Stress in construction: study results

Put to the test

25 March 2015

In this second of a 3-part series, Matthew Maslen reports on his study of stress in construction and its relevance to all members of the project team


When compared with others, the construction section is characterised by a reluctance to report stress. This may be due to a 'macho culture' and a false perception that admitting to stress, depression or anxiety is a sign of weakness (see the feature Stress in construction: ignoring dangers to health). But are certain personality types more prone to stress and is there a link between stress and performance? Psychological personality testing distinguishes between a Type A personality – intense, driven, competitive, and a Type B personality – no drive or ambition. My study sampled 110 construction personnel across 3 groups. This included 72 construction project managers, 21 site managers and 17 site operatives. Each respondent completed a closed question online questionnaire in total anonymity.

Finding 1: Assessment of personality type

The assessment was undertaken using the established Bortner Scale. The groups A+ and B+ were added to provide a broader range of results.

Table 1 shows how project managers and site managers reported a strong Type A personality. They exhibited traits such as time urgency, continuous involvement in multiple functions with deadlines and a persistent desire for recognition and achievement. Site operatives were much more likely to report traits of a Type B personality, such as no desire to compete or to be involved in deadlines.

Table 1: Assessment findings
Sample group Construction project managers Construction site managers Site operatives
Type A+ personality 33% 43% 12%
Type A personality 52%

43%

53%
Type B personality 15% 14% 35%
Type B+ personality 0%  0% 0

Finding 2: Assessment of current stress levels

This question measured current stress using a combination of clinically established stress, depression and anxiety assessment tools. Stress characteristics and markers were recorded and, for example, respondents were asked how much they agree with statements such as: "I struggle to control worry." Table 2 shows the percentage of respondents in each stress level group. In the project manager and site manager categories the most reported problem was sleep disturbance, but other issues included being easily distracted and having little pleasure in doing things. Some respondents reported worrying and extreme levels of stress, similar to the experience of a person experiencing burnout or breakdown.

Table 2: Assessment findings
Sample group Construction project managers Construction site managers Site operatives
High
6% 14% 0%
Medium
27% 14% 12%
Low
67% 71% 88%

Finding 3: Comparing stress experience to personality type

In this exercise stress score was compared against personality score. Across all 3 groups an average increase in personality score (namely becoming more Type A) meant a slight increase in stress score. However, it should be noted that the distribution within all 3 groups was wide and no one formula fitted the results.

Finding 4: Optimum levels of stress

The Yerkes Dodson Curve (figure 1) proposes that optimum levels of stress causes high productivity. In this assessment respondents were asked their level of agreement with 3 questions aimed to assess 3 different positions on the curve:

  1. When I am not busy at work I slow down – Assessing the left side of the curve
  2. I thrive on stress at work – Assessing the middle of the curve at an optimum stress level
  3. When I’m stressed my work suffers – Assessing too much stress and burnout.

The graph clearly shows that the project manager has an optimum work and stress level as predicted. It also shows the project manager can resist stress and keep up this performance better than the other groups (to the right hand side of the graph). It was noted the site manager and site operative do not thrive on stress, and their performance stayed comparatively level across stress levels. It suggests that a low level of stress gives low performance, an optimum or medium stress level gives high performance and high stress level causes a return to low performance.

Yerkes Dodson Curve Comparison graph

Figure 1: Yerkes Dodson Curve comparison

Finding 5: The respondents’ feelings

The final question asked for a reflection of feelings (positive or negative) experienced on the most stressful day of the respondents' working lives. A choice of 8 positive and 8 negative feelings was offered. The study found that site operatives reported 3 times as many negative feelings as positive ones. Table 3 shows the feelings most selected by each group.

Table 3: Assessment findings
Sample group Construction project managers Construction site managers Site operatives
Positive feelings most selected

Engaged (57%)

Decisive (56%)

Composed (29%)

Decisive (62%)

Interested (48%)

Engaged (38%)

Decisive (24%)

Interested (24%)

Engaged (18%)

Negative feelings most selected

Rushed (72%)

Irritable (58%)

Annoyed (50%)

Irritable (62%)

Annoyed (62%)

Rushed (62%)

Rushed 76%)

Irritable (64%)

Annoyed (59%)

Positive feelings least selected
Relaxed (3%) Calm (5%)

Relaxed (0%)

Satisfied (0%)

Negative feelings least selected
Nauseous (7%) Nauseous (5%) Nauseous (0%)

Positive emotions of being decisive, engaged and interested (similar to a Type A characteristics) figured highly in positive emotions across the groups. Feelings such as calm, relaxed and satisfied (Type B) were rarely reported and even absent.

It was noticed that fear and nausea were rarely reported. Given the high stress levels recorded in the respondents it is possible that reporting these feelings was avoided. Perhaps macho team members considered this is a sign of weakness. These results offer an insight into the psychology of each of the 3 groups.

Matthew Maslen is an Assistant Project Manager at Norman Rourke Prime

Further information