If the construction industry is to build a successful future then digital transformation, new technologies and adopting BIM need to go hand-in-hand with recognition of the importance of employee wellbeing, says Mike Blake of Willis Towers Watson
Workloads are continuing to grow across the construction sector, according to the latest RICS market report. At the same time, it has highlighted tightening credit conditions, building and civil engineering price pressures, rising input costs and shrinking profit margins.
These findings signal a challenging environment for the sector’s workforce – one that risks being further compounded by the ambitious targets laid out in the Construction Sector Deal.
The £420m industry and government collaboration aims to boost productivity, create highly skilled jobs and deliver 1.5m new homes by 2022 and represents the biggest government investment in the sector for at least a decade.
The government sees the use of Building Information Modelling (BIM) as essential to achieving its targets, with a current infrastructure pipeline worth £600bn over the next 10 years
While it is widely reported that the UK has come a long way in the exploitation of BIM technology, the government has said that it does “not underestimate the challenge” ahead. Demands on the industry to continue adopting BIM requires significant culture change and training.
Indeed, the NBS National BIM Report 2018 found that more than a quarter of businesses (26%) are yet to utilise BIM, with two fifths (41%) revealing they still don’t fully understand what they need to do to comply.
McKinsey’s Imagining Construction’s Digital Future highlights the many technical challenges of rolling out new technology across a complex supply chain. These additional pressures – against a backdrop of the recent demise of Carillion and an industry-wide skills gap – may serve to further increase the stress burden facing employees.
Construction workers are already known to suffer more with wellbeing issues in comparison to employees in other sectors. Recent figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) have shown, for example, that the industry has higher suicide rates than other professions.
Suicide incidents among low skilled workers were found to be three times the national average and double among skilled construction employees.
Fostering mental health awareness
According to latest ONS statistics, men account for three-quarters of suicides – a trend that has continued since the mid-1990s. These figures also showed that the highest suicide numbers were among men aged between 45 and 59.
The findings highlight a particular concern for construction bosses who are operating not only within a male-dominated sector, but one that has also seen a 13% increase in workers aged over 45.
Stress and anxiety issues are particularly prevalent across the UK as a whole. Willis Towers Watson Global Benefits & Attitudes Survey (GBAS) findings have revealed that nearly a third (29%) of UK workers have suffered with anxiety or depression in the past two years alone. Moreover, one in 10 have taken time off during the same period due to mental health conditions.
A preventative approach is advised, particularly as issues can risk going undetected where steps have not been taken to remove associated stigmas or to encourage a culture of openness.
The provision of Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) can also play an important role in this respect, underpinning a supportive environment and allowing individuals to talk confidentially to trained counsellors over the phone from the comfort of their own home.
Establishing a supportive wellbeing culture Willis Towers Watson research has exposed the risks of prolonged and excessive stress to businesses. GBAS findings identified that more than half of UK workers (52%) suffer with above average, or high, levels of stress.
The cost to businesses of not addressing this issue can be significant, with decreased productivity and incidents of long-term absence risking hitting key personnel.
Creating a positive wellbeing environment and delivering benefits that support employees, both mentally and physically, can help strengthen resilience to burgeoning industry pressures.
Steps to do so involve educating, encouraging and incentivising workers to lead healthier lifestyles.
The importance of this has been brought into sharper focus by the revelation from GBAS that a large proportion (61%) of highly stressed employees are more likely to smoke, suffer with insomnia, have poor diets and are less likely to participate in regular exercise – compared with only 34% of those experiencing low stress.
The ramifications of poor lifestyle choices include more frequent minor ailments and, if left unchecked, may potentially lead to more serious conditions including obesity, heart disease, stroke and mental ill-health – the consequential cost to both individuals, and to businesses, can be severe.
Ultimately, the winners in construction will not only be those that follow the government’s strategic lead in embracing technology, superior project delivery standards and skills training – it will also be those that put employee wellbeing at the heart of their business futures.
Willis Towers Watson