Business owners and decision makers within Australia’s construction sector are paying greater attention to the mental wellbeing of both themselves and their employees following the COVID pandemic, a new survey has found.

And firms are set to beef up investment in technology over the next five years.

Releasing its Optus Business Construction Industry Pulse 2022 report, telecommunications provider Optus says that the COVID pandemic has driven a substantial focus on mental health issues among owners and decision makers in construction businesses.

Across those surveyed, almost two-thirds (60 percent) expressed concern about their own mental health whilst 45 percent say that their employees have experienced mental health and wellbeing challenges during the first two years of the pandemic.

Asked what was driving this, 41 percent cited a lack of work-life balance as the culprit.

To combat this, companies are using several strategies.

These include ensuring that work practices are managed to minimise mental health and wellbeing impact (43 percent), enabling staff to take mental health days when required (no questions asked) (26 percent), providing access to wellness programs, regularly checking or conducting surveys about mental health and wellbeing (23 percent) and providing access to mental health/wellbeing resources (12 percent).

Whilst larger businesses have a greater number of formal programs in place compared with their smaller counterparts, the survey found that both large and small business had implemented programs to similar degrees (47 percent compared with 42 percent) when it comes to minimizing wellbeing impact.

Interestingly, the survey found that personal concerns are more prevalent among decision makers in large companies compared with those in smaller companies – a phenomenon which Optus attributes to larger enterprises being more complex to manage with greater dependencies and responsibilities.

The survey came as a new report from Melbourne University found that rates of suicide in the construction industry have improved.

The study found that suicide rates of those in construction were comparable to those for non-construction workers in some states where mental health charity Mates in Construction has a strong presence.

Still workers in construction remain twice as likely to die from suicide compared with those in other industries.

All up, the suicide rate for construction industry workers is 26 people per 100,000.

This compares with 13 people per 100,000 for non-construction workers.

Between 2001 and 2019, 4,143 construction workers died by suicide – accounting for a quarter of all suicides within Australia.

Meanwhile, construction workers are six times more likely to die from suicide than from a workplace accident.

Over the years, efforts to address problems have gained momentum.

One example is the charity Mates in Construction, which was started in Queensland in 2008 and is now active across Queensland, New South Wales, South Australia, Western Australia and the Northern Territory.

The program offers training regarding suicide and mental health along with support for those needing help including a 24/7 helpline.

More recently, a taskforce involving the Australian Constructors Association, the NSW and Victorian Government and leading workplace researchers have created a Draft Culture Standard for the industry which aims to drive practices such as reasonable (and flexible) working hours, proactive management of health and wellbeing and promotion of a supportive environment to foster workforce diversity and inclusion.

In other findings, the survey found that construction firms are optimistic about forward prospects and plan to invest in technology as part of driving their business forward.

In regard to prospects, 82 percent of firms are confident about construction business conditions over the next twelve months.

Meanwhile, 36 percent of firms expect to increase their revenue over the next twelve months (just 6 percent expect to downsize), 24 percent expect to put on more staff and 36 percent expect to increase their capital expenditure.

On technology, six in ten of those surveyed indicated that this is an important part of their growth strategy whilst 35 percent expect to increase technology investment over the next twelve months.

Over the next five years, more than 80 percent are planning to invest in at least one or more advanced technologies (3D printing, Internet of Things, drones, augmented reality, AI/machine learning).

Not surprisingly, technology investment plans vary according to business expectations and size.

Whereas 78 percent of those business who expect to increase their revenue over the next twelve months view technology as being important to their business strategy, this falls to 52 percent for those who simply hope to maintain current revenue and 37 percent for those seeking to exit or downsize.

Meanwhile, whilst technology is considered important to business strategy for 90 percent of large businesses (more than 100 employees) and 87 percent of medium-sized businesses (20 to 100 employees), this falls to 77 percent and 58 percent for businesses with 5-19 staff and fewer than five employees respectively.

Asked about benefits associated with greater technological uptake, respondents cite security, having a deeper knowledge and understanding of their business and enhancing the capability of their work.

Businesses are also looking to improve performance and efficiency through better data capture.

Common barriers to implementing new technologies include a lack of need or being too small (34 percent), insufficient funding (29 percent), insufficient time (26 percent) and a lack of technology expertise (24 percent).

Interestingly, the survey uncovered a discord between awareness and action when it comes to cyber security.

Amongst those surveyed, 68 percent are concerned about cyber attack risks whilst 82 percent believe that their organisation is secure in terms of cyber risk.

However, the research uncovered a reactive approach whereby firms tended to act most commonly after they had been attacked rather than through preventative action before an attack occurred.

Indeed, only 24 percent of those surveyed undertake regular assessments to test and identify vulnerabilities in their systems and critical infrastructure.

Speaking of technology in general, the report said that growth and technology are interconnected as digital solutions which help to drive optimisation can enable execution of growth-oriented strategies.

It added that there are opportunities to enhance productivity and efficiency as manual business processes remain common among many companies.

Meanwhile virtual networking and greater mobility will drive greater investment in mobile services, cloud services and mobile devices.

When it comes to cyber security, the report urged construction businesses to adopt several measures.

These include reviewing the Australian Government’s Small Business Cyber Security Guide, talking with technology partners about education around security issues, proactive security and vulnerability audits and conducting an annual telco review to ensure that devices are safe from cyber-attacks, identity theft, viruses and data breaches across connected devices.

It warns that the consequences of cyber attacks should not be underestimated.

Throughout 2020/21, data from the Australian Cyber Security Centre indicates that the average financial loss associated with cyber attacks was $8,999 for small businesses and $33,442 for medium sized businesses.

This does not include broader operational and/or reputational impacts which can be associated with attacks on critical infrastructure or privacy breaches.

Speaking of the findings on mental health, David Coventry, VP Business and Enterprise Customers at Optus, said this has been brought into greater focus during the pandemic.

He says the technology investment is welcome considering how this can help business owners to increase efficiency and get more hours back in their day.

“Work-life balance became a real focus for many Australians during the pandemic and we’ve seen priorities change in response to lockdowns and other COVID-19 measures had on our mental health,” Coventry said.

Chris Lockwood, National CEO of Mates in Construction agrees, adding that suicide rates in the industry had fallen by eight percent since the inception of Mates.

Lockwood says every life saved may be someone’s son, daughter, husband/wife or mother/father.

“The Optus Business Construction Industry Pulse 2022 report highlights the mental health challenges facing workers in the construction industry,” Locke said.

“Industry working together helps to build awareness that suicide is not an individual problem, it’s bigger than that, we all have a responsibility to look out for each other on site.”


Survey Highlights

Among business owners and decision makers in construction businesses surveyed:

  • 82 percent are confident about construction industry prospects over the next twelve months
  • Six in ten (60 percent) say that technology is important in achieving their goals and strategies as a business
  • 35 percent plan to increase investment in technology over the next twelve months
  • More than 80 percent have either adopted or are planning to invest in one or more advanced technologies over the next five years (3D printing, drones, Internet of Things, devices, augmented/virtual reality or artificial intelligence)
  • 45 percent say their employees have experienced challenges associated with mental health and wellbeing over the next two years.
  • 60 percent are concerned about their own health and wellbeing, with 41 percent citing a lack of work-life balance as the culprit.
  • More than 42 percent are adopting work practices to minimise mental health and wellbeing issues, although 24 percent say they are doing nothing to improve mental health and wellbeing.