Worker Wellbeing in Australia’s Construction Sector – A Data-Driven Look

Construction is crucial to Australia’s economy and a major employer. At the same time, its employees suffer from a link between physical and mental ill health and take their own lives at a disproportionate rate. This article provides a research-backed overview of the industry’s current state of wellbeing.

Australia's construction industry is a vital part of its economy, contributing 7.1% of the nation's total economic output (measured by GVA) according to the Reserve Bank. It also employs about 1.3 million people or approximately 9% of the nation’s workers. All this means the wellbeing of its employees is not only crucial to the industry itself, it’s crucial to the country.  

And, given that 83% of those workers are in full-time roles, many aspects of their wellbeing fall under the duty of care of the companies that employ them. This responsibility extends to their physical and mental safety at work, including their exposure to psychosocial hazards.

The overall picture

Over a financial year, construction had the highest percentage of work-related injuries among men at 17%, according to ABS’ most recent data.  

Across all industries the bureau found that the most common injuries were sprains, strains or dislocations (29%), chronic joint or muscle conditions (20%) and cuts or open wounds (13%).  

The most common causes of injury were lifting, pushing, pulling or bending (24%), falls on the same level (17%) and hitting or being hit or cut by an object or vehicle (16%). Fall from a height, which is often a focus of worksite safety, accounted for only 3.5% of injuries. Stress or other mental health conditions accounted for almost double that at 6.8%.

A 2019 report from Worksafe Australia found that in construction specifically, work-related musculoskeletal disorders accounted for 53.3% of all serious workers compensation claims. Across all industries 60.3% of claims came from body stressing – i.e. not so much accidents or falls, but muscular stress from lifting, handling tools, etc. Healthy Business offers manual handling sessions that can help reduce those risks and help keep workers healthy.

Interestingly, again according to ABS data, of the two thirds of people who took time off for a workplace injury, the longest absences were recorded for those with mental health issues. They had an average absence of 44 days versus 29 for fractures and broken bones and 22 for chronic joint and muscle conditions.

Finally, research referenced by the Black Dog Institute looked at a large sample of construction and utility workers and found that one in four “had high symptoms of depression and/or anxiety”.

A link between mental and physical suffering

We shouldn’t view physical and mental issues as entirely separate. A 2022 study ‘Examining the interaction between bodily pain and mental health of construction workers’ talked to 66 workers employed by a commercial construction company based in Victoria and Tasmania.

The researchers found that “physically damaging work can lead to diminished mental health for workers” due to a number of pressures, including feeling the need to work through pain for the sake of the job and the sense workers have that they’re trapped in a physically painful lifestyle with no alternative employment options.  

Crucially, the study found that participants often experienced recurring pain at quite young ages. For example, 17.6% of those aged 20-29 were already experiencing lower back pain and joint pain in the fingers, shoulders, hips, knees and/or ankles daily.

Given that it affects even the younger group of workers, the link between physical and mental health warrants extra attention.

Inherent risks in the nature of construction

Two factors that put pressure on everyone’s wellbeing in construction – which most employers would be well aware of – are the effects of the procurement process and the way project work produces natural bottlenecks of distress.

As quoted in a report on the systemic causes of health and wellbeing issues in construction by RMIT, one construction company CEO puts it this way:  

“Procurement creates a dynamic where people overcommit, but when it comes to doing the delivery it can cause pressure points that invariably end up with a personal and human impact… either when it’s very long hours and lots of stress…and then the financial penalties that sit with that drive certain behaviours.”

The same report charts out how major project milestones lead to high intensity periods where workers sometimes aren’t “able to experience sufficient recovery between work shifts.” As explained in more detail below, this may count as a psychosocial hazard.

Suicide and psychosocial hazard compliance

According to a report by non-profit Mates In Construction “the risk of suicide for construction workers is 53% higher than the risk for other employed men in Australia”. (Thankfully, the report also notes that the rate has been dropping in the years since interventions become more common.)

A May 2023 study took a qualitative approach to the issue, conducting in-depth interviews with 15 construction workers. It found factors outside of work contributed to suicidal ideation, including alcohol use, isolation, and difficult life events. However, the job itself contributed in a few ways, including through:

- The stress of high risk hazardous work, such as demolition and asbestos clearing

- Long work hours and expectations to work on weekends

- Cultures that prevented mental health from being talked about openly

- Pressures and demands related to specific roles

- A lack of work-life balance

Even if these issues don’t cause distress in a particular employee, under the model WHS legislation they could potentially be viewed as psychosocial hazards. Employers would be expected to identify them as risks, assess them, remove them where possible and mitigate them where not, and monitor them in an ongoing manner.

(Healthy Business has experience with psychosocial hazard compliance and its approach is aimed at turning what is a cost into a revenue gain.)

Do you want to improve wellbeing in your company?

There are numerous wellbeing interventions in construction that have demonstrated effectiveness. For example, one meta-study found that supervisor training appeared to improve the flow of information to workers and that individual training sessions with a specialist reduced musculoskeletal issues and long term sick leave.

Healthy Business offers a suite of options to suit individual construction companies. Whatever we’re needed for, we'll always start with consultation, so that we provide relevant solutions to unique situations. Get in touch today.

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