As construction marks World Mental Health Day, CN looks at the challenges in four main disciplines and asks what can be done to combat stress in this high-pressure industry.
“Construction is at a crossroads.”
This is Osborne managing director Nick Sterling’s frank assessment of one of the biggest challenges the industry now faces: mental health.
“[Our sector] has always been here and will always be here, as we will always continue to build. But unless we fix ourselves, construction will look completely different in a few years’ time.”
One in four industry workers has considered suicide, according to a survey conducted by Construction News earlier this year. Around 55 per cent have experienced mental health issues with 42 per cent experiencing these at their current place of work.
To put these figures into context, more construction workers are taking their own lives than in any other industry, and the number who have suffered or are currently suffering poor mental health is more than double the national average.
Why are these figures so high in our industry?
More on World Mental Health Day
There is no simple answer. But from the hundreds of comments we received for our Mind Matters survey, a common theme emerges: the stressful nature of the industry.
Demands from employers and clients, low margins and a culture of confrontation can create a perfect storm for mental health issues to develop. The pressures and demands faced at work can create huge stress and anxiety – which can be pushed to the edge if a project runs into difficulties.
So what are the different pressures faces by those in each area of the supply chain – and how can we better understand and address these worrying statistics?
World Mental Health Day_Stress in construction
Global research conducted by Arcadis revealed that last year the cost of formal contractual disputes in the UK reached its highest level since 2011.
In 2016, the average value of formal disputes – where two parties dispute and a decision is given through the contract – rose to $34m (around £25m) last year, compared with $25m (£18.6m) in 2015. The time taken to solve a dispute also reached its most protracted level in three years, taking an average of 12 months in 2016.
According to Mr Sterling, this illustrates the climate of distrust construction businesses operate within.
“There is a lack of collaboration and a culture of self-preservation in the industry,” he explains. “Your first thought isn’t about how well a project will go: it is how to protect yourself.”
This adversarial environment combined with the pressure of meeting clients’ demands can take its toll on workers’ mental health, according to Willmott Dixon group head of safety and environment Mark French.
“If you’re working in a contractual situation where you’re going to be heavily penalised if you put one foot wrong, then you are going to be very cautious”
Nick Sterling, Osborne
He says client expectations placed on contractors to drive down schedule and costs “cranks up” mental pressures for the project team. He says the main issue is time constraints, with clients also pushing for cuts on programme length.
As a result, some contractors might cut corners on projects to cope with demands, according to Mr French. This might mean cutting the programme or understaffing on project delivery, putting pressure on the supply chain to complete work more quickly than they know it should take.
He says this has an impact on health and safety, on relationships with the supply chain, and on everyone involved on a job.
Tackling this problematic chain of events needs to start before work begins on site, according to Mr Sterling.
Creating the right conditions to deliver a project successfully lies in the tone of the contract. “Standard contracts can be heavily amended by the client in their favour,” he says. “If you’re working in a contractual situation where you’re going to be heavily penalised if you put one foot wrong, then you are going to be very cautious about the way you collaborate.”
If demands to deliver stack up for the principal contractor on a project, its supply chain can be reciprocally squeezed.
Further pressures can also develop for subcontractors under this hierarchical chain. RSE Building Services managing director Russell Stilwell says that firms like his consistently face issues with payment.
“If I think about the risks I take on as a contractor - I could put in a claim at the end of the month for work that I’ve done, but the main contractor could contest this as a means to get ahead financially so the job is always in a cashflow positive position for them,” he says.
“It is no wonder that mental health problems are so high because of the strain and pressure people are put under due to these factors”
Russell Stilwell, RSE Building Services
As well as undue payment, subcontractors often carry the risks associated with late payment, with SMEs feeling the most strain.
Compound this with a labour and skills shortage and you have a perfect storm. “It is no wonder that mental health problems are so high because of the strain and pressure people are put under due to these factors,” Mr Stilwell says.
According to Osborne’s Mr Sterling, project bank accounts could be the best way forward to prevent late payment – and alleviate some of the burdens the supply chain faces. “If you talk to subcontractors, absence of cash would be named as one of the biggest causes of stress; this makes most businesses go bust. Project bank accounts are great for the supply chain, as they get more visibility of when they are going to get paid.”
A more equal system would lead to greater collaboration, he says. “You should treat subcontractors fairly and pay them properly. Collaboration is key to the success of any project and it must include all parties.”
World Mental Health Day_Stress in construction
Programme managers or consultants overseeing project delivery can also add to the pressure felt by teams, according to Mr French.
“Quite often the client puts a project management team in place to oversee the principal contractor and they can be very ruthless,” he says. “They are not there to build relationships with contractors – they’re there to satisfy a client and they can be quite brutal at times.”
Mr Sterling also agrees there is a general trend for consultants to put the interests of the client they are advising above and beyond any other party. He says the role of the adviser in many projects has become “distorted” over the years.
“Good professional advisers should be independent and focusing on everybody’s behaviours, making sure they are put in the right environment,” he explains. “But sadly – and you can understand this because consultants are businesses and have to look for the next contract – the client appointing the adviser under a TPC (term partnering) contract puts pressure on the independence of that consultant.”
“Is this compromising anybody’s health and wellbeing? If it is, then you have the right and the authority to say no”
Edel Christie, Arcadis
However, good programme managers are those who are not prepared to compromise the welfare of the project team to meet the demands of the client, says Arcadis head of programme and project services Edel Christie.
She says worker welfare must be at the forefront of everything. “Your first question must be: is this compromising anybody’s health and wellbeing? If it is, then you have the right and the authority to say no.”
Indeed, programme managers face their own pressures when delivering projects. Ms Christie says that the supply chain always puts itself into the client’s shoes to understand what they need, but suggests clients should do the same.
She says customers need to understand what kind of working environment should be in place in order for the supply chain to deliver a project successfully.
So what role does the client have to play in addressing mental health? Or should the supply chain accept that this is simply the way the industry operates?
For Tideway health, safety and wellbeing director Steve Hails, customers certainly should be concerned about this issue. True collaboration from top to bottom needs to be in place when delivering projects.
“On Tideway, we operate as an alliance between the client, programme manager and contractors,” he explains.
“We say that we are all in this together. It’s not the case of cascading down expectations and leaving it to the supply chain to deal with. It is very collaborative.”
“Your workforce is more prepared to work a certain way if you are providing the right environment to do their job safely”
Steve Hails, Tideway
This culture is embedded at the heart of work on site at the mega-project to ensure the wellbeing of the workforce is protected – but this comes with its share of challenges, Mr Hails explains. “We challenge our supply chain to do things more efficiently and more effectively: to look at the schedule and make sure it is delivered on time and on budget.
“We have been clear that if this job takes a little longer but is done safely and does not impact on anyone’s health, then that is the way we will do it. We will challenge on schedule, but it will never be [to the detriment] of health, safety or wellbeing.”
In fact, investing in worker wellbeing will ultimately benefit clients’ bottom lines.
“You get benefits on health and safety statistics and your workforce is more prepared to work a certain way if you are providing the right environment to do their job safely,” Mr Hails says. “You get a quality job which gets done right the first time - and if you have a happy workforce you’ll have lower worker turnover.”
“A quarter of all construction workers are considering leaving the industry because they think their employers do not take their welfare seriously: that’s horrendous,” Mr Sterling says.
A complete cultural shift needs to be taken by everyone – clients included – to finally address this issue.
“If we change our mindset to start looking at each other as customers instead of adversaries, this will be a very positive move forward.”
My story: Russell Stilwell, RSE Building Services
We partnered with a mechanical electrical contractor on a job in 2010.
They went bust and owed us £155,000. Before this, they were putting us under strain and weren’t paying us on time. We couldn’t pay all of our bills, and effectively became insolvent. But we kept the business up and running.
I was also facing pressures and stresses outside work. I lost my dad and one of my closest friends.
Those things are part of life – but what the industry tends to do is to create situations and scenarios that affect people’s ability to cope.
The industry is complex and its autocratic, and hierarchical behaviour is ingrained. Payment can be stressful.
If we can find a way to make the industry more open and transparent, it would reduce the poor statistics around mental health.