Interview: Prof Charles Egbu - ‘Mental wealth is key to changing construction’
It’s time for industry leadership on mental health, which affects all aspects of construction from boardroom to site, argues new CIOB president professor Charles Egbu. He spoke to Will Mann about his plans for his presidential term.
Mental health and wellbeing will be one of the key themes of Professor Charles Egbu’s term as president of the Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB), which begins this month.
The pro-vice chancellor at the University of East London (UEL) sees the issue as a “golden thread” – coining a term used by Dame Judith Hackitt – which runs right through the industry, affecting decision-making from the boardroom through to site, and in turn impacting on skills, quality, health and safety, sustainability and profitability.
“Construction can be stressful, but other industries could say the same,” Egbu reasons. “If you work in medicine, for example, the implications of not doing your job properly are very severe. But medical professionals are not ashamed to say they are stressed, unable to work properly and rest.
“Whereas in construction, there is this macho culture, where people don’t accept they are unwell, unable to do a job, and may need help. And so the job doesn’t get done properly, and the consequences of that may be seen immediately – through accidents on site – or not till further down the line.
“Leadership has a role here. It is time for industry leaders to challenge some aspects of this macho culture in construction, especially when it impacts negatively on the wellbeing of our workers, the quality of what we deliver, the safety of the people who occupy the buildings we construct and ultimately the bottom line too.
Charles Egbu: CV
- Appointed pro-vice chancellor (education and experience) at University of East London in May 2019.
- Dean at School of Built Environment and Architecture, London South Bank University, and professor of project management and strategic management in construction, 2014 to 2019.
- Professor of project management and strategic management in construction, University of Salford, 1998 to 2007. Also served as associate head of research and innovation.
- Doctorate in construction project management from the University of Salford.
- First degree (first class honours) in quantity surveying, Leeds Polytechnic.
- Over 15 books and 300 research publications to his credit. Supervised over 20 PhD students and examined over 100 PhDs internationally. Has received more than £25m in research funding in his areas of research interests in the built environment.
- Admitted to the Worshipful Company of Constructors in May 2017 and received the Freedom of the City of London in 2017.
“Construction, unlike other industries, seemingly doesn’t appreciate that mental health equals wealth. When you are well, you make better decisions and make more money.”
Wellbeing and output
There’s a strong link, Egbu notes, between worker wellbeing and the quality of their output – which has been a key CIOB policy issue since 2016 and is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future.
“How often is poor workmanship due to workers being stressed?” he asks. “It’s absolutely right that the CIOB is spotlighting quality, even more so following Dame Judith Hackitt’s recommendations. It permeates everything we do as an industry – design, materials, workmanship – but also decision-making and management processes.
“Do managers always gather enough information to make the right decision, take time to look at the alternative options, consult with other members of team? Too often the process just uses cost as the basis of decision-making. What about overall added value?
“But the bigger cost comes when poor quality decision-making leads to bad work-manship, rework and extra expense.”
Egbu’s concern is that the focus on quality tends to come and go in cycles. “It’s now centre stage because of the Edinburgh school collapse and Grenfell, but I worry that it will slip off the agenda in five years or so,” he says.
“It needs to be embedded in all kinds of training and education, including vocational training. UEL, like a number of universities with courses in construction management and construction-related areas, is accredited by the CIOB, and as part of that, our built environment curriculum should be infused with quality.”
Egbu joined UEL in May 2019, and sits on the university executive board, the latest move in a distinguished built environment career that includes spells at other respected academic institutions, University College London (UCL), University of Salford, Glasgow Caledonian University and London South Bank University.
Through his work, the professor sees at close quarters how the built environment sector is changing – a more globalised industry, rapid uptake of digital technology, a millennial generation with different attitudes to their predecessors.
“There is a more international dimension to construction,” Egbu says. “The Global Construction 2030 study forecasts construction output will grow by 85% by 2030, with three countries – China, US and India – accounting for 57% of all growth.
“And these countries are looking at artificial intelligence, machine engineering, automation, digital, offsite manufacturing – to help them build faster, smarter, more cheaply, with higher quality.
“With that mind, if you are planning the education of a construction manager – wouldn’t you want them to have an international outlook? Whatever happens with Brexit, the UK psyche has to look outward to the wider world – improving our skill base, winning work. We won’t do that by being myopic and inward looking.”
“Whatever happens with Brexit, the UK psyche has to look outward to the wider world – improving our skill base, winning work. We won’t do that by being myopic and inward looking.”
UEL opened its cutting-edge London Centre for Digital Design and Manufacturing last year, which is central to teaching students about “Industry 4.0” – the fourth industrial revolution. From September 2019,
all of the university’s programmes will have a module that addresses Industry 4.0 readiness, says Egbu.
“Students will become familiar with connected enterprise and technologies to develop intelligent processes – automated, flexible and self-learning,” he enthuses. “This also includes connecting production facilities with technologies such as the internet of
things and big data analytics – and identifying a role for those technologies whatever industry they choose to go into.
“So, if we can give our up-and-coming construction managers these skills and competencies – that is how they will add value in our industry.”
He believes the millennial generations have the “thirst for knowledge” to learn about these technologies, and an internationalist outlook.
“It’s up to construction and the CIOB to capture that thirst and encourage them to forge links elsewhere in the world,” Egbu says. “This generation will likely have more than one career, so they will make high demands from industries they work in. Construction, which is still struggling with a skills shortage, should bear that in mind.”
Health gain and learning gain
Egbu also believes the millennials are more aware of mental health. “They want employers who will be sensible about worker wellbeing,” he says.
UEL is walking the walk on “mental wealth”, as Egbu puts it, introducing a “health gain” module this September 2019, worth 20 credits, which all students will take. He says UEL believes that health gain is a pre-condition of “learning gain”, and of institutional success.
“We are saying this is a precursor to success, in any industry,” Egbu adds. “Mental illness costs the UK £94bn a year, according to the OECD, a huge figure.
“The message is clear: if companies don’t look after their people, it costs more money in the long run. But the reverse is also true, companies with high levels of worker wellbeing are more profitable. So mental wealth is, arguably, key to changing construction.”
Charles Egbu on…
“Quality is sometimes seen as an add-on, which it’s not. There should be zero tolerance of poor quality, with checks and balances all the way through – the culture that manufacturing has in Japan.
“I used to be a site QS over 20 years ago, and the culture during my time on site was to delay payments and frustrate subcontractors so they wouldn’t come back for their money. I hope that doesn’t exist now, but I worry there are still unfair payment issues. This affects subcontractors’ cashflow, productivity, quality...”
…Globalisation and project governance
“Projects are growing in size, cost and complexity, drawing together people from all over the world. Some cultures might say, ‘Why waste money on PPE and site welfare facilities?’ Some might look at bribery and corruption differently. So how do we govern such projects, adding value, but keeping workers safe and maintaining high levels of professionalism and ethical behaviour?”
“The World Economic Forum predicts more than 60% of the world will be living in cities by 2030. The impact of this is one of my key research areas. How do you make cities more resilient? What will the strain on infrastructure be? How will this impact health and wellbeing? These are questions construction must answer.”
…BAMEs in construction
“Only 3.4% of UK construction managers are BAMEs, compared to 11.3% of all construction employees. So, there are still barriers for BAMEs [black, Asian and minority ethnic people] in the industry. We need to provide leadership to change this, so that workers from ethnic minorities have a sense of belonging and want to contribute. Maximising diversity of all kinds contributes to innovation, creativity and productivity gains, and helps address skills shortages.”