6 Simple Strategies to Battle Burnout—and Up Productivity on the Jobsite

All indicators show that contractors are more stressed than ever amid an uncertain economy and protracted labor shortage. Here are no-cost and low-cost ways to ease worker stress and up production.

Bradford Randall, Former Associate Editor

April 26, 2023

6 Min Read
Construction worker sleeping at desk.
Quality Stock/Alamy Stock Photo

As the construction industry’s protracted labor shortage continues, short-staffed construction businesses are finding themselves dealing with a new challenge that’s exacerbating the problem even more: burnout.

To put it simply, by all indicators, the construction industry is stressed out. In fact, 47% of construction worker respondents to a survey by StrongArm Technologies said they are currently stressed on the job. The two biggest causes of stress? Difficulty recruiting new employees to help with the day-to-day work and not being paid enough, according to the research, which was shared with Construction Dive.

Meanwhile, all that stress has created what many experts see as a mental health crisis that’s led to construction workers having one of the highest suicide rates in the U.S. compared to other industries. With 53.2 suicides per 100,000 workers, construction worker suicide rates are now five times higher than all construction-related deaths.

“Industrywide, everyone’s asking, ‘How do we solve this problem?’” said Eli Embleton, dream manager for Zachry Construction Corp., who is in charge of addressing burnout challenges. “But letting people work from home and giving them more perks or vacation time isn’t solving the issue because people aren’t treating it as a mental health problem.”

The good news, according to Embleton and other experts, is that construction business owners can address these burnout challenges using simple low- and even no-cost strategies that lead to even bigger dividends down the road in employee retention and increased productivity.

Here’s a look at six strategies and how to implement them:

1. Let employees know you care about their well-being, and you understand times are tough. Embleton and others said this acknowledgement is a great place to start when addressing burnout. And it’s a no-cost strategy owners often overlook. “Just stand up in whatever forum is available and say, ‘Hey, we’re thinking about these issues, and we’d like to help,’” Embleton said. Good places to make such statements are “all hands on deck” meetings that include the entire staff, so everyone gets the same message.

Just making that simple declaration helps employees feel comfortable to reach out for the help they need. But Embleton said it’s good to take it one step further and share some of your own struggles with stress or wellness.

“I have four children and I tell people this time has been rough on my family, too, and this is the help we’ve needed,” he said. “People don’t show vulnerability unless you do it first.”

2. Create clear policies and procedures for onboarding along with defined job descriptions. This is not only a basic tenet of good business, but also an oft-overlooked way to help prevent work stress that leads to burnout, said John Kenney, CEO of Cotney Consulting Group.

“Letting someone new know what the job expectations are through good job descriptions and ongoing training/coaching really decreases the burnout and turnover ratio,” Kenney said. “And higher turnover leads to burnout companywide.”

That’s because without clear job descriptions, it’s hard to know where to pick up when someone leaves, which causes additional stress for the existing employees. The ongoing labor shortage has only exacerbated that issue.

“There was always turnover, but at least there was a talent pool to draw from. Now I don’t see any talent pool,” he said.

To implement this strategy, work with supervisors and HR to put together clear job descriptions for each position along with policies and procedures for how to handle common jobs and processes.

3. Learn to recognize the signs of stressed-out workers—and encourage them to get help. It’s fairly easy for managers and supervisors who work with crews daily to spot burnout red flags once they know what to look for—and are encouraged to make it part of their job, said Brent Darnell, owner of Brent Darnell International, a consultancy that addresses construction burnout. Darnell, the author of “The Tough Guy Survival Kit,” said physical signs of stress include headache, indigestion, insomnia and general tiredness or lack of energy.

The key is not only to recognize those warning signs, but also encourage employees to get help for them. “We’re removing the stigma of ‘just push through the fatigue and stress’ and ‘if you need to take a break, you’re just weak,’” Darnell said.

Stressed-out workers don’t just quit, they also have more accidents and are less efficient, Darnell said. Embleton said his firm is already seeing the ROI of addressing stress in recordable incident rates that are two to three points below industry average. “We attribute some of that to if you’re mentally healthy you’re safer,” he said.

4. Replace exit interviews with “stay interviews.” Rather than wait to ask people why they are leaving in a typical exit interview, Embleton said owners would be wise to start doing “stay interviews,” in which they find out what keeps employees there.

He said all his firm’s supervisors and managers are trained to ask three basic questions on a weekly basis: What’s keeping you at the company? What do you want to develop into? How can we support you in that? “The most effective management tool I’ve ever seen is a check-in, and the data shows that having a personal check-in with someone every 11 days makes engagement scores go up.”

The check-ins also let supervisors learn what stresses workers are confronting—and are a chance for employees to unburden themselves. “It’s in those check-ins where people ask for help.”

5. Build wellness into the workday. Simple, quick wellness techniques can be built into staff breaks or beginnings and endings of workdays. Darnell said starting with a five-minute “stretch and flex” at the start of the day leads to less repetitive injuries—a contention research backs up.

Similarly, Darnell encourages supervisors to build in short breathing exercises and even brief meditations during work breaks.

“It’s not like you’re saying, ‘Hey, take off an hour and go to the spa,’” he said. “These techniques are simple.”

Another simple wellness hack is providing healthier food on the jobsite. Instead of donuts and junk food trucks, bring in fruit, vegetables and other healthy alternatives. “Once they start doing these things, guys feel better,” he said. “Then they start implementing these techniques on their own.”

6. Work with your insurance provider to promote wellness benefits. Many employers may not realize that their health insurance provider offers a number of wellness benefits such as gym memberships, Kenney said.

Beyond those perks, Kenney said many providers will also come to the workplace to offer wellness checks and promote the employee assistance programs. “A lot of these services are available today, but they’re just not being utilized,” he said.

Embleton’s company took that approach one step further and hired a former social worker to manage and promote the EAP. He said it’s another avenue for workers to ask for and get help before it’s too late.

“A lot of times, there’s no way I’m going to go my superintendent and say, ‘Hey, I’m having a tough day right now.’ So, having someone they can turn to who they don’t work with is vital.”

Short of hiring a full-time EAP coordinator, Embleton and others said it can also be put in the hands of the HR department. The key is to dedicate someone to the job.

“Sometimes just knowing there’s someone in the company who’s watching out for these things is a big help,” Embleton said. “Holding in problems is a big cause of burnout, and sometimes just having another human being to talk to is all the help they need.

About the Author(s)

Bradford Randall

Former Associate Editor, WOC360

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