Almost three quarters of construction project managers throughout Australia experience at least moderate levels of stress at work, the latest research has found.

In a study involving 489 participants, Bond University compared experiences regarding work and personal stress of three worker groups: construction project managers (253 participants), construction administration personnel (124 participants) and workers who do not work in construction (112 participants).

It found that construction project managers experienced greater stress at work compared with employees across the other two categories.All up, almost three quarters (73 percent) of construction project managers surveyed rated their levels of work-related stress over the month preceding their survey response at 50 percent or higher.

This compares with almost six in ten (58 percent) construction administration personnel and six in ten (60 percent) non-construction related workers who gave similar ratings for their work related stress levels.

Further, almost one quarter of construction project managers (24 percent) surveyed indicated that stress has a 70 percent or higher impact on their performance at work.

This compares with one in five (20 percent) construction administration personnel and one in ten non-construction workers.

Interestingly, the research found that construction project managers reported lower levels non-work related stress compared with workers from either of the other two categories (see chart).

As well, levels of extreme work-related stress (90 percent or above) were lower amongst construction project managers and construction administration personnel compared with workers in non-construction occupations (see chart).

Moreover, overall stress levels (personal and work) remain high.

Across all surveyed, 58 percent indicated that their levels of stress experienced over the month preceding their responses was higher than what they would have liked.

In other findings:

  • Across all three types of workers, most reported that their leaders and managers were not trained to identify signs of stress.
  • Across all role types, most participants say employee assistance programs on their own are insufficient to address stress related concerns in their organisation.
  • Most participants disagreed with notions that issues of stress should be left to individuals to address and agreed that organisations should train leaders and managers in stress avoidance techniques.
  • The vast majority believed organisations should train all employees in stress management.
  • Workers across 81 percent, 56 percent and 39 percent of small, medium and large organisations reported that their employers had a stress avoidance program (most commonly process oriented rules relating to work hours), although some construction workers felt this can be counter-productive where schedules are in danger of being missed and non-moveable deadlines are approaching.

Report author Professor Alan Patching, a Professor of Construction and Quantity Surveying within Bond University’s Faculty of Society and Design and also a registered psychotherapist in the United Kingdom, says the research underscores a need for change.

Patching, who was project director for construction of the Sydney Olympic Stadium, said a cut-throat approach to tendering and wafer-thin profit margins are driving the stress epidemic.

Patching also says too much reliance is being placed on employee assistance programs which – whilst better than nothing – deal with issues after the fact rather than reducing stress levels upfront.

He says failure to act could have serious consequences which in some cases include suicide.

“The current most commonly used contracting system effectively often requires tenderers to bid with low or no margin prices and/or to offer reduced construction time in order to win work,” Patching said.

“That, in turn, requires appointing more experienced and usually already over-committed construction project managers to manage the project in a way that drives some level of profit from it. Many of the participants in my research told stories of the impacts of this on their health and on their family life that were disturbing, to say the least, with some reporting having experienced suicide ideation.”

Patching says Federal Government moves to bring forward $3.8 billion in infrastructure spending represents an opportunity to fast-track mental health initiatives.

“What better time to include a component of education regarding stress impacts and how to avoid and manage them,” he said.

“Better still, what better time to really think about contracting approaches that safeguard taxpayers’ interests, provide a reasonable return to contractors for work well performed, and ensure that no one ever has to knock on a construction project manager’s door and tell his or her family that their bread winner will not be coming home again.”