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News article from The Stress Master
Article posted: 03/12/2020

One major issue to emerge from the Coronavirus pandemic is the elevated levels of stress the public are experiencing. Social isolation, uncertainty about the future, financial problems – all have been exacerbated by COVID-19.

Of course, construction workers are not immune from the debilitating effects stress can have on their ability to perform mentally and physically. And if the sector’s poor record on dealing with mental health is anything to go by, there is a potential crisis looming on the horizon. The dire consequences of incorrectly handling stress disorders threatens to hit the construction industry harder than ever before.

It’s no secret that the construction workforce has some of the highest rates of mental health problems in any business category. In the last decade, we’ve seen suicide cases rise to an all-time high.

Research shows that employees in the construction industry belong to the third most-stressed sector in the UK while other surveys reveal that 82% of employees in building and construction are highly stressed at least some of the time during any working week.

From such a fragile starting point, the consequences of even greater levels of stress being experienced are truly frightening.

Consider the financial implications of long-term absenteeism, inability to focus on the tasks at hand, poor (and often angry) communication between co- workers and lack of motivation.

These and other stress-related issues have already cost businesses dearly. With the pandemic having eaten into profits (with some building and construction companies on the verge of bankruptcy) intensified stress levels will undoubtedly provoke further losses of both income and staff.

But why is chronic stress still so prevalent in the construction industry? What is causing the repeated failure of stress management approaches to actually generate positive results?

Significant investment has been made into all kinds of mental health support services such as workshops, audits and stress awareness programmes, yet many workers are still exhibiting the same incapacities.

Faced with an impending major hike in stress levels, a different strategy must be introduced if damage to the industry is to be avoided.

Wrong advice, wrong outcomes 

Within the spectrum of mental health conditions, stress is the most misunderstood of all. Much of the activity surrounding stress in the construction sector seems focused on attempting to deal with the symptoms of elevated stress, rather than its cause.

Advice given to construction workers who are stressed out can be anything from going to a gym in order to ‘work off’ their stress to having long soaks in a bath, changing their diet and all manner of other ideas, with some verging on the absurd. And construction companies are paying for it.

One construction manager stated, ‘Someone told me to relieve stress on the building site by putting various plants around the areas where we ate our lunch. When you’re behind with the work, some crucial supplies haven’t turned up and there’s pressure from the top to deliver on time, the idea that looking at an assortment of plants will sort out my stress out is nothing short of ridiculous.’

Getting to grips with stress 

How, then, should those responsible for mental health in the workplace approach the serious, crippling problem of stress and ensure each employee can make a productive, effective and efficient contribution to the company?

The answer is that it must start with a proper understanding of what stress is really all about. Attributing stress to the ‘macho’ culture of this male- dominated industry and how such stigma prevents the ability of employees to talk about their mental health problems, simply reveals the lack of knowledge workplace health managers have about the subject.

Stress is not lessened by talking about it. Like most mental health issues, intense levels of stress are rooted in behavioural problems, brought about by a lack of key skills in some very specific areas.

Recommending a host of physical aids such as exercise, diet and other misguided attempts at eliminating stress do not work in the long-term, if at all.

Some recent seminars and workshops for stressed- out workers have included concepts from spheres such as mindfulness, meditation, yoga and Tai Chi.

What is the purpose of these additions? It is generally to invoke calm in a stressed person. Unfortunately, well-meaning though it may be, a lack of calm is not the cause of stress, and inducing calm is not the solution.

Workplace stress management 

The fact is, stress cannot be eliminated. But it can – and must – be self-managed. While the responsibility of this management is down to the individual, strategies that recognise who is deficient in certain stress-related skills and then taking suitable action to support them correctly can be a game-changer.

Investing in a well-defined stress management programme need not be overly expensive and establishing a successful results-oriented pathway should be within any workplace mental health manager’s competence.

First, those responsible for workplace health must understand how chronic stress is formed in individuals. This is crucial, and unless and until the topic is understood correctly, no amount of effort or money will change anything.

Second, a radically different approach to addressing stress among workers must follow.

Typical on-site mental health audits look at ways to reduce what are termed major stressors – including long travel times, financial pressures and family separation to name a few.

But if they are some of the chief causes of stress, why doesn’t every employee or contractor arrive at work unable to cope with all these demands?

Correlation is not causation. Chronic stress is simply the result of how we respond to the various pressures in our lives, based upon certain psychological factors, especially coping (or non-coping) styles of thinking.

It is not the pressures themselves that create the problems, and the construction industry shouldn’t beat itself up as though its operational activities are the main causes of extreme stress levels.

What’s more, assuming changes in these everyday aspects of the construction industry will somehow improve the mental health of chronic stress sufferers is not only naive, it could also immobilise some already- struggling companies.

Instead, the focus should be on identifying the key, easily identifiable, mental skill deficiencies in relevant behavioural areas. Determining what needs to be put in place to support those who lack certain critical thinking capabilities could help resolve stress issues in a surprisingly short space of time.

Finally, there will be some employees who require appropriate help from qualified mental health experts, especially those well-versed in matters of stress management. Such assistance could take place in group and team coaching or one-to-one interventions, according to the need.

Less talk, more action 

Helping to reduce stress levels for both site workers and office staff cannot be successful if the underlying nature of stress is misunderstood and the internal, self- generating stress factors of workers are not addressed.

Pouring endless resources into attempting to ‘calm down’ those suffering with raised stress levels, instead of dealing with the underlying causes, is simply setting up any proposed workplace mental health strategy to fail – and fail it will.

If the construction industry wishes to avert a potential stress crisis, then stress management rather than stress elimination must be the order of the day.

Not only will this provide a successful pathway to less stress, it could also empower the workforce to take greater control of their overall thinking – and have an enormous impact on their lives.

It may well end up saving some of those lives too. 


Ches Moulton is a leading authority on stress management, and a qualified mental health therapist. He is the author of How to get control of your stress instead of stress controlling you.

His Stress C.A.R.E.™ programme is specifically focused on the building and construction industry.

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