Building mental health into the construction industry

With Movember raising awareness of men’s mental health, there’s a timely question to be addressed. What can be done to improve the wellbeing of workers in a male-dominated, core-engineering industry like construction?
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Every year, 190 Australians working in the construction industry take their own lives. This equates to the loss of a construction worker to suicide every second day. It’s a sobering figure for an industry that employs almost 10 percent of the working population.  

Construction is a core engineering industry – the third largest employer of engineers in Australia, according to the latest census data. While the industry has come a long way in improving awareness and understanding of mental health among its workers, there is much to be done.  

Data from not-for-profit organisation MATES in Construction, which was established in 2008 with the aim of reducing the high level of suicide among Australian construction workers, shows men in the construction industry are still 53 percent more likely to take their own lives than other employed men across the country. And, in a year when all Australians have experienced additional strain due to COVID-19, something clearly needs to change.  

But how can the culture and conditions of the construction industry be rebuilt to promote greater wellbeing for all workers? 


Changing the conditions 

More than 20 per cent of workers in the construction industry are shown to have had a mental health condition. Cultural characteristics and job conditions of the industry are contributing factors. Construction tends to be a 6-days-a-week sector with few options for flexibility. 

Jorgen Gullestrup, CEO of the Queensland branch of MATES in Construction Queensland, says some of the factors that contribute to poor mental health are prevalent in the construction industry.  

“One is the feeling that you don't really belong anywhere and another is the feeling that you are a burden to the people around you,” he says. “Considering the long working hours in construction, which often includes weekends, it's not hard to feel disconnected from the people you're closest to, or that that they have developed their own routine that you are not part of and you feel like you're in the way.” 

Bede Noonan, CEO of ACCIONA Geotech, says the dynamic nature of construction can also add pressure to the job. 

“The work environment may change every day and change can be challenging to cope with,” he says. “We are also an industry that gives lump-sum, fixed-time contracts to our clients, which creates high-pressure environments.” 

Noonan believes the acknowledgment of mental health in the industry has improved in recent years. “This can only be a good thing, but we also have to look at the root causes and I think one of them is job security,” he says. “I firmly believe that people want to belong to something and the industry needs to change to become an environment where employers can retain their people for longer.” 

Noonan cites the example of Southern Program Alliance – a level crossing removal project in Victoria, which was awarded to Coleman Rail, a subsidiary of ACCIONA Geotech, in 2018. 

“Rather than just having one contract, we’ve got five or six years worth of work and, subject to performance, we'll be able to keep going and do more work for the government,” he says. “That's an incredibly healthy thing for our workforce and it’s so much better for us to be able to retain people, to train people and for them to feel comfortable that their job is reasonably secure.” 


The value of flexibility 

Increasing workplace flexibility may also contribute to wellbeing across the construction industry – and there is a clear business case for it.  Flexibility can help to attract and retain employees across all age groups and genders, drive employee engagement and productivity and boost employee wellbeing and happiness. 

It has been gaining greater attention in the construction industry in recent times – and COVID-19 may present a further catalyst for change. 

During Engineers Australia’s recent ‘CEO Roundtables on COVID-19’ series, which included discussions about the immediate impacts, business responses and longer-term effects of the pandemic, mental health emerged as a pressing issue. One idea to emerge was increased flexibility, including for site workers, where all teams assess the feasibility of range of flexibility options, such as job sharing or full-time hours spread over four-day weeks. 

Alison Mirams, CEO of construction company Roberts Pizzarotti, has been championing greater flexibility for the industry for years and says COVID-19 has presented an opportunity to “reset the dial”. 

“I don't for a minute think that COVID has been a positive thing, but I can say that it is a blessing for the construction industry in terms of flexibility,” she says. “For all the people that said you couldn't work flexibly and have a role in a site team, we have seen that yes you can.” 

When the pandemic first hit back in March, most Roberts Pizzarotti site workers needed to work alternate days from home and from site.  

“Construction kept going and didn’t miss a beat,” says Mirams. “COVID has been the fastest and the biggest experiment into flexible working and people have now seen that flexibility is not a women's issue. Flexibility is a people issue.” 


Measuring the impact 

Industry leaders such as Mirams are working to prove that flexibility can represent ‘business as usual’ for construction. 

On two of Roberts Pizzarotti’s construction sites, which operate on a six-day calendar, staff work five days a week. If they need to work on a Saturday, they get a day off during the week. Once a week, they knock off at 3pm.  

At its Concord Hospital Redevelopment project, which is delivered in partnership with Health Infrastructure, Roberts Pizzarotti staff work Monday to Friday. Mirams says this change has added 10 weeks of time to the construction program and 1.2 per cent to overall costs. 

“The cost is negligible,” she says. “And are seeing greater productivity out of the workers, so I am hoping that we don't use the 10 weeks that we added to the original program, proving that it won’t cost any more in the long term. If we can demonstrate this then every job can change tomorrow at no cost or time expense. ” 

The five-day working conditions of the Concord Hospital project forms part of a study, called ‘Project 5: A Weekend for Every Worker’, by UNSW Sydney researchers. Funded by the NSW Government and Roberts Pizzarotti, it includes surveys and interviews with workers and their families about how a reduced work week improves the health and wellbeing of construction workers. A health economist is also undertaking a cost-benefit analysis of the intervention as part of the study. While final results will be released in the second half of next year, preliminary results present a range of benefits. 

Australian Human Rights Institute Postdoctoral Fellow Dr Natalie Galea is leading the research and says that workers appear to be “very positive” about a five day working week. 

“It’s particularly the case for workers with children, who really value having the weekend with their family and are able to attend Saturday sport,” she says. “They are also experiencing a work site that they feel is better organised and better planned because of the weekend off.” 

Galea adds that the study’s respondents are also generally happier at home when they're not working such long hours.  

“Men are less fatigued and more engaged,” she says. “That's assuming it's a male construction worker - we've had only a few female construction workers in the study because they are less represented in the sector.” 

The study also shows that factors for wellbeing may be different for men and women in construction.  

“What’s really interesting is that the hours of work are something that impacts men's wellbeing in construction, but it's still the exclusivity and the sexism that's overwhelmingly the biggest wellbeing issue for women,” says Galea. 


Improving mental health 

Mental wellbeing will be in the spotlight this month for Movember, and it’s clearly on the agenda for the construction industry. 

The Australian Constructors Association recently released its Commitment to our Clients and the Construction Industry, which includes a framework for a sustainable construction industry. Members of ACA, such as ACCIONA Geotech, have committed to 10 measures to drive positive change, including improving the health and wellbeing of workforces and the creating of stable employment opportunities that allow for flexible working in an inclusive and safe environment. 

“There are a number of initiatives across the industry,” says Noonan. “People are more willing to talk about it and the understanding around mental health in the industry is so much better than it was 20 years ago.” 

Mirams says that flexible conditions may help to address the wellbeing of construction workers, but the broader workplace culture may also need to shift. 

She says this requires creating “a safe zone and telling your workers that it's okay to not be okay and, if that's the case, please tell us so we can help”. 

“We’re in the process of giving everyone mental health first aid training so they can identify the signs.” 

Mirams notes that the company is seeing less fatigue and depression among workers due to flexible conditions and initiatives such as the 5-day week.  

“Interestingly, people are doing the cost-benefit analysis and saying, I might not earn as much because I'm not doing as much overtime, but gosh, my life has improved.  

“For the first time ever, I'm hearing dads say, ‘I can't come in, I've got to do the kids’ drop off, or I've got to take my mother to a medical appointment’,” adds Mirams. “For the first time, people who experienced flexibility are now saying, ‘hang on a second, I see the benefits of this, so can I keep it’. And I think that's brilliant.” 


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