Psychosocial issues in construction
. Nikki Bell, Health & Safety Laboratory, UK
- 1 Introduction
- 2 Why focus on construction?
- 3 Key psychosocial issues in construction
- 4 Prevention strategies
- 5 References
- 6 Links for further reading
Construction is one of the most dangerous sectors in which to work, with an unacceptably high number of accidents and cases of ill health. Research shows psychological and social (psychosocial) factors inherent in work design, organisation and management are contributory factors to work-related accidents and ill health. This article outlines and discusses some of the key psychosocial issues or work characteristics that may lead to the experience of stress amongst construction workers and the associated health and safety problems that could occur.
Why focus on construction?
The European Statistics on accidents at work in construction showed that in 2007 there were on average 6,075 accidents with more than three days lost per 100,000 persons employed across the European Union (EU)-27. Recent data for the United Kingdom between 2011 and 2012 show that there were an estimated 74,000 total cases and 31,000 new cases of work-related ill health resulting in an estimated 1.7 million working days lost. These data support the exploration of those psychosocial issues that may affect the occupational safety and health (OSH) of construction staff.
The fourth European Working Conditions Survey (2007)  shows that the construction sector across the EU-27 is one of five sectors (the others being agriculture, manufacturing, transport, and health and education) with a higher than average level of work-related health impact (e.g. stress, anxiety, irritability).
There is a wide range of work characteristics (or ‘stressors’) that could potentially cause stress amongst construction workers. Psychosocial issues, such as stress, have been linked to specific detrimental outcomes related to performance and health, (such as, job dissatisfaction) and poor mental health (including anxiety and depression) amongst both management and workers in the construction industry.
Potential stressors that emerged from a literature review on stress in the construction industry are summarised in Table 1. These have been categorised according to Sobeih et al.’s (2009) into five main categories of psychosocial issues that have the potential to lead to stress at work, and provide one of the possible ways of how the workplace stressors could be categorised based on the literature.
Table 1 does not provide an exhaustive list of all psychosocial issues; rather it captures the most typical issues described in the construction literature that can be perceived as stressful by construction workers and gives a brief overview of these. Each of the five categories of psychosocial issues is then described in turn in the following sections.
|Category 1: Job characteristics (i.e. work environment, work quantity)|
|This covers productivity pressures; mainly pressures from clients for shorter production times and construction workers feeling that they have too many jobs to be completed in a short timeframe. Poor weather conditions can also be a source of stress as bad weather (rain, snow) can delay the completion of projects and therefore, add to existing time pressures.|
|Category 2: Role in the organisation (i.e. role description, responsibility)|
|Skill under-utilisation seems to be an issue in construction; hence not making full use of workers’ existing skill base in their current work can be a source of stress.|
|Category 3: Social aspects (i.e. social support)|
|This refers to a lack of supervisor or colleague support to help buffer the negative effects of potential work characteristics on construction workers. This presents a challenge given the constantly changing workforce in construction, where it may be difficult to establish lasting relationships.|
|Category 4: Job prospects (i.e. career development, salary)|
|The typical stressor for construction workers referred to in the literature is ‘job insecurity’ (e.g. employed on a project basis, fixed term contracts lasting one year or less).|
|Category 5: Organisational factors (i.e. management, procedures, culture)|
|This includes OSH leadership and the organisational culture, which have the potential to lead to stress amongst construction workers. For example, lack of information and consultation on work issues, including involvement in health and safety decision making, can result in stress through a reduced feeling of autonomy.|
Whilst not a sector-specific issue, it is important to acknowledge that many construction workers experience excessive pressure from clients to meet certain deadlines. It is important for construction companies to meet these deadlines to stand a chance of securing future work with the same client, particularly those subcontracted to perform specialist tasks in projects.
Other potential sources of work pressures for construction workers include trying to achieve job goals/expectations in response to constant initiatives to improve productivity (e.g. shorter deadlines, increased workload, longer working hours, short-term contracts and penalties for a drop in production). These findings appear consistent across different trades within the sector. Other potential sources of stress include the fact that large projects involving multi-disciplined teams can only progress at the pace of the slowest member of the team. This, as well as delays in receiving information, may increase individuals’ stress levels.
Construction work sites are complex and dynamic, and require operatives to adjust what they do to allow for different weather conditions, materials, hazards, poor working conditions, including working in portable offices or in dirty/dusty/noisy environments, etc.. Weather conditions is a specific factor to consider when looking at how the physical work environment may affect construction workers psychologically. For example, sites often shut down or stop work when weather is bad. Being unable to work in poor weather conditions could be stressful when trying to meet tight deadlines.
The current economic climate creates pressures for construction managers. For example, hiring and firing staff can be stressful (e.g. hiring credible subcontractors at short notice and discontinuing the employment of existing staff due to a shortage of work) . Other potential sources of stress for construction managers include: roles imposed by contractual arrangements and project problems such as achieving time, cost and quality standards.
Role in the organisation
Skill under-utilisation seems to be a potential issue relating to a construction worker’s role that could give rise to stress. Although construction workers may have a wide range of skills and abilities, one study by Goldenhar and colleagues in 2003 reported that it is not unusual to be trapped into doing only one or two, often monotonous, tasks (e.g. flagging traffic during roadwork construction) and not making full use of all skills acquired through training and prior experience. The findings from the fourth European Working Conditions Survey support this finding by showing construction as one sector across the EU-27 where monotonous and repetitive tasks tend to be more common. Goldenhar and colleagues found skill under-utilisation to be associated with near misses through psychological symptoms, i.e. feeling tense, angry and/or sad over the past year.
Construction is characterised by a constantly changing workforce with workers moving from one project to another thereby creating a high staff turnover environment. The transient nature of the sector seems to have a negative effect on the health, safety and wellbeing of construction workers.
The high turnover stems from the nature of contracting construction work (e.g. higher occurrence of fixed term contracts of one year’s duration or less, and temporary agency contracts) . Such high turnover can make it difficult to establish trust within teams, and between a team and the main contractor. Furthermore, where teams comprise both directly employed and contracted staff, team cohesiveness may be difficult to establish. Working in a team where everyone shares the same values may help to buffer the negative effects of strain (e.g. through social support mechanisms); yet it seems that these are rarely established in construction sites. Therefore, managing the social aspects of teamwork represents a particular challenge for site supervisors.
Even in large construction firms, the transition from one work site to another with different site managers can be detrimental to worker morale. For example, morale can be affected when employers do not consult construction workers about upcoming changes to their work. Sudden changes without much notice may result in workers feeling less optimistic and assured about their work.
Job insecurity is a common psychosocial issue reported in the construction sector, which has been found to negatively impact a worker’s health and wellbeing. This finding appears to be consistent across different trades within this sector, possibly reflecting the impact of the recession.
Job insecurity is a constant stressor for construction workers on a fixed-term contract (lasting up to a year) given the uncertainty over being able to secure subsequent work when their contracts end. Once the whole job, or a worker’s small part of a larger job, is finished they must find work on a new project/site with a similar salary often with a new employer. Consequently, many construction workers are faced with periods of unemployment between projects. Not having a steady job and having to constantly worry about future employment appears to be directly related to physical and psychological symptoms (feeling tense, angry or sad over the past year).
There is some evidence to suggest that female construction workers have extra additional concerns about job certainty. This includes worrying about whether they will be hired at all, as well as about being the first to be laid off, even before the job is finished. The reason for this gender difference is unknown, but concerns may stem from construction being a predominantly male sector (89% of male workers in EU-27, 2007) .
The occupational safety and health leadership and culture of construction sites represent two closely interrelated organisational factors that have the potential to influence the mental and physical wellbeing of construction workers. A challenge for construction leaders seems to be encouraging their workforce to inform management when they feel stressed or under pressure to put in place suitable strategies for dealing with these. Studies have shown that construction workers regard admitting that they have stress as a major sign of weakness (e.g. Gunning and Cooke, 1996; Madine, 2000; Mellor et al., 2004) .
Safety-specific leadership is crucial in any sector, not only construction. The lack of safety-specific leadership can be considered a psychosocial work stressor for several reasons. Firstly, poor safety-specific leadership contributes to a culture that is unconcerned with employee safety and wellbeing. Secondly, poor safety leadership is likely to be associated with little support for employees to help them cope with psychosocial risks. Finally, employees who perceive poor safety leadership may also feel that they are under pressure to disregard formal policies and procedures designed to protect their safety and wellbeing.
Promoting greater autonomy by enabling workers to make decisions about how they respond to demands encountered in the course of their work can make work demands more amenable, and promote wellbeing. This approach seems suitable for construction workers given the tendency to work in small teams to complete jobs.
Construction leaders and managers have an important role to play for putting in place strategies to prevent the range of work characteristics discussed above having a negative impact on the health and wellbeing of construction workers. However, it seems that only a limited number of solutions for these psychosocial issues have been established specifically for the construction sector. This highlights the importance of increased attention to the psychosocial work environment, and how preventive solutions can be developed or tailored to the unique needs and challenges experienced in the sector.
Employers may find it useful to look at how different interventions work (or not) in practice and perhaps think of applying these in different construction contexts. Nevertheless, these assessments rarely take place. A review of the scientific literature carried out in 2011 showed that only a limited number of work-related stress interventions had been rigorously tested.
Different national and European approaches to deal with psychosocial issues exist, and construction managers should be aware of these. Nielsen and colleagues (2010) describe five examples of systematic approaches to improve workers' health and wellbeing through occupational health interventions at the organisational level. These included the Risk Management Approach and Management Standards in the United Kingdom, Work Positive in Ireland, Health Circles in Germany and the Spanish Prevenlab. These five methods consist of a five-phase process (preparation, screening, action planning, implementation, and evaluation) and certain core elements such as worker participation, the establishment of a steering group and senior management support. It may seem that a greater uptake of such systematic approaches to occupational health is necessary in the construction sector.
It should be noted that the risk management approach to dealing with health and safety concerns, including psychosocial risks, is stipulated by European legislation (The Framework Directive of 12 June 1989; 89/391/EEC) . The legislation obliges employers to adopt a general framework for managing OSH, including: assessment and prevention of risks, giving priority to collective measures to eliminate risks; consulting employees, providing information and training and involving contractors .
Construction owners might like to consider the organisational-level strategies shown in Table 2 as a means of reducing psychosocial risks. While attention has generally been given to health and safety management in construction, psychosocial issues do not seem to have been fully taken into account to date. Taking measures to prevent the potential negative impact of psychosocial issues on worker health and well-being will not only benefit individual workers, but also the company. Benefits include: lower levels of sickness absence, reduced turnover, improved morale and performance.
|Prevention strategy||Psychosocial issues addressed|
|Systems that allow for working long hours during periods of high demand but then allow time off in lieu when demands are less.||Issues arising from the job: To allow some ‘down time’ for construction workers after going through demanding times.|
|Providing services (e.g. a bus service to get workers to site on larger projects) and use of technology (e.g. mobile phones, wireless internet connections) to help solve some problems from a distance (e.g. when visiting multiple sites).||Issues arising from the job and/or social aspects: To enable supervisor support for solving problems and to assist supervisors with completing tasks when working across different sites.|
|Encouraging all workers to be responsible for their own health and wellbeing, and not assume it is solely a management responsibility (e.g. company policy).||Organisational factors: To promote a culture of increased awareness whereby workers are given the possibility and are willing to raise psychosocial issues to management and take responsibility to challenge any poor practice that they observe.|
|Educating the workforce (including the supply chain’s workforce) on psychosocial issues, consequences and controls, e.g. through toolbox talks. Regular refresher training is important for transient workforces.||Issues related to job prospects, social aspects and organisational factors: To promote a culture of increased awareness and responsibility amongst workers for raising psychosocial risks to management who treats all the concerns seriously, addressing them as quickly as possible. Also, helps to remind workers of the importance of raising psychosocial issues when they regularly change sites.|
|Encouraging greater communication within organisations. E.g., a ‘suggestion box’ scheme and acting on suggestions.||Organisational factors: To establish communication mechanisms for becoming aware of psychosocial issues and encouraging workers to come up with solutions (important for culture change).|
|Communication skill training that targets on-going site communication within teams, and between teams or workers who are only in contact for short periods.||Social and organisational issues: E.g. encourages better OSH leadership and supervisor/colleague support and should help to maintain the morale of workers who regularly move sites.|
|Providing resources for training to support and up-skill staff (e.g. time management training for construction managers and site supervisors, stress management training so that stress does not act as a distractor and refresher training to prevent skill fade).||Issues arising from the job, role in the organisation and/or social aspects: E.g. to help manage time pressures/competing demands, encourage supervisors to support workers with managing their work demands, and prevent skill loss through under-utilisation of skills.|
|Providing assertiveness training for workers so they feel confident to speak up when they feel that the demands of their jobs are too great.||Issues arising from the job: To encourage construction workers to notify their supervisor should they feel they have too much to do and not enough time to complete work safely.|
Providing management training (briefing sessions, stress management handbook) and raising awareness of stress through regular occupational health checks helped one company in the United Kingdom reduce the average number of days lost by more than 38% within the first year of implementation. This illustrates the benefits that organisations could gain by using a well-structured, comprehensive intervention that is supported by senior management and that employees see as useful in maintaining health and wellbeing.
There are a number of psychosocial issues prevalent in the construction sector that impact on workers’ health and wellbeing. Economic and performance factors appear to be the most stressful. It is important for construction management to be aware of the range of factors that have the potential to cause stress. Managers should consider strategies for assessing and reducing psychosocial risks. These include raising construction workers awareness of psychosocial issues to promote a culture in which workers actively raise potential stressors to management and putting in place adequate support mechanisms (work design, social support networks and training).
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- Sobeih, T., Salem, O., M.ASCE., Geraidy, A., Abdelhamid, T. & Shell, R., ‘Psychosocial factors and musculoskeletal disorders in the construction industry’, Journal of Construction Engineering and Management, Vol. 135, No 4, 2009, pp. 267-77
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- Goldenhar, L. M., Williams, L. J. & Swanson, N. G., ‘Modelling relationships between job stressors and injury and near-miss outcomes for construction labourers’, Work & Stress: An International Journal of Work, Health & Organisations, Vol. 17, No 3, 2003, pp. 218-40. Available at: 
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Links for further reading
EU-OSHA - European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, How to tackle psychosocial issues and reduce work-related stress, 2002. Available at: 
EU-OSHA - European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, Prevention of psychosocial risks and stress at work in practice, 2002. Available at: 
EU-OSHA - European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, Achieving better safety and health in construction, 1999. Available at: 
HSE - Health and Safety Executive (2011). Leadership and Worker Involvement Toolkit. Retrieved 29 November 2012, from: 
Eurofound - European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, Rise in psychosocial risk factors at the workplace, 2009. Available at: 
EU-OSHA – European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, E-fact 17 – The prevention of work-related neck and upper limb disorders (WRULDs) in construction, 2007c. Available at: