn’t be included can prove quite stressful, particularly when the working environment encompasses diverse groups and interests.
In the construction sector, it’s not unusual for colleagues to form a close-knit working relationship and in some cases even forge close friendships. If construction workers share accommodation, a ride to and from work and go for a drink after work, often a close bond will be formed — although the opposite is also true and tensions can develop.
Arguably, construction is an environment where it can be difficult to talk about personal issues. Male bravado usually takes over and conversations rarely stray from safe ground.
For some, stress may lead to depression, worry or tension without the individual even being aware of it, and they may still feel that they are unable to talk to anyone about their concerns. If it becomes public knowledge among their peers, the assumption often is that they will be mocked. Some may feel from past experience or even current conversations that those around them don’t recognise stress for what it is — a real medical condition — and consequently suffer in silence.
Not talking about a problem doesn’t make it go away. In fact, it invariably makes it worse. Operatives that suffer from stress may increase their alcohol intake. Other negative impacts can include losing sleep, exhibiting aggressive behaviour and finding it more difficult to concentrate on important tasks. In construction, the repercussions could prove fatal.
In other circumstances, individuals may be happy to ‘open up’ but their concerns are not necessarily listened to. For example, someone who is complaining about their low wages may actually be touching on a deeper issue that relates to personal finances.
The key message here, however, is that not enough people appreciate the seriousness of stress as an occupational health issue. Stress manifests itself for many reasons and it’s impossible to cover all of the different scenarios.
Even so, senior management should look at some of the most common factors and discuss them openly. Simple toolbox talks that cover important individual issues such as personal finances, the pressures faced by those that see their families infrequently or the challenges faced by those that have to deal with family member who is ill would certainly help.
That is why it is essential that managers, supervisors and even operatives are educated about stress — what it is and the potential impacts it can have. By arming staff with this knowledge, senior managers can raise greater awareness of health and wellbeing issues and it’s more likely that the workforce will take more care, both of their own individual wellbeing and also that of colleagues.
Given the high-risk nature of construction, it is vital that clients, contractors and sub-contractors also understand the wider impacts of stress. For them, the starting point needs to be educating the workforce on what stress is and how it can manifest itself in so many different forms.
By highlighting real scenarios and, where possible, encouraging people to talk about their concerns, employers are more likely to get positive buy-in from those individuals that are affected by stress. In turn, they will be more likely to engage with the wider workforce and give the issue of stress the seriousness it deserves.
Rhaynukaa Soni is project safety advisor at BAM Ferrovial Kier JV — Crossrail.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of her employer.

What makes us susceptible to burnout?

In this episode  of the Safety & Health Podcast, ‘Burnout, stress and being human’, Heather Beach is joined by Stacy Thomson to discuss burnout, perfectionism and how to deal with burnout as an individual, as management and as an organisation.

We provide an insight on how to tackle burnout and why mental health is such a taboo subject, particularly in the workplace.

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