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Work stress demolishes mental health of people building Australia

A new Bond University study involving almost 500 participants has revealed work pressures were the main source of stress for construction project managers 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.

Report author Professor Alan Patching 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, who was project director for construction of the Sydney Olympic Stadium, said 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,” Professor Patching 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 said 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,” Professor Patching said.

“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 said 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 bread winner will not be coming home again.”

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