Stress in construction: more effective reporting framework

Reading the signs

6 May 2015

In his final article on stress in the construction industry, Matthew Maslen makes the case for a more effective reporting framework


Project and site manager respondents to my study of construction personnel reported high levels of stress compared with site operatives who were, on the whole, significantly less stressed. Both project and site managers were more likely to have a Type A personality (being driven and competitive) with site operatives being more Type B (with no drive or ambition).

The research also showed that project managers perform on the whole better under high stress, and optimally under medium stress. Finally, the respondents described positive and negative feelings experienced on the busiest day of their working life. The answers showed that feelings such as fear and nausea were rarely reported, perhaps because they are perceived as a sign of weakness.

The majority of respondents in this study reported being stressed, yet on construction sites there is no mechanism for dealing with this. There could be a number of reasons for this but this study points to the ‘macho culture’ that has been identified in other research.

Health risk comparison

Let us make a comparison between two construction health issues: stress and skin cancer. In the height of the summer would any operative or manager fail to report a red lump or an odd-looking new mole? Would they look to their employer to provide sun cream? Is the risk assessed on site and, as part of Construction Design and Management (CDM) regulations, are there clear recommendations on its management from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE)? Are construction staff aware that prolonged unprotected sun exposure can cause skin cancer?

Now apply the same questions to stress. On a delayed, busy and complicated scheme would a construction manager or operative report stress? Would they look to their employer to protect them from stress? Is the risk of stress assessed on site, as part of CDM, with clear recommendations on its management from the HSE? Are staff aware that prolonged, unprotected exposure to stress can lead to an inability to function, depression, anxiety and – in extreme cases – suicide?


The majority of respondents in this study reported being stressed, yet on construction sites there is no mechanism for dealing with this

I would say that the answers on skin cancer are mostly 'yes', and on stress 'no'. This comparison needs to be qualified by the fact that, according to the HSE, stress is known to make up 40% I would say that the answers on skin cancer are mostly ‘yes’, and on stress ‘no’. This comparison needs to be qualified by the fact that, according to the HSE, stress is known to make up 40% of all work-related illness in the UK, but all cancers (not just skin cancer) only make up 4%. Therefore, we may conclude that stress is a far larger problem. Worryingly, as many as 10 people (9% of the total) questioned in my study reported stress levels in keeping with a stress-related illness, which can cause an inability to function of all work-related illness in the UK, but all cancers (not just skin cancer) only make up 4. Therefore, we may conclude that stress is a far larger problem. Worryingly, as many as 10 people (9% of the total) questioned in my study reported stress levels in keeping with a stress-related illness, which can cause an inability to function.

In the study, one stress profile did not necessarily fit all. Some project managers reported thriving on stress, while others could not function at all in stressful situations. Site managers' responses were very interesting, because it could be argued that they were the most stressed group and their role is the least studied. In the project team, the site manager has two separate roles, or, rather, two masters to please. First, they have to manage the operatives below them with constant direction and supervision, but also serve the managers and client above.

This stress from both sides may explain some of the results in my investigation. In support of this, another study has shown project managers as more stress-resistant if they were previously a site manager.

This research has left questions as well as a few answers. There is an opportunity to investigate both stress and the accompanying macho culture, but whatever the form of investigation, it should be done anonymously so the respondent is able to reveal their true feelings. My study did not ask for age, gender or experience details.

HSE approach

While it is known that stress makes up 40% of all work-related illness in the UK, the problem is not well understood, and in the construction industry the issue is woefully under researched. The HSE has proposed a 'management standards' approach, which asks employers to risk assess the effect of stress on its employees. However, these standards have remained unaltered since 2008 and I suspect most industry professionals are unfamiliar with them. They are generic, unpopular and of little relevance to large businesses, suggesting the setting up of focus groups, which is impractical.

Perhaps more worryingly, it shows a lack of effort and resources allocated to the problem. For example, there is no legal case law that relates to a construction employer ensuring the mental health of an employee.

The HSE would argue that this requirement is met by other statutory instruments, but has any employer been prosecuted for causing stress to their employees? This is because, in construction, mental health is not considered by many as a real health issue. Just imagine if the size of the legal framework for managing asbestos was applied to stress.

As stress, depression and anxiety are notoriously difficult to diagnose, a more subtle approach is required that is fit for purpose. Managers should be trained in how to identify the behaviours and signs using standardised stress tests. Staff at all levels should be trained in identifying their own stress factors and proven ways to manage them. For instance, can you imagine a CPD event on breathing techniques in your board room or site hut? The fact that some people may find this idea laughable is part of the problem. To defeat this culture the industry must recognise that the effects of extreme stress can be just as debilitating as a broken leg.

As we accelerate away from economic uncertainty and the demands placed on a project team grow, it is essential that employers and industry bodies across the construction sector understand that stress is a very real health and safety issue. We might then have a chance of defusing this ticking 'stress time bomb'.

Matthew Maslen is an Assistant Project Manager and CDM-C at Norman Rourke Pryme

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