Although traditionally the construction industry has been considered relatively slow in adopting new technology, the unexpected arrival of Covid-19 has presented both challenges and opportunities that may shift this paradigm.
Given the on-site nature of the industry, the additive challenges are clear; on-site constraints such as social distancing protocols, plus the added pressure on mental health in an industry which according to a CIOB global survey revealed that 26% of construction workers had experienced suicidal thoughts, and 97% had experienced stress, at some point over the year. These figures are clearly above the average male suicide rate even prior to Covid-19.
Some of the typical causes include:
- Unrealistic and unforgiving workloads and deadlines.
- Cost pressures on senior managers.
- Lack of worker engagement and stake in decision-making.
- Environmental on-site concerns such as toilet facilities, noise, and severe temperatures.
Despite the above challenges due to Covid-19, it could potentially be a catalyst for providing opportunities to modernise the industry whilst at the same time significantly improving worker mental health. This includes digital delivery systems (for example, embedded sensors and BIM) which have the following benefits:
- Facilitate easier and clearer information sharing irrespective of stakeholders’ locations whether on-site, remote, or at home.
- More opportunity to deliver projects on time and to schedule due to the potential to plan and enhance integration on a systems-based approach to a project.
- More structured planning and communication between managers and workers thereby alleviating the risk of unrealistic and high-pressure deadlines.
Clearly, embracing digital technology in isolation won’t act as a panacea but needs to be complemented by a cultural shift in many construction organisations.
Mental health has been apparently embraced by many organisations and received much exposure, but how can companies realistically translate this into better outcomes for their staff and “walk-the-walk” as well as “talking the talk”?
Within the industry, mental health training has clearly not been a high priority with over 70% of respondents to the survey attending no such event in the last 3 years. However, the industry does appear to be recognising the issue and taking steps to improve it.
Firstly, prevention is always better than cure. Companies need pro-actively to identify the root causes of mental health issues and actively engage with employees to get a 360 degree range of perspectives on how the working culture and practice could be approached differently to minimise the risk of issues festering.
Systems certainly play a part but, like health and safety, they need to be accompanied by a culture that sees mental health as an intrinsic part of the company’s operations and not just an afterthought or box-ticking exercise.
Companies are being encouraged to create and implement a mental health policy if they have not already done so, to develop awareness and openness amongst staff, to train managers in mental health awareness, to provide access to support, and to provide guidance for members to help them manage their own mental health.
That Covid-19 could make things worse for construction workers’ mental health is a clear possibility. That it could herald positive change for construction workers’ mental health provision is too.