The cure for stress in post-pandemic construction

By Louise Hosking 

As featured in Construction News

Sometimes we all feel there is too much to do and too little time.

If you have responsibility for other people, it can be easy to feel they are just not doing the job in the right way, in the easiest way, or how you would choose to do it. The result can be frustration or even doing the job yourself.

These feelings are particularly common in construction, with its narrow margins, tight deadlines, extensive supply chains, long hours in different locations, and complicated relationships – now with the added demands of a global virus crisis.

When the pandemic led to lockdowns around the world, everyone had to respond rapidly. Governments had to tell nations exactly what to do. But looking forward, as we learn to live with COVID-19, the responsibility is shifting to organisations and individuals. And of course, complacency is emerging, and everyone has become a little fed up with being told what to do.

Going forward, it is vital for managers to understand the causes of anxiety and stress. They can be triggered in any work environment whenever people feel a lack of control or feel unsupported, where roles are unclear, relationships poor, or demands are either too high or too low.

In construction, we also see the pressures of a male-dominated sector. Direct, commanding management styles and hierarchical structures often lead to a workforce that is less inclined to offer suggestions, or to talk about how they feel. Command, control, and coercion are used because they appear to be the quickest and easiest way to get results. This approach may ‘fix’ an immediate problem, but it tends to foster long-term problems.

So is it time to embrace a different way of working? And if we did, what would happen?

A different way of working

Have you ever been a passenger driven to a new location and then subsequently found you had no idea how to get there by yourself? When you drive yourself somewhere new, it is much easier to remember the route. Similarly, when you use a map to plan a journey, it is much more likely to become imprinted in your mind than when you blindly follow a sat-nav.

The same principals apply at work. When we release control, empower others, and accept we don’t have all of the answers, others tend to step up in a manner we might not expect.

This is not the same as allowing individuals to do whatever they want, especially when it comes to safety.

A softer style of leadership requires a change of language and behaviour at all levels. This can only be achieved where people come first and feel psychologically safe. For me, this is everything, especially right now when there is so much uncertainty outside of our control. When people feel psychologically safe, they will speak up for themselves about their concerns, and will also speak up for the people they work alongside. This creates trust, and with that we can start to solve problems and create a shared vision that everyone owns.

Consider the opposite. In 1986, a catastrophic explosion killed the crew of the Space Shuttle Challenger. The subsequent investigation found engineers had told their line managers about the risks that led to the disaster, but communication channels to the top decision-makers had been blocked – by people who believed they were making the right calls.

When we embrace diversity of thought, we can make better decisions. And when we make better decisions around health and safety, we have the ability to save more lives and reduce ill-health.

It takes a leap of faith to embrace the grey space between the black and the white, to break down silos, and to start from a position of trust.