It’s tough times for many construction firms affected by lockdowns in NSW and Victoria, with projects in hotspot local government areas in disarray and the industry beset by supply shortages due to supply chain disruptions.

Against this backdrop, poor mental health is a growing problem in the industry, as tradespeople are often required to work around the clock to meet timelines.

Andrew Jhavery, CEO and founder of Ark Joinery and Cabage, employs large teams in the design, manufacture and install trades sector. The business is operating on sites all over Sydney, including commercial bank refurbishments, boutique physiotherapy clinics, and residential and luxury home fit-outs.

Jhavery is critical of the federal government’s reactive approach to planning and policy implementation to assist construction weather this chapter of the pandemic.

“They haven’t taken into consideration the length of time businesses have been financially affected,” he says.

“It’s also left many business owners scratching their heads wondering when they signed up to police health orders instead of focusing on their business.”

He says supply issues are cause for concern as consumer demand is skyrocketing. “With increased government building incentives in place, easier access to finance and more time on consumers’ hands to plan builds and renovations during lockdown, demand is through the roof.”

Richard Hansen, Victorian director and state manager at commercial builder Hansen Yuncken, says while the industry is busy, there’s not yet a tradie shortage.

“It’s been more of a shortfall or delay in obtaining materials, particularly timber and steel, but many other products too. Many imported products are also seeing delays due to a huge demand for shipping containers.”

Hansen Yuncken is building the Victorian Department of Health’s new facilities at the Royal Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital.

Prime Build managing director Dean Willemsen acknowledges the last few months have been challenging.

“We’ve had five projects impacted by the Sydney lockdown. We’ve also had a few regional projects the team has done a great job navigating,” he says.

“But some tradespeople located in the hot spot LGAs haven’t been able to commit to a project, which has had a financial impact. It’s probably cost us between $50,000 and $100,000 having to find alternative tradespeople.”

He says the uncertainty has been the biggest problem.

“The lockdown rules change on a daily basis, which puts a lot of pressure on everyone in construction to meet deadlines while the goalposts are moving,” he says.

“Of course, our customers are under a lot of pressure to get jobs done and we do our best to keep moving.

“Some have been supportive, offering progressed payment terms, making forward assessments of claims and working collaboratively to get back onsite as soon as possible.”

Current projects for Prime Build include two Aldi supermarkets and a McDonald’s in Tamworth—all of which have been able to continue.

Meeting the mental health challenge

Mental health in the construction sector is always a challenge, with research by PwC and Mates in Construction finding construction workers are more than twice as likely to attempt or die by suicide than other Australians.

Mental health has become an even more acute problem through the pandemic as workers have faced shutdowns on one hand, over work on the other and isolation.

The mental health situation is especially challenging in Victoria’s construction sector, given the state is in its sixth lockdown.

Dale Martin, construction director at Hansen Yuncken, says the impact of the current lockdown is worse than previous ones.

“There is little to no light at the end of the tunnel as lockdowns keep getting extended. This is creating high levels of stress,” he says.

Willemsen says supporting mental health in construction is about workplace culture.

“No amount of emails or posters make any difference to culture. It’s our behaviours and how we react that sets the tone,” he says.

“It’s a big responsibility for leadership, but we’re 100 per cent committed to creating an environment that’s a safe place for our team.”

Prime Build has an employee assistance programme and supports R U OK? Day. It has also trained 16 staff in mental health first aid. Willemsen says he focuses on creating a positive, supportive environment.

“Someone in my team recently said to me, ‘Dean, what I love about Prime Build is I don’t have to wear a mask on Monday. I can be who I am.’

“Being real is important in supporting each other. Sometimes we have a tough day, sometimes we have a good day. That’s okay.”

Jhavery agrees employers have an obligation to look after their workers’ mental health. They can do this by asking questions and checking in with staff.

“One great initiative led by Ben Higgs is called Rise Foundation Australia, which helps to reduce stigma associated with mental health through education, support and training. It’s a great hands-on initiative for employers.”

Busting bias

Outdated stereotypes in construction contribute to poor mental health in the sector. Willemsen bemoans the stereotype that exists around tradespeople that depicts them as unkept, overweight and dumb.

“As an industry, we’ve got to think about what’s important to us and have pride in who we are and what we do. If we’re in a leadership position, we have an opportunity to make a real difference to how our people see themselves.”

He says this can include investing in training and helping staff access professional support networks. “It’s about how we present ourselves as leaders and provide a safe place to talk.”

Jhavery notes when his staff arrive at a job, they are fully trained, educated in customer service and in health and safety, andcarry sophisticated tools and technology.

“Our team are forward-thinking innovators that are constantly finding solutions to difficult challenges. They are far from the stereotype,” he says.

“It makes me annoyed that tradies get such a bad rap because it’s not nice being portrayed as the bad guy. But to be honest, most people have shifted their way of thinking and it is only a small minority that still have an outdated mindset.”

Professional, dedicated tradies are instrumental to the smooth running of the property development sector and the economy as a whole. It’s important to continue supporting those that work in construction through the pandemic and beyond.


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