Do We Need a Construction Happiness Index?

John Held , 4 November 2014

John Held considers mental health in the construction industry and argues that getting things right on day one would make a huge difference.

ACA – SA recently hosted meeting between directors of architectural firms and building contractors. We talked about the usual things – upcoming work, contracts and pressure on prices and fees. There was one topic, however, that had not been raised before: mental health in the construction industry. A builder mentioned it in relation to issues they had seen amongst their staff and subcontractors.

Should we be surprised? It’s a tough industry, often characterised by one dispute after another, and not just between bosses and workers. When times are tough, financial pressures can be overwhelming. When times are good, the pressures are on maintaining time and quality standards. The nature of contracting means that bad decisions made at the start of the project, which set up adversarial relationships in the name of risk reduction or cutting costs, will flow right through the project to the last subcontractor.

A quick Google search reveals alarming statistics – the Mates in Construction initiative reports that construction workers are more than twice as likely to suicide than other people in Australia and that construction workers are six times more likely to die by suicide than through a workplace accident. Mates in Construction was set up in direct response to these statistics and I’m told many industry associations are now taking mental health seriously, particularly in their work amongst apprentices.

While these organisations and associations work to improve conditions in the workplace, the broader industry also needs to look at how it can be a happier place to work.

The Kingdom of Bhutan measures Gross National Happiness. So should we start a Construction Happiness Index? What would it measure, and, more importantly, what could it influence? Could it reduce the number of toxic workplaces, or reduce conflict on building sites? Could it help solve issues like the gender imbalance in the construction industry?

I’m lucky to work in an environment with great clients, very little conflict and the opportunity to do interesting work. Others probably aren’t as lucky. Perhaps one of the questions clients should ask on day one of a project is whether they intend to create a team that works well together. Do they have the right contracts, organisational structures, planning processes, risk management strategies and collaborative mindsets to make the journey creative and enjoyable? The push for integrated project teams, collaboration and the mutual trust needed in the new world of Building Information Modelling is another driver to change the way we approach design and construction.

The work of SA Thinker in Residence Martin Seligman on Building the State of Wellbeing and the subsequent establishment of the Wellbeing and Resilience Centre within SAHMRI demonstrate a commitment in SA to exploring these issues in more depth.

The construction industry needs to engage at both industry and company level with such initiatives. It also needs to think long and hard about how it organises the relationships between its people and its companies. Getting it right on day one is a good start. Then perhaps we will see great graphs of a rapidly rising Construction Happiness Index.

John Held is the President of ACA – SA and a director of Russell & Yelland Architects. This post first appeared on the Russell & Yelland blog.