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Understanding and managing workplace stress is critically important to civil engineers

12 May 2021

Managing stress in the construction industry is essential to health and safety, and personal and team wellbeing, explains ICE Fellow and Trustee, Andy Alder, who also shares some tools to help. 

Understanding and managing workplace stress is critically important to civil engineers
Andy Alder, Major Projects vice president, Jacobs, and programme director, Tideway

With high numbers of people experiencing forms of stress over the last year, it's so important to understand stress, how to recognise it, and importantly what you can do to tackle it for yourself and help others.

In the construction industry, it becomes even more essential: the working environment can lead to high levels of stress, and failing to manage it can cause wider health, safety and productivity problems.

Understanding stress

To start with, not all stress is necessarily bad. Stress helps us to be alert to potential dangers and the resulting release of hormones gives us the energy and the focus to respond to a hazardous situation.

The problem is if stress occurs at inappropriate times or over prolonged periods. The onset of stress causes blood to flow to the muscles needed to respond to the danger, and brain function is reduced. This can limit our ability to ‘think straight’: our brain function is reduced to respond to the danger, and we are less able to engage our pre-frontal cortex to generate creative solutions to tackle the challenge we are facing.

Over prolonged periods, high levels of stress can cause serious health problems, including increased risk of heart attack and stroke, and increased risk of someone taking their own life.

Workplace stress in the construction industry

Workplace stress is a serious issue and it can affect people of any level of experience or seniority. As well as the adverse effects on the health and wellbeing of individuals it can also cause:

  • An increase in absenteeism (sick leave) or presenteeism (attending work while sick)
  • Arguments and disputes with colleagues
  • A tendency to work late and not take breaks, and problems sleeping
  • A decrease in work standards, indecisiveness and poor judgement.

Civil engineering often involves managing high risk activities, whether through planning, design, construction or operation, and it's clear to see how high stress could translate into incidents at work.

Preventing and managing workplace stress is essential to safety-critical projects such as Tideway. Image credit: Jacobs
Preventing and managing workplace stress is essential to safety-critical projects such as Tideway. Image credit: Jacobs

Foundations for positively enabling people's wellbeing

Two important foundations for preventing and managing stress at work are: the safety and wellbeing culture and the approach to inclusion.

Jacobs’ Culture of Caring reinforces the importance of getting to know our colleagues and to really care for each other. Caring for each other creates a very strong safety focus alongside an attention to people’s wellbeing.

One of the difficulties with stress is that people experience it in different ways, and people show it in different ways.

However, the common factor is that there will be changes in a stressed person: these changes may be physical, emotional or behavioural or a combination of these. Knowing our workmates well will help us to spot any changes in them, and the culture of caring will create the right environment to be able to talk to each other. Sharing problems, and helping each other think them through to find solutions, is one of the best tools to managing stress.

A team environment that is inclusive and welcomes contributions and opinions from people of all backgrounds helps people to feel connected. It also makes people feel safe to speak up, to share concerns and to offer support to colleagues.

A feeling of connection can help to reduce stress, and research has shown that being in a safe environment enables our brains to be more effective and creative in tackling problems. It's clear that having a commitment to inclusion and diversity will also create the conditions to help managing stress.

All organisations working on Tideway have worked hard together to build an environment that enables people to be themselves at work; one that truly encourages contributions from all team members and that recognises the value from our differences.

An inclusive environment is important for preventing and managing workplace stress. Image credit: Jacobs
An inclusive environment is important for preventing and managing workplace stress. Image credit: Jacobs

Practical tools for positive wellbeing and managing stress

There is clearly a strong link between enabling general positive wellbeing and managing stress in particular.

Recognising the specific challenges of mental wellbeing in the construction industry, in 2017 Tideway was one of the founding partners of Mates in Mind, a charity focusing specifically on mental health in the construction industry.

The team on Tideway have worked with Mates in Mind to provide mental wellbeing training and support across the programme. This has been really well received across the team, including workforce, supervisors and leadership teams, and has promoted countless positive conversations.

In collaboration with global mental health professionals, Jacobs has developed One Million Lives, a free mental wellbeing check-in tool that anyone can use to enhance understanding of their current state of mind and provide proactive strategies for personal mental health development based on the results.

There are lots of practical tips on what you can do to specifically help manage stress for yourself and others. Some of the important ones are:

  • Manage your time effectively. Prioritise the tasks that are important for you to do now, think which you could delegate to others (but being considerate of other people’s workloads), and decide which can be deferred until next week. Create buffers of time between meetings and activities to deal with unexpected issues.
  • Talk with teammates about the things causing stress. Sharing your problems with others will often help you find solutions. If a colleague appears to be under stress then talk with them: your intervention may well make a big difference. The Health and Safety Executive’s Talking Toolkit provides a great structure and detailed guidance.
  • Be kind to those who are stressed. We will all experience stress in our lifetime. Treat others going through it with compassion and empathy.
  • Finally, look after yourself so that you can look after others. Take time out to relax or do something that you enjoy, and exercise can really help when you feel stressed.

What to do next?

It's clear to me that managing stress will help us look after our colleagues and will help us enhance general construction health and safety.

Conditions for good safety are generally also the conditions that enable good planning, good productivity, and effective delivery of our project objectives, leading to improvements for society in general. Understanding and managing workplace stress is therefore critically important to civil engineers.

The most important thing to do is to talk with our teams. Talk about how you will continuously improve wellbeing and safety, and have this dialogue inclusively to get everyone’s inputs.

Alongside this, talk about stress in your teams and individually with colleagues when needed, whether to offer help or to seek it. I hope that some of the tools in this article will help with those conversations.

For confidential support, contact The Samaritans on 116 123 or go here for more information.

  • Andy Alder, vp for major projects and programmes, jacobs and programme director, tideway at Jacobs and Tideway