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Mental health among construction workers – is anything really changing?

Dr Alan Patching is a Professor of Construction Management and Project Management at Bond University. He also has a Masters and PhD related to psychotherapy and counselling, and has conducted in depth research on stress impacts on construction professionals.

While there is some good news for the construction industry in the latest figures released by Safe Work Australia, construction tradies are still 25 times more likely to be traumatised by their job than other Aussie workers. 

The glimmer of light emerging from this gloom is that at least now we know about it. Not so long ago tradies simply did not report being negatively affected by work. Reports in 2006 showed the rate of suicide for construction workers under 30 was 2.38 times higher than that for other young Australian men. Yet a 2009 study showed virtually no increase in claims by construction workers for time off for stress-related illness, during a period when stress related claims from business at large were increasing substantially.  

It simply made no sense for young construction workers to be taking their own lives at such an alarming rate but not taking time off for work-related stress and the illnesses to which it gives rise. 

The latest Safe Work Australia data shows a substantial increase in the number of these workers claiming time off for work-related stress and related mental illness. They still only account for half a percent of workers employed in those trades, but it’s a start.  

The key issue yet to be addressed is why these workers are at such high risk. Between 2001 and 2019 the age-standardised suicide rate for male construction workers was double that for other male workers in Australia (26.6 and 13.2 per 100,000 workers respectively). 

As pressure on the industry and those working within it continues to grow with governments nationwide promising tens of thousands of new homes and major infrastructure projects within tight timeframes amid supply chain disruptions and worker shortages, this issue needs addressing now. 

A major review of how the construction industry in Australia operates, particularly here in Queensland, is long overdue.  

Last year I published research showing that systemic and cultural issues, including poor leadership and management, were key drivers of workplace stress in the construction industry. 

One of the systemic issues arises from a failure to effectively embrace the advanced design and contracting approaches. Large parts of the industry are still using the same approaches to distributing work as they have for decades, despite an exponential increase in the complexity and size of projects. Taking advantage of now readily available design approaches such as Building Information Modelling, Lean construction and Integrated Project Delivery can streamline construction processes to make them more efficient, reducing pressures.  

The cultural issues are operating at the macro and micro levels. It seems culturally ingrained in many developers and owners, even on large projects, to continue using lump sum tendering in a bid to get the lowest possible price. This fails to consider that tendering this way is only really effective at certain points of the economic cycle, and certainly not at a peak or trough. 

This approach can result in immense pressure on those delivering the project, particularly if the winning tender was submitted on a ridiculously low margin and it becomes up to construction managers and workers to increase project profit during the construction period.   

The other aspect of culture - at the micro level - is personal. Put simply, young workers are attracted to the ‘tough’ industry, and enjoy the camaraderie it provides. But in ‘tough’ cultures, workers fear appearing weak if they begin to experience stress or anxiety, so many suffer in silence. My research revealed that even experienced and effective middle-aged men feared taking time off or advising their managers when suffering severe depression, concerned they’d lose their jobs. 

The latest data from Safe Work Australia showing more workers making claims for stress-related illness offers some hope that such old-school attitudes from top-level managers are changing, but even those who seek change feel hamstrung by the way the industry continues to operate and these existing cultural norms. 

If we are to roll back the horrifying statistics in the industry, more work is needed now.  

We need the modern manager of major construction firms to understand that construction is not a ‘tough’ industry, it’s a dangerous one and workers don’t need to be tough, they need to be safe. 

Until that cultural shift is made, we will continue to see these shocking outcomes for these young Australians. 

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