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Stress in construction – it's time to talk

15 May 2018

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Managing a building project introduced Gabriela Blandy to the stresses of the industry. A professional coach, she considers why construction struggles with mental health – and offers a possible solution.

The level of pressure within the construction industry were revealed to me several years ago, as the client of a £3m renovation project. While managing a challenging defects period, it was clear that all parties involved were not responding from an entirely rational place. Since becoming a professional coach, I’ve worked with people from many industries, including construction, and learned to understand the causes and symptoms of stress – and how to deal them.

One senior executive in the construction industry who I worked with struggled to articulate his feelings about stress in the workplace. He kept referring to ‘it’ – but wouldn’t say what it was. Once away from the business, he was able to use the word ‘pressure’. This was a breakthrough. Conversations about stress can take place, if we create the right conditions.

Blandy: "Create the right conditions"

Managing directors don’t want what they perceive as the negative publicity, while others feel that talking about stress is a confession of weakness. A head of engineering, supervising over fifty projects, told me he regretted telling his boss he couldn’t handle any more work. Even though he doesn’t take lunches, works extra hours, and is often exhausted when he arrives home – he felt his attitude had been perceived negatively. He also explained that this admission had affected his own personal pride.

Dealing with stress and pressure by pushing on is the equivalent of running an app on an old operating system and enduring crashes because it would be cowardly to upgrade. How can the publicity for the company who steps up and says, due to constant breakdowns we are modernising our systems, be perceived as negative?

Another project manager couldn’t face coming into work one day. It had all become too much. She drove aimlessly around the country, missing meetings, and unable to answer the phone. Her husband called the office when she didn’t come home that night. She had checked into a remote hotel. There was a tracker on the car, so she was finally located. She managed to return to work, but later, had a breakdown, and eventually lost her job. ‘I just thought she was incompetent,’ her boss told me. Both these individuals are exhibiting acceptable reactions: a mind in overwhelm will behave in increasingly dramatic ways; if we’re not trained to recognise this behaviour, we misinterpret it.

Patterns of behaviour lie deep in our subconscious, a vast network of strategies that are coded for our very survival. Many of these programs are written in the first seven years of life. When you work with a coach, or mental health professional, you can rewrite these programs with the knowledge and experience you have now. But many resist, choosing to remain in unproductive and even life-threatening states.

One construction industry professional discussed a colleague’s breakdown – from the privacy of the office carpark. ‘In all honesty, I didn’t pick up on the signs,’ he told me.

It’s not simply that we don’t recognise the onset of crisis, there are more complex issues involved. Insomnia, frequent colds, anxiety, loss of sexual desire, difficulty concentrating, and short temper are states people too often accept with their profession, though have you ever seen them as part of a job description? Sometimes, these symptoms are worn as medals.

All these stories reveal that stress is at work within the industry. Yes, people are beginning to articulate this, but there are gaps in the knowledge of those working in pressure environments. You may have spotted another gap. Each of my interviews came with the proviso that I wouldn’t mention the company. Some individuals preferred for me to withhold their job title, certainly their name.

Far from admitting defeat, working with a coach or mental health professional is an ambitious decision either for yourself, or the team of individuals you manage. The company who chooses to go down this route is saying: we invest in human potential, we give our employees the skills to discover an energy rich state, a way of performing at peak.  

Gabriela Blandy is a professional coach who works with individuals and organisations.

Comments

All the points made are very valid and can relate to demanding jobs in any sector. Technical project management ( i.e. those who have the responsibility to actually resolve issues rather than just administering a project) is hugely pressured and it is either something one finds a thrill or something that, if out of control, can be a dreadful burden.
There is also still a particular issue within some companies in the construction industry where the tiresomely macho management culture often leaves no room to discuss these pressures and that is incredibly isolating for the one person whose role can by its nature alienate them from others in the project.

Dan Ash, 15 May 2018

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