Construction project managers in Australia are under a tremendous amount of work-related stress, which is affecting their mental health as well as ability to perform their jobs. According to a new study by Bond University, respondents from the construction industry blamed work pressures for their stress levels while workers from other business segments attributed their stress to non-work issues.

Calling for a systemic change in the Australian construction industry, report author professor Alan Patching observed that failure to act on the issue could result in consequences including suicide.

Patching, who was project director for construction of the Sydney Olympic Stadium, blames the stress epidemic on the current contracting system, which takes a cut-throat approach to tendering and delivers wafer-thin profit margins.

“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. 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.”

Project managers who participated in Patching’s study revealed how these pressures impacted their health and family life, with some even considering suicide.

While some construction companies were sensitive to the issue of employee stress, they often tended to deal with it via employee assistance programs after the fact, rather than take steps to avoid and manage stress before it escalated.

“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.”

The construction industry culture also comes under the scanner in Patching’s study. A 2009 research revealed that absenteeism due to stress-related illness increased dramatically in every area of business except construction, despite the significant suicide rate among construction workers.

“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,” Patching said.

This culture continues to exist in the industry.

The Federal Government’s recent announcement of $3.8 billion of infrastructure spending was an opportunity to fast-track mental health initiatives in the industry, says Patching.

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