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Cut the working week and get a life

HEALTH - ISG InteriorExterior is tackling stress among its workforce head-on with a scheme which aims to strike a balance between work and home life.And it includes enforcing shorter working hours. Paul Howard reports

MODERN workplaces have thrown up two apparently contradictory trends. The endless growth of the always-on culture ? think mobile phones and Blackberries ? is accompanied by concerns at enlightened companies to ensure a realistic work-life balance for employees.

The tension between these two aspects of working life is nowhere more apparent than in the construction industry. Throw in the inherent pressures of deadlines and a tradition of long hours and weekend working and even enlightened employers risk getting caught up in a vicious circle leading to ever-greater work-life imbalance.

After all, it's one thing to have concerns about the appropriate balance of work and personal time, it's another to do something about it in a highly-pressured commercial environment.

Nevertheless, this is precisely what ISG InteriorExterior has endeavoured to do. Last year it ran a pilot scheme designed to change working practices and improve the 'wellbeing' of all those involved on a chosen project. Now the company is running the programme on 20 per cent of this year's order book; the eventual aim is to adopt the strategy across the whole company.

The unlikely catalyst for this bold step was the company's inclusion, for the third successive year, in the Sunday Times list of the best companies to work for. 'I think we're the only construction company to achieve this, ' says managing director Steve Trotter.

But the feedback from the qualification process for the list also created a picture of high stress levels and long working hours. Mr Trotter is candid enough to admit this. He says: 'These were obviously big concerns for our staff so we decided we had to address them.' The company did this by asking all those involved in the trial programme (everyone from consultants to subbies) to assess the most important factors contributing to their health and happiness.

'Our approach was to talk to teams about their individual wellbeing and get this on the agenda, ' says Tracy Butterworth, human resources manager.

'Maybe something that would make a big difference to someone would be being able to leave early one night in order to be able to spend time with young kids.' But prising this kind of information from const ruct ion workers wasn't always an easy task.

'People were nervous about making this kind of statement. Now they know we're just t rying to f ind out to allow it to be on the agenda, ' she adds.

One of the biggest issues for most of those on the pilot scheme was working on Saturdays. 'Working a six-day week is a big strain. We found people wanted the weekends to be weekends, ' says Ms But terwor th.

The next question, she says, was 'why do we do it?'.

'We discovered it was just because the crane driver was work ing on Satu rdays, so we negot iated with him to fit his hours in the week instead. It's not rocket science ? it just took a 10-minute conversation.' Another specific concern was raised by the architect. 'What really bugged him was having to visit the site three times a week for one-hour meetings, ' says Ms But terwor th. 'If he had one wish it was that there would only be one site visit a week. The decision was taken, therefore, to get all the consultants to come in on a Tuesday for all the necessary meetings.

If anybody couldn't make it, we would use open-line telephones to make sure the meeting went ahead.' A buddy system facilitating split day-shifts was also introduced for the management team.

Ms Butterworth says: 'The project manager would work from 7.30 am to 5 pm and then go home, while the senior construction manager would work from 9 am to 6 pm.' These hours give each person more time at home, but ensure management is on site the whole time.

'In this way the whole programme is not one big exercise, rather a series of small steps, ' she points out.

'Once people see one change like this, they want to do more. It's quite empowering really ? it gives people the option to think differently, not just to accept things.' As generations of senior managers would attest, allowing people to think for themselves appears a risky strategy. But instead of hiding away such a potentially hazardous programme on a small job, the company chose a challenging new-build project at Goldsm iths College, designed by Will A lsop.

'We deliberately chose Goldsmiths as it was a demanding project both technically and in terms of the timetable. If it works here, we thought, it will work anywhere, ' says Mr Trot ter.

Aside from the challenges presented by the project itself there was also the issue of a sceptical project management team. In fact disquiet was widespread, so ingrained was the culture of long working hours.

'Steve Hawthorne, the project manager, was the most resistant, ' says Ms Butterworth. 'He had to make the biggest shift in perspective and working practice. He used to work seven days a week and didn't take his leave. He was a typical overworked, overstressed, grumpy builder. After the 12 months of the project, however, he had lost weight, lost stress and gained a life outside work.' Now he has become evangelical about the new approach and is heavily involved in the company's plans to take the strategy further.

In fact, the wellbeing programme is now being followed on three projects this year, accounting for 20 per cent of the company's turnover.

Mr Trotter explains: 'We started cautiously on Goldsmiths. We didn't know if it would work on a refurbishment or a fit-out project, for example.

But now we've created a model we can use ? we've developed a series of cards with practical advice, as well as workshops and other tools to help people think about their wellbeing.' The concept of wellbeing has also been incorporated into training courses. All this implies the approach has been a success. But is there any tangible basis for this assertion?

'We don't know the impact on the company's bottom line yet, but we do know the staff turnover figure is falling, ' says Mr Trotter.

'Measu r ing benef its in simple cost terms is difficult, ' acknowledges Ms Butterworth.

But she insists the new approach is not just about a clear financial success: 'We want to make our careers more attractive ? the industry is seen as st ressful and we want to change this.' As she points out, there are untold costs of having a highly stressed workforce. 'There are short-term health issues such as breakdowns, but also longer-term issues like the amount of time off sick, absenteeism and staff turnover.' Mr Trotter agrees: 'Think of the cost of replacing staff who leave and the time and money spent recruiting. Then there's the intangible cost of always having people on a learning cu rve, rather than having a core of experienced workers. Addressing this issue will give us a competitive advantage.'