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Cracks that plaster will never cover up


Tense, nervous, headache? You are not alone. A major survey by the Chartered Institute of Building has revealed that stress levels of site managers and directors are soaring.

But in the macho world of construction, who will be brave enough to tackle a subject that is still taboo? Emma Crates and Joanna Booth investigate

MOST people in construction will tell you st ress is an integral part of their day-to-day activities. In the highly pressured world of site work, deadlines, performance targets, logistics, cost management and staff issues are just some of the details that supervisors and managers find themselves juggling on an hourly basis.

A degree of pressure in whatever form can be a good motivator. Many in this sector will tell you that they thrive on it and the adrenaline that it brings.

But in a culture that is still dominated by macho attitudes it can be difficult for staff to admit when stress has reached a level that could be physically and mentally damaging to them. Stress is still a taboo subject to tackle face to face.

'I worked with people who have been stressed, but I've not seen them take time off, ' says a senior project director with a major national contractor, who asked to remain anonymous. 'They have become ill, perhaps because of the stress. Their immune systems have become less effective. I've seen people literally have breakdowns and two people in senior positions who have had to retire because of it.' Those who feel that people under stress should merely pull themselves together would do well to ref lect that occupational stress costs UK businesses as a whole at least £4 billion a year, according to the Health and Safety Executive.

Last year the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development ? the UK- based organisation for human resou rces managers ? su rveyed more than 1,000 of its members and found that stress and mental ill-health were the top two causes of sickness among nonmanual employees.

'We realised how little research there was on stress in construction, ' says Michael Brown, deputy chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Building. 'So we decided that we needed to reach a bet ter understanding of what the triggers were.' The CIOB, which is in the habit of polling its members, decided to run an on-line survey, and received nearly 900 responses in the space of a week. 'We were amazed by the level of response, ' says Mr Brown adding that this was considerably higher than most other surveys that the CIOB has run. 'While we accept that surveys like this will attract certain people, we feel that with this number of replies, this is nevertheless a robust result.' From the data, the CIOB has extracted the replies of those 534 people in senior roles ?including construction managers, project leaders, or those who are responsible for several sites. For the purposes of this survey the group is referred to as construction managers.

Of these responses 95 per cent were from men, broadly ref lecting gender distribution at management level in the sector, and respondents were evenly spread in ages and the regions. Staff from varying company sizes were also well represented. Just over 40 per cent of respondents worked for an organisation of more than 500 people, while 18 per cent worked for firms that had fewer than 50 employees.

The figures paint a picture that is probably very different from that which would be given to colleagues or bosses.

A total of 64 per cent of managers complained that they were suffering from stress, while nearly half admitted to suffering from anxiety and 18 per cent from depression. Most depressingly, 61 per cent reported that the construction industry has become more stressful in the past five years.

Of those who admitted to suffering from stress nearly a quarter had taken medical advice, while 30 per cent of those suffering from depression had needed medical advice. In the light of this response it is particularly striking that a mere 5.4 per cent had taken time off work due to stress, although just over half said that t ime away from work was a key factor that could help them cope with pressure.

'Are people taking time off as holiday, when really it should be taken off as sick?' questions Mr Brown. ' Is there still a stigma about admitting that you are stressed? The perception seems to be that it is too negative for your career to admit to it.' The factors that trigger stress were multifaceted, but some of the responses were surprising. On the whole, construction managers did not complain that the site safety or inadequate equipment were major factors adding to stress levels.

Common things that added to the pressure gauge included poor planning, poor communications and lack of feedback. 'These feature more highly than 'interpersonal conf lict, ' says Mr Brown. 'They demonstrate weaknesses in management, which could be addressed as part of good practice.' Other bugbears included, rather predictably, inadequate staffing, too much work, ambitious deadlines, long hours, pressure, and conf licting demands. If th is sounds to you just like an everyday tale of a construction site, several physical factors were highlighted as adding to levels. Lack of pr ivacy, inadequate temperature controls, problems with office accommodation and noise levels all scored highly as major stress factors.

'I was surprised at the response about off ice accommodation and temperature, ' comments Mr Brown.

'But as complaints about ventilation were much lower, one has to assume that this is more about offices being too cold rather than too hot. The survey was, after all, carried out in the winter.' Public misconception of the industry was also seen as a major stress factor, with nearly half of the construction managers polled complaining that this added to their workplace problems.

But there was an encouraging response on things that could be done to help with stress.

On the upside, eight out of 10 said that support from colleagues could help to ease the pressure, while nearly three-quarters said that off-loading or delegating work and talking to their managers or supervisor was helpful.

'In a practical sense the figures do show us that we clearly need more support mechanisms, ' says Mr Brown. 'One way that larger companies could tackle stress could be through putting more formal st ructu res of suppor t in place.' He adds that more work needs to be car r ied out.

'We need to better understand why people can't admit to being stressed, ' he comments. 'And there should be more investigation as to how construction managers who are stressed affect the teams below them.'

CASE STUDY: Deputy project manager, civil engineering contractor

'My work is quite stressful but the key is to how you manage it. I have a supportive team which really helps. When I was younger and less experienced I took things more personally. But I've learnt to get tougher.

'I would say that the stressful areas in my job are dealing with main contractors who do not understand the terms of our contract. I have a lot of pressure to do things that are outside our responsibility.

It can be difficult making sure that we keep up the contractual relationship without acting in detriment to my company.

'Being a junior manager can be very pressurised. You've got to make sure the middle managers are happy, that the production is going to plan and that safety is spot-on. But I would say that people also need to be aware that st ress is very much part of construction.'

CASE STUDY: Senior project director, major national main contractor

'Stress in our industry is quite prevalent. The main triggers are tight deadlines and financial pressure.

'Some companies do accept that stress exists and would help if it was brought to their attention.

'But people disguise and hide it. You can tell when it's getting to them though ? there tends to be more shouting and screaming.

'I have worked with people who have been stressed, but I've not seen them take time off. I've also seen people have breakdowns and have to retire early.

'The question is, would they have accepted help at the time?

'If you go to someone and tell them you think they're stressed and want to reduce their duties, how many people would happily accept that?

'Once people get promoted beyond their level of ability it's diff icult to say to them that they should move back.

'I find having a sense of humour helps reduce stress.

You have to do your job to the best of your ability, but don't let it become more important than your family.

'I'm quite a relaxed person, but I've also worked for years, so I've got to the point where I'm in my comfort zone. I also have a lot of interests outside work. So I don't drive home thinking about my job, but about other things, such as golf.

'High stress levels don't come when you are completely junior. They come when you're running a project of your own, without much experience. Once you've done six to 10 projects, you can relax more.'

CASE STUDY: Contracts manager, subcontractor

'The uneven workload doesn't help stress levels in our industry: one day you might have six jobs and then they'll all come to an end. You spend six months to a year securing a job, but once you've got it you're on site in two weeks.

Nothing is ever quite ready, so there are lots of late hours and weekends.

'The guys on site - the foremen and project managers - have to hit their targets no matter what, and arguments get caused by stress. You can explode in meetings and then leave thinking ? shouldn't we all be on the same side? Because no one wants to admit to stress, there's no outlet.

'Main contractors probably have corporate strategies to cope with this, but subbies and specialists don't seem to. You just apply yourself accordingly where people seem to be panicking.

'Everyone deals with it in their own way. Some collapse because they can't see light at the end of the tunnel and work keeps piling on. They have to take time off. It's spoken about but not formally, no one says they nearly went mental.

'Money is the key. A job could be a complete nightmare, but if it ends up being profitable you'd walk straight back into the same situation tomorrow.

The criteria of success is profit, not mental health of workforce.'

CASE STUDY: Project director, major national contractor

'There are enormous levels of stress in the industry. Keeping up with legislation in itself is a lot of work and the constant deadlines. The pressure is there because you can't fail.

'My company offers counselling but few take it up. There's such a macho image around what we do, no one wants to feel they're buckling.

'People need to find different ways of letting off steam. Years ago you'd see plenty of fights on site, which were products of stress, but that's no longer so acceptable.

'It's not the pace of work so much which stresses people. It's when work stalls that it gets stressful.'

CASE STUDY: Director, major client

'Very large projects can be very stressful for smaller contractors who can become overwhelmed when they join them. It's difficult for them to see how everything fits together.

'Stress is a very important part of one's job when one gets into senior management. The adrenaline keeps you going. And I always think it's important to work outside your comfort zone if you want to try things forward.

'Most people who get to very senior roles have learnt how to deal with stress, the higher you get the greater your strength is.

'As a leader it's very important to demonstrate that you have things under control. If you can't show this, it can create stress in the teams below you. They need to see a level of stability. People feed off that.

'My wife would say I have no heart. But you've got to show passion for the job and also a lot of compassion for those around you if you want to keep your team together.

'The most st ressful elements of my job is the pull on my time. A lot of people want to talk to me and I also had to give a lot of support and guidance on top of my responsibilities. You are always tired at the end of a hard day, but I don't take my problems home with me.

'However, before I was doing this job I worked overseas for many years and my wife was left at home to bring up the children. It was undoubtedly more stressful for her to have to do this alone. The knowledge that she was undergoing this also put more st ress on me.'


Health and Safety Executive (2001)

Tackling work related stress: a manager's guide to improving and maintaining employee health and wellbeing. Sudbury: HSE Books. (www. hse. gov. uk/stress/standards/index. htm)

www. hse. gov. uk/stress/faqs. htm ? HSE Management Standards Information

www. ilo. org/public/english/protection/safework/stress ? International Labour Organization's pages on workplace stress

www. isma. org. uk ? The International Stress management Association (UK)

www. stress. org. uk ? The Stress Management Society

www. together-uk. org ? Together: Working for Wellbeing: a charity supporting mental well-being in the UK

www. workstress. net ? The UK National Work-Stress Network

The Chartered Institute of Building conducted an on-line survey of its members, receiving 847 responses from people from a broad range of disciplines. For the purposes of this feature, only the 534 replies from construction managers, site managers or directors have been considered. To see the report in full, visit www. ciob. org. uk.