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July 22, 2021

Construction Workers’ Mental Well-Being

Summary:

Contractors need to challenge the status quo and the cultural acceptance of fatigue as a necessary evil of a demanding industry.

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A culture of worker well-being hinges on the understanding that a “whole worker” shows up at the jobsite each day. Fatigue in construction is not new. However, with fast-tracking, schedule compression and the growing complexity of projects, fatigue is becoming an increasingly big issue affecting the workforce. 

Fatigue doesn’t just affect workers from a physical standpoint, it also affects their mental well-being. As part of a sound risk management and safety strategy to prevent worker injury and mental health concerns, contractors need to develop a plan around managing worker fatigue and burnout.

Growing Risk of Fatigue

In 2019, Construction Executive shared information from the National Safety Council’s research-based, three-part special report on fatigue. This report continues to be a reliable resource for employers concerned about fatigue and considering how to counter the effects of fatigue. Part III of the NSC report highlighted some of the risks associated with employee fatigue, which affects the “ability to think clearly, slows reaction time, decreases attention and vigilance, and impacts short-term memory, judgment and other functions.” 

Consequences of Fatigue

The consequences of worker fatigue affect construction operations by increasing incidents and issues in key performance areas, including:

  • “near hits”;
  • minor/first-aid injuries, serious/debilitating injuries and fatalities;
  • quality defects leading to rework, cost impacts and schedule delays;
  • equipment and property damage resulting in increased operating costs; and
  • increased overtime and reduced productivity resulting in profit fade.

The Job Site Is Only One Factor That Contributes to Fatigue

One of the issues that contractors need to understand is that the workers’ total time spent on work does not start when the worker arrives at the job site. The total workday includes the worker’s roundtrip commute and needs to be an integral part of assessing worker fatigue. Many construction workers commute more than an hour each way. Why is this important? Commuting can add as much as 10 to 15 hours per workweek. Not only do the workers’ hours and commute time need to be understood, but contractors also need to understand that workers have personal and family lives. If a worker works 12-hour days, commutes two hours and takes three to four hours of personal/family life, that leaves six to seven hours or less of sleep each night. This daily pattern compounds the “total worker fatigue impact.”

The Risk of “Presenteeism”

There is a growing challenge with worker fatigue and burnout. “Presenteeism” is when a worker is on the job site but is not fully engaged due to a lack of focus or concentration. There can be many possible causes of presenteeism and sources of distraction, including:

  • stressors at home, including relationship issues, caregiving for children or relatives, unexpected expenses and financial pressures and legal concerns;
  • physical illness or underlying mental health condition;
  • sleep deprivation;
  • working through an injury or the nagging effects of chronic pain; and
  • a known or suspected impairment from recent or continuing alcohol or substance misuse. 

See also: Long-Haul COVID-19 Claims and WC

Cultural Change for Contractors to Counter Fatigue

Construction company owners, executives and project leaders need to recognize the hidden costs that worker fatigue can have on the overall profitability of a project. Construction leaders need to understand that worker fatigue doesn’t just happen and that, through their actions or inactions, fatigue becomes a growing, unmeasured worker health problem. Contractors need to take a close look at how projects are staffed, supervised, scheduled and resourced to reduce the potential impact of fatigue on productivity, quality, risk management and safety performance. 

The starting point for meaningful and lasting change is recognition that a challenge exists and confirmation that it needs to be addressed. Contractors need to challenge the status quo and the cultural acceptance of fatigue as a necessary evil of a demanding industry. Company leaders need to reject the notion that there is little that can be done to reduce the competing demands that lead to worker fatigue. Fatigue should not be viewed as a badge of honor but as a sign that the system needs to be modified. The adage of “making hay while the sun is shining” is being replaced with a longer-term perspective of building a sustainable workforce for tomorrow. 

Strategies to Combat Fatigue

Strategies to combat fatigue include:

  1. Have honest conversations with project owners about the industry’s existing shortage of skilled workers and the impact of aggressive schedules on the well-being of the workforce. 
  2. Embrace lean construction methods to adjust schedules and sequences based on realistic availability of all trades.
  3. Improve management reporting to capture real-time field data showing a true picture of labor hours and costs vs. construction progress schedules. To shed light on a company’s potential for worker and crew fatigue, contractors should develop reports that analyze:
    • consecutive days worked. Look at trends of workers who routinely work consecutive days without time off from the job site.
    • total weekly hours worked. Analyze trends of workers who work high numbers of hours each week.
  4. Reduce the frequency of unscheduled overtime and the overall maximum amount of overtime required of crews. Alternatively, evaluate if there is flexibility in the schedule to provide a weekend free from work to provide for adequate rest.
  5. Analyze the amount of night work that is scheduled and the impact this has on scheduling the remaining projects. Does the night work require the company to schedule workers for back-to-back work shifts without allowing for a proper rest period? 

The May 2021 National Construction Safety Week focused on the theme of “Committed to Holistic Safety” with an emphasis on worker mental health, well-being and fatigue. The industry knows the impact on job-site culture, teamwork, safety, quality and productivity when a crew is saddled with chronic tardiness or absenteeism. It is a noteworthy cultural shift that the industry is responding to the rising concern about physical and mental well-being of the workforce. 

This article was written by Cal Beyer and Scott Staffon.

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About the Author

Cal Beyer is the vice president of Workforce Risk and Worker Wellbeing. He has over 30 years of safety, insurance and risk management experience, including 24 of those years serving the construction industry in various capacities.

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