Andrews government’s major project pipeline pushes workers to brink

Rates of burnout within the industry are almost double normal levels, with 75 per cent of survey respondents recording high to moderate levels of stress.

The report, by Swinburne University psychologists Associate Professor Luke Downey and Professor Con Stough, surveyed 683 Victoria-based employees in eight companies that regularly bid for government contracts.

Work on the West Gate tunnel is ahead of schedule.

Work on the West Gate tunnel is ahead of schedule.

It found those workers experience higher than normal rates of poor mental and physical health and are deeply unsatisfied with their level of work-life balance.

“Increasing demands, long hours, time pressure, and expectations to operate outside of normal working hours are requiring unsustainable efforts from infrastructure construction professional staff that is resulting in mental and physical damage to the workforce,” the report concluded.

Dr Downey and Professor Stough wrote that the findings should spark immediate efforts to reduce the psychological and physical toll on staff, for their sake and for the sake of the companies’ ability to retain staff and be profitable and responsible employers.

Companies whose staff participated in the survey include John Holland, Lendlease, Downer, McConnell Dowell, Laing O’Rourke, BMD, CPB Contractors and WBHO.

Level crossings have been removed from many Melbourne streets, starting with Bourke Road in Glen Iris.

Level crossings have been removed from many Melbourne streets, starting with Bourke Road in Glen Iris. Credit:Eddie Jim

The Andrews government’s infrastructure program, valued at $100 billion last year, has unfolded at a rapid pace. The Metro tunnel is a year ahead of schedule, for example, and 29 suburban level crossings have been removed since 2015.

Those in senior roles in the companies that regularly bid on these projects reported working very long hours. Half of respondents said they work more than 50 hours a week, while a further 17 per cent said they work more than 60 hours a week.

The report noted that such long hours are accepted in the industry but argued they should not be “given the role they are clearly playing in compromising the mental and physical health of the workforce”.

The survey was conducted in May and June last year and the report was presented at a roads industry event last month. The research was initiated by a group of concerned senior staff in the sector.

Overwork within Victoria's infrastructure construction industry is causing many skilled workers to burn out.

Overwork within Victoria’s infrastructure construction industry is causing many skilled workers to burn out.Credit:Tamara Voninski

One industry source said it was widely accepted within the Victorian infrastructure construction industry that overwork was a problem causing many skilled workers to burn out, but that no one knew how to deal with it.

«We’ve never seen workload like we’ve got on at the moment; it’s taking an industry that was already pressurised and piling more pressure on people,” the source said.

“We’re being asked to deliver jobs quicker than we ever have before.”

Companies whose staff participated in the survey acknowledged there were challenges with some staff members’ mental health but said they had programs in place to offer support and tackle chronic overwork.

John Holland chief executive Joe Barr said it was “absolutely unacceptable that men in the Australian construction industry commit suicide at almost double the rate of any other industry”.

He said the company was piloting flexible working and had mental health training for its leaders.

“We take our role in fixing this very seriously, and we acknowledge it is a tough nut to crack,” Mr Barr said. “We also know that to make lasting change we will need the support of our customers, who are also very focused on improving the lives of people in the industry.”

Dale Connor, Lendlease’s building chief executive, said the company offered programs such as mental health first aid courses, sleep coaching, resilience training and subsidised fitness services.

In 2017 it introduced the “5 in 7” program to ensure staff have two days rest in every seven, Mr Connor said.

Anne Taylor is the director of strategic safety in the Andrews government’s Major Transport Infrastructure Program.

“Our dedicated safety teams are working closely with our construction partners to ensure they meet their safety obligations and implement measures to support and maintain a mentally healthy workforce,” Ms Taylor said.

The Andrews government has encouraged the industry to make a submission about its concerns to its royal commission on mental health.

State Political Correspondent for The Age

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