20 March 2023
Is construction work compatible with a work/life balance?

Over the past few years, the construction industry has had huge challenges to contend with. The Covid-19 pandemic, recent economic turbulence and chronic building materials shortages are just some of the factors that have driven prices up sharply and placed increasing pressure on budgets, profit margins – and employees.

You may therefore be unsurprised to learn that an average of two million working days are lost in the construction industry each year as a result of illness – both physical and mental. In a high-pressure environment, where budgets are tight and deadlines are tighter, the concept of a healthy work/life balance can seem like a pipedream.

The causes of poor work/life balance

Whilst current events may have put increasing pressure on construction workers, issues with work/life balance have been around for a long time.

According to a 2020 research paper published in School of Built Environment, poor work/life balance is particularly prevalent within construction for a number of reasons. Long working hours that often include weekends and public holidays, ‘role conflict’ (i.e., being forced to juggle conflicting priorities such as cost, time, quality and safety), and gender norms which see men as primarily responsible for bringing in an income, all play their part.

The cost of this work/life imbalance is all too high. In a previous blog, for example, we wrote about construction’s mental health crisis – including its tragically high suicide rate.

But, with all the pressures currently weighing on construction firms, is achieving a better balance realistic or even possible?

A Catch-22

At the heart of the issue is a bit of a Catch-22 situation. One the one hand, construction workers are leaving the profession due to retirement or, ever more frequently, because they want a better work/life balance. At the same time, too few people are joining because the industry is seen as unattractive – due at least in part to the issues we’ve described. All of this is putting more pressure on those who remain, making it more likely that their work/life balance will be affected and that they will look to make a living elsewhere.

Although it may seem counter-intuitive, putting employees under less pressure and ensuring they take more breaks and annual leave may well be the answer. Far from reducing productivity and output, firms that implement work/life balance initiatives may find themselves enjoying unexpected benefits such as:

  • Higher productivity and efficiency
  • Lower levels of absence due to sickness and stress
  • A more motivated workforce
  • Better customer service
  • Improved staff retention
  • More applicants for advertised vacancies.

Implementing work-life balance initiatives

It’s all very well talking about it, but implementing measures to improve work-life balance in the workplace can be a real challenge. Here are some examples of steps that businesses can take to improve work/life balance and make work more manageable for construction workers.

  • Improving benefits packages, including adequate annual leave as well as parental and bereavement leave
  • Encouraging workers to take their scheduled breaks
  • Adopting new technologies to facilitate more remote work
  • Moving towards an ‘output-based’ working model rather than an hours-based one, i.e. focusing on getting jobs done as opposed to hours spent on site (this was the focus of a recent pilot programme involving BAM Construct, BAM Nuttall, Skanska UK and Willmott Dixon, which found that work/life balance improvement measures had no negative impact on budgets or timeframes).
  • Encouraging a healthy lifestyle through healthy eating, exercise and stress management.

No perfect solution

There’s no perfect solution or instant cure to the work/life balance issue in construction. But the above-mentioned pilot programme showed that it is possible to combine a healthy work/life balance with a workforce that completes projects on time and to budget.

The real work will be a culture shift away from believing that work is valued in hours, to understanding that productivity can be measured in a number of ways. And in the current climate, this might be a difficult shift to make.