Outdated cultural issues are plaguing the Australian construction industry, which is rapidly losing young and diverse workers, who are seeking a career that does not inflict a personal toll. NSW and Victorian governments have established a dedicated taskforce to get to the bottom of it, headed by AFL Commissioner Gabrielle Trainor AO FAICD. 

    The Australian construction industry plays a massive role in our economy and our society. An annual revenue of $360 billion constitutes approximately 7.2 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP). There are 395,650 businesses employing more than 1.1 million people — approaching 10 per cent of the working population. Construction also has a long history of pioneering physical safety, yet it lags behind most other industries in terms of the way it operates.

    “There is a cultural problem at the heart of the industry that is harming the workforce and has resulted in a significant personal and financial cost,” says Louise Rumble, a specialist senior workplace relations lawyer and partner at law firm Gadens.

    The personal toll is devastating, encompassing high levels of family conflict and divorce as well as mental illness and suicide. The risk among construction workers in lower-skilled roles is almost double that of other occupations. Altogether, there are 190 suicide deaths a year — and while there is no proof that the relationship is causal, the correlation is too strong to ignore.

    The industry is also suffering from a serious shortage of skills, with a projected shortfall of 105,000 workers by next year. Unless this problem is resolved, the national infrastructure construction pipeline planned for 2023, worth $150b, could be under threat. A 2021 report by BIS Oxford Economics found that persistent and outdated cultural issues are already costing the economy nearly $8b a year.

    “Even this is a quite conservative estimate as it doesn’t include recruitment, retraining and many other associated costs,” says Gabrielle Trainor AO FAICD, a leading non-executive director and adviser who is currently chairing the Construction Industry Culture Taskforce (CICT) — formed in 2018 by representatives of the industry, NSW and Victorian governments and leading academics.

    The aim of the taskforce is to develop a culture standard to secure the long-term sustainability of the industry. Trials are now underway across NSW and Victoria to lift productivity and performance in construction by addressing the three most damaging aspects of the culture — excessive work hours and fatigue, poor mental health, and failure to attract a diverse workforce.

    “As always, a multiplicity of things creates an industry culture — as well as the different cultures we see across every firm, site and team,” says Trainor. “History tells us there’s no point in trying to tackle these elements in isolation, so we’re taking a holistic approach.”

    Time for life

    In 1919, the International Labour Organization established a maximum weekly threshold of 48 hours to protect workers’ health. Yet, according to RMIT University’s Triple Wins: Work Hour Cultures for Health, Safety and Gender Equality published in Literature Review in April 2021, tradespeople in construction work an average of 63 hours a week, while site officers and administrators average 56 hours. A six-day week is the industry norm. However, previous efforts to reduce working hours have met with resistance from many quarters, including the union movement.

    “There seems to be a preconceived notion that people won’t continue to work in the sector unless they’re able to work extended hours and earn substantial overtime,” says Maria Koutsimpiris GAICD, the project controls manager, southern region, at Acciona. “Clearly, that isn’t working, as the industry is struggling to attract the additional people needed to deliver on the program of works in the pipeline. We also know that many people we’d like to bring into the sector place a high value on work-life balance. This is particularly important when we look at those with families, where both partners are working and, more broadly, [are] a younger demographic.”

    Some pilot studies suggest that compressing long working hours into a shorter working week can bring benefits without loss of income.

    “I visited the Northern Corridor Improvements Project in Auckland, New Zealand, recently and they’ve changed from working six days to five,” says Koutsimpiris. “There’s still a 55-hour week, which poses difficulties for those with caring responsibilities, but everyone finishes at 3pm on Fridays, so they have a full weekend to rest, be more engaged with their families and enjoy some recreational activities.”

    In July, the Australian Human Rights Institute at UNSW Sydney released the results emerging from Project 5, a two-year research study into the impact of a Monday–Friday work week at the $341m Concord Hospital Redevelopment. Dr Natalie Galea, who led the research, saw benefits for workers, their families and management. “Workers examined as part of the study reported an increase in job satisfaction including pay, job security and improved work/ life balance,” she said. “This resulted in improved cohesion and productivity onsite between workers and management and, importantly, no impact on the cost to deliver projects.”

    Australia’s construction conundrum


    infrastructure construction pipeline worth to 2033


    forecast job shortfall


    cost per year from workplace injuries, mental illness and suicide


    the suicide rate of national average


    construction-related injuries in 2018 — the highest incidence rate of any employment sector


    report working more than 50 hours a week


    are dissatisfied with their work-life balance (39% for general population)


    of employees report presenteeism


    are experiencing burnout


    report moderate to high stress levels


    of workforce is female, the lowest of any industry sector


    of onsite roles occupied by women

    Source: The Cost of Doing Nothing (BIS Oxford Economic) May 2021

    In the UK, pilot studies co-designed by Timewise and Build UK looked at the potential for working more flexible hours. Four leading British construction firms took part and, while the studies were short, lasting between six weeks and three months, the findings were positive. For example, the number of respondents who agreed with the statement, “My working hours give me enough time to look after my own health and wellbeing” rose from 48 to 84 per cent. Despite initial scepticism, all of the firms reported there had been no negative impact on budgets or time frames.The culture of construction is set at the procurement stage. For the government — the sector’s traditional client — the two major imperatives have always been time and cost, according to Trainor.

    “This has helped drive a race to the bottom and statistics that are, frankly, pretty disgraceful,” she says.

    Koutsimpiris would like to see organisations and governments working collaboratively to establish a realistic timeline and decide on the culture they want to create, how they can achieve it and what that will mean in terms of cost and time.

    “The pilot studies I’ve seen so far suggest that reducing working hours won’t have nearly as much negative impact as they fear,” she says.

    Untapped talent pool

    Construction is the most male-dominated industry in the country. Women make up just 12 per cent of the workforce (2018), down from 13.8 per cent in 1998. Most work in support roles such as administration or human resources rather than onsite or in senior management.

    Koutsimpiris chairs the Victorian chapter of Women in Engineering for Engineers Australia and will take over as national chair next year. In her work with the organisation, she has talked to many women across the sector about the impossibility of combining family life with roles that require them to be onsite at 7am, five or six days a week. “They’re moving to design consulting or other non-delivery roles with more favourable working conditions,” says Koutsimpiris. “Given the lack of skilled female engineers in construction, we need to focus on how we can best help women to balance their career with starting a family. Equal paid paternity leave is an important equaliser.”

    The partners of men who work such long hours must shoulder all of the family responsibilities. This leaves them with limited opportunities to earn money or build a career.

    “This has a huge economic impact on the productivity of the nation, as well as women’s autonomy, and it’s another reason why we need to recruit women at all levels,” says Koutsimpiris. “At the moment, executive teams are male-dominated, and often supported by primary caregivers, so they don’t have the lived experience of the balancing required across both working partners.”

    A 2021 collaborative study between the University of Sydney and Queensland University of Technology found that women make up just 11.1 per cent of construction industry directors compared with 28.1 per cent across all industries.

    “Many top-tier companies have been working to improve boardroom diversity for some time, but there are still quite a number of private builders and unlisted construction companies with very few women, if any, on their boards,” says Trainor.

    The myth that a decade or so of experience in the sector is vital for any senior role means that few women will make it past the first round of recruitment. “Boards need to consider the many transferable skill sets that can be gained in adjacent sectors,” says Koutsimpiris. “For example, I spent almost 20 years in the automotive industry — another male-dominated sector with a strong engineering base. The $1b-plus complex projects I managed involved vehicle development rather than construction, but there are enough similarities to make the move to Acciona perfectly feasible. The industry needs to be more open to a broader range of candidates and conscious of what they can bring to the table in terms of culture, inclusivity, wellbeing, different ways of working and different sector experiences. The more people we bring in to challenge the current norms, the faster the culture will change.”

    What this means for directors

    Legal and regulatory changes are now reshaping the way the construction industry is governed.

    “Work health and safety legislation places a duty of due diligence on directors and officers to ensure the ‘person conducting the business or undertaking’ complies with its primary statutory duty,” says Rumble. “Directors must take a number of steps to make sure they can demonstrate they are complying with their personal due diligence duty.”

    Psychosocial hazards are also being taken more seriously across all industries. “For example, directors must ensure they keep up-to-date knowledge of WHS matters, that appropriate resources are available and the correct processes in place to identify, eliminate and/or mitigate risk to workers’ holistic health,” says Rumble.

    She notes that good corporate governance practices also make commercial sense. “Poor work culture and health can have significant impacts on company success. For example, reduced employee morale could lead to high turnover rates, reduced productivity and an inability to meet contractual obligations. This is an evolving space, so boards should seek advice on how best to protect the multifaceted WHS risks with non-physical causes.”

    Looking beyond the current challenges, Trainor sees an industry where miracles of engineering and construction transform our everyday lives and the quality of our lives. “There are many wonderful, committed people in the industry and I’m not underestimating that for one minute,” she says. “But, while you can talk about the culture of the industry through a gender equity lens, a mental health and wellbeing lens, ultimately, this is a conversation about productivity. Frankly, it just makes economic sense to have a better culture in the industry over which you provide oversight as a director. People — particularly young people — have developed very different expectations of their workplaces. So, if you want to do nothing more than win the war for talent, you’ve really got to be focusing on the kind of workplace you’re providing. A company that provides an employee value proposition before they’re forced to by increasing regulatory demands will have a head start as an employer of choice. Ultimately, isn’t this is the kind of world we all want — one where people have safe, healthy, satisfying work?”

    Support is available from Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636, Butterfly Foundation on 1800 334 673 and Lifeline on 13 11 14.

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