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Addressing the Root of the Stress Problem in Construction

Is your job stressful? For many in the construction industry, the answer is yes. Often construction work does not go as planned – materials are delivered late or arrive damaged, bad weather delays projects and change orders push timelines back further. And when projects fall behind, construction workers bear the brunt of that stress.

Owners want contractors to deliver projects on time and under budget. After all, delays cost money. Contractors regularly use subcontractors, who are given tight deadlines to meet to ensure the contractor completes the job on time. The usual result is unrealistic expectations creating unrealistic work schedules, which increases the pressure workers feel to move faster and ultimately may lead to injury.

Supervisors, who are responsible for making sure projects get done and also for ensuring the safety of their crews, are often under the most pressure – they are caught in the middle and pulled in both directions.

To get back on schedule, workers are often asked to put in overtime. Though a welcome source of additional income, this time away from family (e.g., up to six 10-hour days) can also bring additional emotional stressors. Working long hours can lead to health problems and an increased risk for accidents due to fatigue. Increased overtime may also lead to more night work, which brings a whole new set of stressors (e.g., disruptions to family life and the body’s circadian rhythms). When time is stretched thin, safety inevitably suffers, along with worker health (both mental and physical).

Another major stressor for construction workers is job security. Not knowing when or where your next job will be or how long it will last can make life difficult to plan and bring all sorts of stress (financial and others) on workers and their families. When job demands increase and bring along a lack of control over your work and schedule, stress is usually the result.

Stopping Stress Before It Starts

Earlier this year in Lifelines, we covered some solutions for overcoming stress on the job and for understanding where stress comes from in your life. We know coping skills are important when it comes to handling stressors you can’t change, but what about ways to reduce stress before it starts? Since the production schedule is the source of so much stress for construction workers, what can be done about it?

First, contractors should make it a practice to set realistic expectations of how long a project will take and not overpromise owners. Choosing reliable subcontractors and giving them reasonable deadlines is also important. Subcontractors should be vetted on both the quality and reliability of their work as well as their safety record.

Bringing experienced workers into the planning process in its early stages can help identify potential problems and leave time to find solutions. Creating a scheduling work group that includes the general contractor, subcontractors and workers can be particularly helpful. On one such project, a subcontractor needed more time to complete the work safely, and the work group figured out how to adjust the schedule to get the subcontractor the time they needed without rushing or compromising safety.

Facing Stress Head On

Acknowledging that stress exists and making it an acceptable topic to discuss on site is another important step. Contractors can use toolbox talks or lunch meetings to discuss stress and encourage workers to open up about the challenges they are facing and pressure they may be feeling. The LHSFNA’s Stress Management Toolbox Talk and An Overview of Stress and Stress Management Health Alerts can help LIUNA signatory contractors and LIUNA members tackle these issues. All of these publications can be ordered through the Fund’s online Publications Catalogue.

Talking about specific stressors on site could help uncover collective solutions, or at the very least, clear the air and put everyone on the same page. Making sure supervisors are well-trained in planning as well as how to identify and reduce stress on the job is critical. Supervisors have high-stress jobs and can be a major cause of stress for workers, so they must be able to cope with stress and communicate well when listening to a worker’s concerns. LIUNA’s Training & Education Fund offers a Supervisor Safety and Health curriculum which was developed with help from the LHSFNA and addresses all of these issues.

Stress is a fact of life, but it’s also a fact that stress harms the body emotionally and physically and leads to serious accidents. Contractors and workers can be part of the solution by working together to solve the stress problem. Through planning, training and open conversation, we can create a less stressful environment on the jobsite for everyone involved.

[Scott Schneider is the LHSFNA’s Director of Occupational Safety and Health.]

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